Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called on ministers to extend the timeframe for the city-region to bring air pollution down as part of a massive overhaul of the controversial Clean Air Zone.
In a lengthy statement issued on Wednesday afternoon (2 February) Mr Burnham said complying with the Government’s legal direction by 2024 was “unworkable”.
He said he had set out to ministers what could happen if the timescale to comply was pushed back to 2025, 2026 or 2027.
The Greater Manchester mayor called on the government to extend the deadline given to councils to be compliant with air quality standards to 2027. He said compliance could be achieved by then without introducing charges.
A Clean Air Zone would still come into effect in May, but non-compliant buses, lorries and taxis from outside of Greater Manchester would not face any fines.
Instead, owners of vehicles which are in breach of the Clean Air Zone would be contacted and advised on how to access funding for retrofitting or upgrading.
Mr Burnham also had harsh words for prime minister Boris Johnson, with his statement emerging just a few hours after the Clean Air Zone was called “completely unworkable” following a question by a Conservative MP from Greater Manchester.
What has Mr Burnham said about the Clean Air Zone?
Mr Burnham said he has asked the secretary of state for the environment, George Eustice, to issue a new direction covering Greater Manchester’s 10 councils.
He said the Clean Air Zone should go into operation on 30 May 2022 as planned for HGVs, buses and taxis not registered in the city-region) but it should be a non-charging zone.
Instead of receiving fines for driving non-compliant vehicles, people would receive advice on how to upgrade and access support.
He has also asked that all private-use leisure vehicles - such as motorhomes, camper-vans and horseboxes, as well as cars, motorbikes and mopeds - are permanently exempted from the Clean Air Zone.
And the request to the minister asks for there to no longer be a Greater Manchester-wide zone should the evidence support it.
He said the longer timeframe the Government was prepared to allow, the less punitive the measures imposed on residents and businesses would be.
Mr Burnham said that if the city-region was given until 2027 to reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels it would be possible not to introduce a charging Clean Air Zone at all, and he would recommend redesigning the scheme with that in mind.
A deadline of 2026 would mean specific actions in areas with the worst air quality problems might be needed and the Government would need to provide enough money to allow people to upgrade vehicles.
Mr Burnham said this might mean a Category B zone covering all of Greater Manchester or smaller Category C ones.
He also said that if the compliance date was pushed back to 2025 it was likely that charges would have to apply at a specified point and a smaller charging Category C scheme in 2024. He said more evidence would be required to bring this in.
Mr Burnham also suggested that once the Clean Air Zone had achieved its objectives the cameras and infrastructure could be handed over to Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
Why has this happened?
The Clean Air Zone has run into a massive backlash from residents and businesses, with protests being held across Greater Manchester, thousands of people joining Facebook group Rethink GM and a petition garnering tens of thousands of signatures.
Mr Burnham said he remained committed to bringing down air pollution, with Clean Air GM suggesting poor air quality contributes to around 1,200 premature deaths in the city-region each year.
But he said the Government has not made enough funding available for people to upgrade to vehicles that meet emissions standards.
And the Covid-19 pandemic has had such a big effect on global supply chains that new and second-hand vans have become more expensive and more difficult to obtain, with price rises of up to 60% in the market for compliant vehicles.
Mr Burnham said the conclusion of this is that meeting air quality standards by 2024 is no longer achievable.
The statement said that cleaning up the air must be done “in a way that helps people to make the change and does not put jobs, livelihoods and businesses at risk”.
What did Mr Burnham say?
Mr Burnham said: “Only the Government can decide on the timescales for compliance and I have set out the scenarios for 2025, 2026 and 2027. It is up to them which of these scenarios it imposes on Greater Manchester.
“Failure to lift the current ministerial direction leaves all 10 councils with a scheme that will harm businesses and, according to the latest evidence, not achieve compliance by 2024.
“A delay to 2026 or 2027 will make the CAZ much fairer whilst still achieving compliance by the middle of this decade.”
Mr Burnham’s statement emerged after prime minister Boris Johnson had called the scheme “completely unworkable” and said an “alternative” was needed in the House of Commons in response to a question from Leigh’s Conservative MP James Grundy.
And the mayor had some strong words for Mr Johnson.
He said: “The Prime Minister today gave the impression that his Government has so far had nothing to do with the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone when he described it as completely unworkable. I must remind him of the facts, which he seems to need on a daily basis at the moment.
“First, I am not and have never been the instigator nor the final decision maker in this scheme.
“It is his Government which initiated it when it placed a legal direction on each of our ten councils.
“Second, by setting a compliance date of 2024, straight after a pandemic, it is his Government’s legal direction that is unworkable.
“And third, it was Greater Manchester which drew their attention to this, not the Government. Our Joint Clean Air Committee of the ten councils voted to refer this back to Government back in January and I personally relayed the request to lift the legal direction to the Environment Secretary last week and allow more time for compliance.”