Cleaning up Birmingham – Focusing on the Quality of Our Air

We all want to live in a safe and clean environment and yet so many European streets are polluted by an abundance of unwanted litter. Earlier this month, the Ecuity team committed to cleaning up the seemingly tidy streets of Solihull, litter-picking on our lunch breaks and collecting far more than we had ever expected to find. Perhaps wrongly assuming the area was one of Birmingham’s most well-kept, we certainly underestimated the number of plastic bottles, coffee cups and sandwich packets dumped in the neat, green bushes that line the town’s busiest roads. Easily managing to collect a dozen bags between us, I can’t help but wonder how many more bags we would need to clean up the rest of the area – or how much time it would take to clean up the entire city’s collection of rubbish.

Of course, it would be far more feasible for everyone to stop filling the streets with rubbish in the first place – and that same premise applies to the Clean Air Zone strategy facing Birmingham city centre as of next year. Whilst the impact of traffic pollution may not be as visual as streets full of litter, the level of pollutant concentrations attributed to transport is far more detrimental to public health. Most of us would condemn the litterers for their disregard for the environment – but who is responsible for tackling the nitrogen dioxide concentrations resulting from road traffic emissions if not the drivers themselves?

Instigated by the European Commission’s warning, the Government approved the council’s Clean Air Zone plans to drive down the combustion emissions polluting the quality of our air. Bearing similarities to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULZ) that came into force in London this week, the Birmingham Clean Air Zone will introduce a daily charge for vehicles emitting high nitrogen dioxide driving within the city’s ring road from the start of next year. Relatively cheaper than the £12.50 fee for drivers in central London, the £8 charge in Birmingham is predicted to impact 60% of the 200,000 vehicles passing through the area on an average day. Whilst some members of the public are already shunning the idea the Government have asked us to ‘pay for air,’ I can’t help but consider the vulnerable members of society who are already paying for it with ill-functioning lungs and respiratory infections – not to mention 900 premature deaths per year.

To clean up this toxic air, the zone will target older, more polluting vehicles and will include all roads inside the A4540 ring road, excluding the circular route itself. Whilst vehicles which comply with restrictions will be able to travel freely around the city, those that do not will be billed with the charge following automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Petrol cars made before 2006 and diesel cars made before 2015 will be subject to the £8 fee whereas buses and HGVs will face a heftier £50 charge. Whilst vans and minibuses registered to provide school and community transport and those with disabled tax class will be permanently exempt, further one-to-two year exceptions have been announced for commercial vehicles, visitors to hospitals, GPs and care homes and those driving through the zone in order to get to work.

In a city as big as ours, it’s fair to say that not many of us can get away with walking to work anymore – but how many of us would consider an alternative route if one was made more appealing than the other? Whether we’re paying fuel prices, parking tickets, bus fare or train fees, the cost to commute seems to add up somewhere. There is no denying that with an £8 fee to drive through the city centre, the price of a 5-day commute rises significantly, acting as a deterrent for drivers and as a catalyst for reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions. Even more promising is the comment from the City Hall on the impact of ULEZ, noting a fall in vehicles in central London and a rise in compliant vehicles ahead of the launch. Of course, with so many of us using our cars to seamlessly pop to the high street, clean air zones may well encourage us all to rethink our commutes. As the market for electric and hydrogen vehicles develops and we see an emphasis on cycling zones, car shares and green initiatives around the world, could this new Clean Air Zone open doors for a more progressive Birmingham as it becomes a city that cares about the quality of its air?

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