City leaders call for Government 'mandate' over air pollution charging zones

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City leaders have called on the Government to "mandate" charging zones for the dirtiest vehicles to tackle air pollution, rather than shifting the decision onto local councils.

In an open letter to Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the mayors of Liverpool and Leicester and council leaders in Birmingham, Leeds, Oxford and Southampton, also called for a new Clean Air Act to deliver measures to improve air quality.

Vehicle taxes should be set to reflect the emissions cars and vans produce, and there should be a scrappage scheme to support consumers to shift to hybrid and electric vehicles and to public transport, they urged.

Their calls come after the Government unveiled its clean air plans for tackling illegal levels of harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide.

Much of the focus was on plans to ban conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2040 - which critics warned would not do enough to address the current "public health crisis" of poor air quality, which leads to 40,000 premature deaths a year.

There was also funding to help local authorities come up with ways to tackle pollution, ranging from improving public transport to changing road layouts.

The Government acknowledges that efforts could include restrictions such as charging zones, where the dirtiest vehicles have to pay to drive, or moves to prevent certain vehicles using particular roads at particular times.

But it said it was up to councils to decide on the needed measures, and they should exhaust other options before imposing charging.

Restrictions should be time-limited and lifted as soon as air pollution is within legal limits and there is no risk of future breaches, the Government said.

The Government's own assessment, published alongside the draft clean air plans in May, found charging clean air zones were the most effective measure to tackle nitrogen dioxide. 

The leaders of the cities, which all suffer from air pollution problems, wrote: "If the evidence shows that the most effective means of improving air quality quickly is through a charging clean air zone, the Government should mandate this rather than insisting it is a choice for local government.

"The size and scope of a clean air zone must be determined locally and be based on robust evidence using the best technology."

They also warned that Government proposals for "surgical interventions", targeting hotspots, risked shifting the problem elsewhere in cities, rather than solving it, and could increase traffic and congestion.

"Only national backing of local action, in law and in resources, will enable us to tackle this crisis effectively," they added.

Joe Anderson, directly elected mayor of Liverpool, added: "Liverpool has had to get on with creating its own plans, including looking at banning diesel cars in the city centre because the Government have been woeful at tackling this problem.

"This latest version of the plan still doesn't do what is needed: we need national action and financial support now to back up local leaders. This is a public health crisis which you can't just put off til 2040."