Earlier this month, Environment Minister, Therese Coffey provided the official response to Greater Manchester's Clean Air Plan. This response includes a ministerial instruction to introduce the Clean Air Zone in 2021 without any exemption for vans, which, in the original proposal, would have been exempted from penalties until 2023. In the same directive, the minister has also failed to guarantee any funding to help businesses to make the transition to a cleaner fleet.
For many businesses 2023 was already a short lead time for substantial fleet upgrades even with the government committing funds to aid the transition. It is recognised that amidst current economic uncertainty financial guarantees cannot be made, however, to couple this lack of support with an 2021 deadline for vans is both unreasonable and irresponsible.
The GMCC position is clear. We recognise the need to introduce a comprehensive and ambitious clean air plan as quickly as possible. NO2 levels are above legal limits at several sites across Greater Manchester and air pollution contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths a year across the region. But in order to achieve its desired effect of reducing the number of high-polluting vehicles and improving air quality, the Clean Air Plan will need to be implemented with the close cooperation of the wider business community to avoid a catastrophic impact on the Greater Manchester economy. For the Clean Air Plan to work businesses will need clarity and support, which is why GMCC are calling on the government to reconsider their position and provide businesses with the financial guarantees they need in order to become compliant.
The proposed Clean Air Zone covers 500 sq miles, and with charges of up to £100 a day for non-compliant HGVs, businesses will need time and support to ensure they are able to transition to a compliant fleet. If plans stay as they are, with no financial support to aid this transition, and with severe penalties for those without suitable vehicles, compliance and indeed viable trading conditions will become impossible for many businesses.
For businesses that are able to invest in upgrading their fleet a move to electric vehicles may well be attractive. Yet it is a further disappointment that the government is unwilling to commit the £25m outlined in the Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan to triple the number of electric vehicles charging points (with an addition of 600) across the 10 council areas of Greater Manchester. Lack of electric vehicle infrastructure is yet another barrier that will prevent a meaningful adoption of cleaner vehicles.
The significant impact of bringing forward the date at which vans will be liable to pay the non-compliance penalty could result in many businesses being unable to prepare for the shift, with SMEs being most vulnerable. If they are not fully prepared the penalty will either hit business profits or increase the cost of services for all.
There is a real risk that compliance becomes completely out-of-reach for some business and that this penalty, designed to encourage the adoption of clean vehicles merely becomes a regressive de-facto tax on all high-polluting vehicles including the possibility at some stage of private cars too.
There is a need for urgent and decisive action to improve air quality in Greater Manchester. However, by devolving the responsibility for the Clean Air Plan the government offered the directive that whilst NO2 levels must be addressed the detail and application of the plan would be determined at local level, working with businesses across the region to determine the best and most economically sustainable route forward for the region.
The ministerial directive is clearly at odds with how we see the best way of achieving this and will do little to reassure those businesses that will be hardest hit by the penalty, but the move does even less to convince businesses across the region that the government is serious about devolution and giving local authorities greater autonomy to direct the future of the region.
Of course, with the new Johnson government currently being pieced together the landscape may all change again. However the threat posed by unclean and unsafe air quality won’t change and the need to clean this up remains a priority, but only one that is achievable with genuine support to help those out most impacted.