'Only electric vehicles is probably the next step for the city centre'
Manchester halts its LEZ, but in Edinburgh it's full steam ahead
If Edinburgh’s transport and environment convener Scott Arthur is bridling at the suggestion - made by Manchester mayor Andy Burnham - that charging drivers to enter a city centre in the midst of a cost of living crisis is “not morally defensible”, then he hides it well.
“Look,” says the Labour city councillor, in measured tones, “it is the poorest people in society who are least likely to have a car, but are the most likely to have the health conditions caused by air pollution. So, perpetuating a situation where wealthier people by and large own cars and are able to pollute the air and continue to impact on the health of poorer people, that’s immoral really, isn’t it?
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“These are difficult arguments, and I don’t want to argue with Andy Burnham about the situation in Manchester, but it all comes back to the notion of a just transition.”
Edinburgh is now five-and-a-half months away from starting to enforce its Low Emission Zone with fines for drivers entering the city centre in non-compliant vehicles, mainly older diesel cars and vans.
Burnham has just fired up the debate around city centre charging zones by slamming the brakes on Manchester’s plans. It won’t go ahead, he says, unless the government orders it, arguing there are better and fairer ways to tackle the blight of air pollution than charging drivers in the middle of a cost of living crisis.
In Edinburgh, there are few, if any, such doubts that this is the way forward. Rather than any hint or reversing, Arthur is clear that the city is on the road to tighter restrictions, including, sooner or later, allowing only electric vehicles in the city centre.
So, why is Manchester pulling back from charging motorists when Edinburgh is pushing forward? Does Andy Burnham know something that his fellow Labour politicians in Edinburgh don’t?
Context and differences
There are plenty of interesting parallels between the schemes in Manchester and Edinburgh, but there are also differences and important context.
Firstly, looming over the whole debate is a fear of an electoral backlash against asking people to start paying a personal penalty for a cleaner environment.
The unpopularity of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone has been widely blamed for Labour failing to win the recent by-election in Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge. That’s a particular issue for Labour in parts of England where it faces a straight fight against an increasingly pro-car Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak.
There is also a key difference between the CAZ (Clean Air Zone) being proposed in Manchester and the LEZ (Low Emission Zone) being introduced, under Scottish Government legislation, in Edinburgh. In Greater Manchester, some drivers would face daily charges of between £7.50 and £60 per day to continue entering the city centre, whereas Edinburgh’s scheme is designed to stop vehicles entering the zone altogether with a system of escalating fines. The fines start at £60 (halved for prompt payment) rising to £480.
That’s the theory at least - which would leave the city to pick up the annual running costs of £400-500,000 a year, unless it succeeds in its efforts to get the Scottish Government to pick up the tab. The level of fines in Glasgow, however, were far greater than expected, totaling almost £500,000 in the first four months.
“A pre-pandemic solution for a post-pandemic world”
One of Burnham’s main arguments for halting his city’s clean air plans echoes a common criticism of Edinburgh’s scheme.
The mayor described Manchester’s scheme as “a pre-pandemic solution for a post-pandemic world”, suggesting trends such as greater working from home and higher environmental standards in modern vehicles will see cities hitting air pollution targets without the need to charge motorists.
In the coming weeks, new figures will be published confirming Edinburgh continued to meet the Scottish Government’s air pollution targets last year, as it did during lockdown, in 2020, and in 2021.
So, ask critics, why the need to fine motorists when air quality is already improving and government standards are being met?
For Scott Arthur, it is a question of maximising the health benefits and future-proofing against the expectation of more stringent air quality targets.
“We’re at the legal standard. That is the legal minimum set by the Scottish Government that if we cross the threshold then we have to take action to improve air quality in that part of the city. But that is just the legal minimum.
“On top of that, we have the World Health Organisation issuing guidelines and we are absolutely nowhere near them, by something like a factor of three. We have a long way to go towards removing air pollution as a problem.”
