A joined up approach to planning clean air zones

The government has placed the onus on local authorities to plan and manage clean air zones but it is apparent that little thought has been given to the wider picture. As local authorities come to grips with the issues that need to be addressed when planning clean air and low emission zones, events at Portsmouth act as a timely reminder that a more joined up approach on a national basis is required.

This has been highlighted in Portsmouth which has recently voted through plans for a clean air zone in the south west of the city which would only charge non-compliant taxis, coaches, buses, HGVs and lorries.

However, the head of a major ferry company has warned that this would actually create more pollution.

Wightlink’s chief executive, Keith Greenfield, has confirmed that the company is totally behind the idea of cleaning up the air and the environment but has raised a couple of major issues with this proposal. He has suggested that charging vehicles potentially up to £50 a day to drive in the city would force hauliers and coach drivers to travel further to Southampton and Lymington in order to catch ferries to the Isle of Wight. This shows that a clean air zone in one city can actually result in just pushing the problem to another location as well as causing more pollution as vehicles would have to travel further. He also expressed concerns about the economic impact that this will have on the Isle of Wight’s fragile economy.

Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely has called for a ‘co-ordinated approach’ with the city to ensure islanders aren’t hit by a potential congestion zone charge in Portsmouth. He fears that the Portsmouth clean air zone would lead to increased costs for residents as hauliers pass on the charges through increased prices for goods and services. Mr Seely has said that he plans to talk to Portsmouth City Council as well as Defra to try to achieve a more co-ordinated approach.

Interestingly, the leader of Portsmouth City Council, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson agrees with this approach and thinks that this is “a very badly thought through government scheme that is incredibly inflexible.” It is clear that the council cannot resolve this without guidance from the government which is doing nothing to help.

Another issue that needs to be put on the table is how local authorities can maximise the impact of these new clean air zones. Changing road layouts and timings of traffic signals can certainly help reduce congestion, but much more can be done to minimise pollution caused by idling engines in stationary traffic.

CCTV enforcement cameras can play an important role in improving air quality for local authorities that have assumed responsibility from the police for tackling moving traffic contraventions such as box junctions, banned turns, restricted access, weight limits and bus gates. Whilst the ability to enforce moving traffic contraventions under the Transport Management Act 2004 is only available in London and Wales, the government has recently signalled its intention to extend these powers to all regions.

This is significant as it has been widely reported that the police are no longer carrying out this enforcement in many areas due to budget cuts and manpower shortages. This means that drivers can flout these regulations as the likelihood of them being caught is so small. The effectiveness of the government’s Clear Air Zone strategy will be impacted greatly if councils are prevented from enforcing moving traffic contraventions within these urban areas.

It is proven that traffic congestion is a major cause of air pollution and the government must take a holistic approach and consider the wider picture if the full benefits of deploying clean air zones are to be realised.

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