Peter Amor discusses why Birmingham’s Clean Air Zones can’t come soon enough
With the consultation into Birmingham’s Clean Air Zones having been closed for several months, I think now is as good a time as any to look into the subject. I will lay my cards on the table from the start – I am studying Civil & Railway Engineering, so you can probably guess where my allegiance on this lies.
Let us first define what is meant by a Clean Air Zone. The proposal (which may well be modified after consultation) is for a system similar to London’s congestion charge, with vehicles that do not meet environmental restrictions being charged for entering any area within the A4540 Middle Ring Road. The crucial difference is that unlike the congestion charge, which targets all vehicles, the Clean Air Zone charges will only apply to vehicles that do not meet Euro 4 emissions standards for petrol, and Euro 6 for diesel. Any qualifying vehicle failing to pay the charge will be fined £120.
One argument against the idea is that it will hit the poorest, who tend to own the oldest cars, hardest. At first, this argument makes a certain amount of sense, since the charge is deliberately designed to discourage people from using older, more polluting vehicles. One could add that poorer people tend to live nearer the centre and thus make more trips in what will become the Clean Air Zone.
Compelling though this argument seems, let me explain why I disagree, starting with the proposed level of the charge. For a private car, a daily charge of between £6 and £12.50 is proposed, which, while not cheap, is hardly extortionate. Furthermore, if one really is short of money, there is no shortage of bus services at very affordable prices (a day ticket is £4.60, or £4 after 0930 on National Express West Midlands). In fact, National Express West Midlands run not one but 2 bus routes almost exactly along the boundary of the Clean Air Zone, in opposite directions (the 8 and the 8A), in addition to many other bus routes radiating from the centre.
The argument has also been put forward that this will adversely affect Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs). A daily charge of £50 to £100 per HGV is proposed, which would be quite steep for a fleet of HGVs that are not fit with compliant diesel engines. To counter this, Birmingham City Council has also proposed a discount for business vehicles registered to such firms.
This is a generous gesture, but I think it misses the point. I think we ought to question how much longer it can be acceptable to drive HGVs around city centres belching out fumes that harm everyone. Birmingham City Council figures reveal that nearly 900 early deaths are caused by air pollution in Birmingham every year; a fact that seems to have escaped people making the SME argument. Doing nothing about this because it happens to be slightly inconvenient for some businesses is frankly a laughable way to make policy – especially in light of the fact that fuel duty was frozen once again in the most recent budget.
How about students? How will the zone affect us? This question is much simpler to answer than one might think. Most students live in Selly Oak, which is well outside the proposed Clean Air Zone, so in day-to-day journeys we should not be affected. Even assuming one wants to drive from Selly Oak to the city centre, public transport is already a better option – the train takes a mere 15 minutes, even on the slower Autumn timetable. An anytime return also costs £3.10, without a railcard, with no parking fees on top.
I would also question whether, as a student in Birmingham, it is really wise to be running a car. Not only must one pay for fuel, insurance, tax and sometimes also parking, one also must have some concern for the security of their vehicle. In a Selly Oak that is (as we all know) less than ideal, this security cannot be guaranteed. I would completely agree that train delays can be annoying, but thinking about it another way, paying £3.10 with a train every 10 minutes is a lot better than paying an enormous amount more to insure a car without turning a wheel.
It should also be noted that money raised from the charge will go towards not only the running of the infrastructure, but also schemes to improve Birmingham’s air quality, such as public transport improvements, better cycling and walking facilities, and support for businesses. This will make it even easier to avoid the charge by using greener modes of transport.
Before I sign off, I feel it my duty to mention the safety record of cars against that of public transport. In 2017, 1,793 people died in road accidents in the UK. 26,624 people were as “Killed or Seriously Injured” on Britain’s roads in that same year. I do not know how many of those accidents involved buses, but I suspect the proportion was not high. What I do have are figures for the UK’s railway. While there were 337 public deaths, only 7 passengers died on the railway in 2017-18, and there were, to quote the Office of Rail & Road, ‘no passenger fatalities as a result of a train accident’.
Is a Clean Air Zone worth it? You may have your own answer, but mine is this – absolutely, and it can’t come soon enough.