While the speech set out that the bill would increase local powers to address air pollution, nine months after Greater Manchester submitted its Clean Air Plan outline business case to government, leaders are still waiting for clarification on two key issues.
In July this year a response from the then Environment Minister Therese Coffey failed to commit to funding to help Greater Manchester businesses upgrade to cleaner vehicles as part of the plan to tackle harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on local roads.
The only government funding committed was £36m to take forward proposals for a charging Clean Air Zone in which the most polluting commercial vehicles would be charged to travel on local roads in Greater Manchester.
Greater Manchester authorities are also repeating concerns that Highways England, responsible for managing the motorway network, has not been directed to tackle NO2 levels in breach of legal limits in the same way as Greater Manchester local authorities, undermining work to tackle the issue on local roads.
Greater Manchester Green City-region lead, Councillor Andrew Western, said: “I’m looking forward to seeing the detail behind the Environment Bill announcement, particularly on strengthening local council’s powers to deal with air pollution.
“But we need major funding from government now to address what is a very serious air quality problem on many local roads across our region.
“We’re committed to improving the air we all breathe as quickly as possible and we have ambitious proposals that we want to move forward with. It’s harming our health and bad for our economy. “But we need to ensure that those local businesses most affected by our Clean Air Zone proposals have the financial support they need to move to cleaner vehicles.
“We’re playing our part. We’ve submitted extensive further evidence to the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit on our funding ask to support local businesses.
“But, nine months after we submitted our Clean Air Plan outline business case, we still have no commitment to clean vehicle funds and, crucially, still need final clarification on the legal criteria against which Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Plan would be assessed.
“This impasse cannot continue any longer. While Whitehall keeps us waiting, people across our region will continue to breathe in the dirty air which we know is linked to a staggering number of health conditions – including heart disease, strokes and cancer – and even early deaths.”
Greater Manchester authorities will also write to government urging swift action to tackle the health threat caused by engine idling, which contributes to high levels of air pollution, especially outside schools.
Currently councils have the powers to impose a £20 fine on drivers leaving their engine idling, but only if the driver fails to turn off their engine when asked to do so by an enforcement officer.
Councillor Western added: “Local authorities across the UK need government action to help us tackle the health threats caused by idling engines on our streets and at our school gates. The current enforcement powers are simply not effective.
“Back in June, government promised a consultation on proposals to impose tougher fines on people who leave their engines running while parked. We need this to happen as soon as possible, and we’d like stronger anti-idling legislation to be just one part of the package of new local powers promised in the Environment Bill. In the meantime, we’ll work to raise awareness of this important issue though local publicity campaigns.”
Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Plan proposals include a significant funding package for businesses to upgrade their fleets to cleaner vehicles, the largest proposed Clean Air Zone in the UK, and a bid to treble the size of the region’s electric vehicle public charging network.
The proposals have been further developed since a public ‘Conversation’ exercise in May and June 2019, following thousands of responses from businesses and members of the public.
At this stage, Greater Manchester authorities do not believe that government delays to the Clean Air Plan process will significantly affect the timetable for compliance with NO2 legal limits by 2024.
However, until Greater Manchester receives further legal clarification and confirmation on the clean vehicles funding available from government to support Greater Manchester businesses, it is unable to complete the Clean Air Plan proposals and won’t be in a position to submit the Full Business Case, which had previously been requested by 31 December.
It’s currently anticipated that the 10 Greater Manchester councils will receive a report in spring 2020 on proposed timings for a major public consultation on the Clean Air Plan.