The World Health Organisation suggests that the current target in Scotland of 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre ought to be replaced incrementally by 30, 20 and 10, on the way to an ultimate target of zero. The current legal limit was set by the European Union 13 years ago, and there is a widespread expectation that a tightening of the rules set by the Scottish Government is near at hand.
The LEZ is expected to cut harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution from vehicles by up to 50% within the controlled zone, with further air quality improvements outside the boundary as fewer journeys are taken into the city by the most polluting vehicles.
“The lobbying I have had from a number of charities, including Heart Chest and Stroke Scotland and the British Heart Foundation, and the quite direct message I get from NHS Lothian, is that this is the right thing to do, so we have to get on and make it work.
“In terms of what lies ahead, this is probably just the start. I don't see the LEZ getting any smaller or the emission standard relaxing. It's going to get tighter as time goes on, so it's not unforeseeable that not too far in the future, we'll be talking about only electric vehicles in the city centre. I think that's probably the next logical step, but don't ask me when that's going to happen.”
The LEZ covers a wide area across the city centre taking in large parts of the old and New Town out as far as London Road and Haymarket.
‘Better to invest in electric buses and taxis’
Burnham’s other main argument for pulling back from charging is that the biggest improvement in air quality will come from investing in electric buses and taxis.
Manchester intends to increase the number of electric buses in the region from 85 to 199 next year and to provide grants to taxis from a £22.5m fund to make the switch too.
“By accelerating investment in the Bee Network (Manchester’s public transport system) to create a London-style integrated public transport network, and upgrading GM-licensed taxis, we can improve air quality faster than if we introduced a clean air zone, and without causing hardship to our residents or businesses.”
Edinburgh is further behind Manchester when it comes to investing in electric buses, partly due to a strategy of waiting for the technology to mature before committing to large scale investment. While the entire Lothian Buses fleet is LEZ compliant following upgrades in recent years, it currently only operates four electric vehicles. The council-owned bus company is investing £24 million in 50 new Volvo BZL electric doubledeckers which will be introduced in two batches across 2024, with the first hitting the roads in the Spring.
All licensed taxis and private hire cars are expected to comply with the LEZ standards after significant work to upgrade fleets in recent years supported in part by Scottish Government-funded grants.
Support for residents and businesses
There are high rates of compliance with the LEZ standards across most types of vehicles apart from privately owned diesel cars where around half will fall foul of the restrictions and vans operated by businesses where roughly a third don’t fall into line.
Transport Scotland has provided more than £2.5 million in LEZ Support Funds to promote shifting from one type of transport to greener ones and reducing emissions.
Support continues to be available to low-income households living within 20 miles of the LEZ, including £2000 for scrapping a non-compliant vehicle and up to £1000 to fund greener means of transport such as bikes, e-bikes, cargo bikes and public transport tickets.
Micro-businesses also qualify for similar support with grants available on a first come, first served basis until 31 March.
Enforcement cameras start going up next month at some of the entry points to the LEZ with the city’s existing network of CCTV cameras also being used, in conjunction with number plate recognition software.
There is apprehension about the risk of vandalism to cameras following a series of attacks on cameras in Corstorphine after the introduction of low traffic measures.
There is concern the LEZ could become the target of extremists who buy into Internet conspiracy theories as has happened already with other projects in the Capital. A recent protest march on the Royal Mile against the LEZ included one banner proclaiming Disband the World Health Organisation.
City council officials have been taking advice from Police Scotland and the force in Manchester, who had been preparing for the introduction of a clean air zone, on suitable security measures.
Support for the measures remains perhaps strongest among those who see the toll which air pollution takes on the health of some of the most vulnerable in the city.
Dona Milne, director of public health at NHS Lothian, says: “Reducing air pollution has clear long and short-term health benefits for everyone. Our hope is that improved air quality will also encourage people to take advantage of more sustainable and active ways of travel, such as walking, cycling and public transport, which is beneficial for individuals and communities alike.”
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