Is Scotland ready for low emission zones?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 27 November 2017 in Inside Politics

The Programme for Government saw a raft of green transport announcements, but how will low emission zones work in practice? 

Image credit: Fotolia

Of the cheers raised at the SNP conference, the one greeting news of a new low emission zone (LEZ) in Glasgow – to be established by the end of 2018 – probably wasn’t the loudest.

In fact, with the conference coming days after ministers announced the Scottish Government’s opposition to fracking, the LEZ initiative wasn’t even the most popular environmental policy among delegates.

Fracking, electrification of the A9, phasing out new petrol and diesel cars and vans from Scotland by 2032, and developing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, all distracted from the LEZ announcement. But, even if the policy didn’t get the bellowing response other bits did, for air pollution campaigners, it represented a huge step forwards.

There are currently 39 official pollution zones in Scotland, so designated by councils, which are putting people’s health at risk with dangerous levels of air pollution – up from 35 in 2015. And with air pollution thought to contribute to 2,500 early deaths in Scotland each year, and an estimated 40,000 throughout the UK annually, concern over dangerous levels of air pollution in Scotland has been growing steadily.

The solution, contained in the Scottish Government’s clean air strategy update, was to promise a trial LEZ in a Scottish city – later named as Glasgow. This was followed by a pledge in the Programme for Government (PfG) to establish a LEZ in every major city by 2020 and to all Air Quality Management Areas by 2023.

The aim of the LEZ is pretty simple – to restrict the entry of high emitting vehicles within a set geographic area in an effort to reduce levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

Air pollution has the greatest impact in Scotland’s biggest cities, with 300 premature deaths per year being attributable to air pollution in Glasgow alone.

Councillor Anna Richardson, Glasgow’s convenor for sustainability and carbon reduction, told Holyrood: “For us, it is a transport policy but we see it very much as a health policy as well, because the decisions we make on transport have wide-reaching implications for people’s lives and wellbeing.

“The main driver for us is reducing inequality, in social justice, and poor air quality is something which disproportionately impacts those who are already vulnerable through underlying health conditions, those from lower socio-economic groups – so we felt it was really important to tackle air quality because of the impact it was having on everybody, but specifically those who are already perhaps disadvantaged in some way.”

The exact details have not been agreed, but the council is expected to use time between now and March, when the council will next report, to consult with partners, including bus companies, on how to implement the scheme. However initial plans are based on setting the area in the city centre and main feeder routes to cover the streets worst affected.

Richardson said: “We want to have an open dialogue about where and when different phases will come. Our aspiration is essentially, if you think of the city centre as a box, from motorway to motorway to river – it makes sense because that is what people see as the city centre and because it is a coherent idea. If we were to purely go with the streets that are a problem right now, we would end up with one street here, half a street there, and it makes more sense to have a clearly defined area that means we don’t risk shifting the problem.”

But while environmental and health campaigners applauded plans to restrict emissions, questions were raised over proposals to start with buses before gradually extending the LEZ to lorries, vans, taxis, motorbikes and eventually to private cars. The council was clear its plan aimed to reduce bus emissions rather than bus use, but campaigners were sceptical.

As Colin Howden, director of Transform Scotland, put it: “It’s important that the focus of LEZs is cars and not public transport. To tackle the illegal levels of air pollution in Scotland’s cities, the focus of LEZs should be on single-occupant cars and vans. Without action on these vehicles, successful action on air quality – as well as other key issues like congestion – is likely to be limited.

“Indeed, other European cities, such as Oslo, are talking about banning cars from their centres. LEZs should be delivered as part of a wider package of measures to improve city centres alongside increased bus priority, segregated cycle routes and a safer walking environment.

“It would be disappointing to see LEZs have a disproportionately negative effect on buses, given their vital role for ensuring everyone can afford to access city centres. Buses should be seen as part of the solution to air pollution, not the problem.”

Glasgow City Council’s reasoning was clear – its report found that on bus-dominated roads such as Hope Street, buses contribute around 70-80 per cent of NOx emissions – yet according to Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, the switch would cost the bus industry around £10-£17m.

But Richardson rejects media reports pitting bus operators against the council. She told Holyrood: “The bus industry wants to run good, clean, efficient buses, and we want that too. Passengers want that, and their passengers are our constituents.

“We are all looking to achieve the same thing and we will not be implementing any scheme that means citizens suddenly have a worse bus service or a service which is reduced or becomes more expensive. That would affect the same groups of people we are trying to help by improving air quality. We know that in a city with low car ownership – fewer than half of households have a car – households which most rely on public transport are those most affected by poor air quality.”

Meanwhile, exactly how LEZs will operate in other Scottish cities is still up for debate ¬– there are currently over 200 LEZs across Europe operating under different models – with ministers holding discussion with the bus industry on the business of incentives, while also running a public consultation, closing at the end of November, which has already received over 500 responses.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson told Holyrood: “Scotland already has one of the most comprehensive charge point networks in Europe. The Scottish Government also offers interest-free loans to help people make the switch to ultra-low emission vehicles. We are well positioned to continue to work with industry, to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, by continuing to provide the infrastructure to allow ultra-low emission vehicles to flourish.”

Financial support will be critical in helping both bus companies and other businesses switch over to greener vehicles. The Scottish Government already unveiled £1.6m for a bus retrofit programme to support making the existing fleet compliant with LEZs, while the Scottish Green Bus Fund – which incentivises the purchase of cleaner buses – has already handed out over £16.2m, adding 362 new low carbon emission buses to the Scottish fleet. 

The PfG promised more funding. But what else needs to be done to get Scotland LEZ ready? Emilia Hanna, air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, describes LEZs as a “major part of the puzzle when it comes to tackling air pollution”.

FoE Scotland is calling for LEZs to restrict buses, vans, and lorries from the outset, followed by cars and taxis, and to be enforced through Automatic Number Plate Recognition in an attempt to boost compliance and also leave the possibility of introducing other measures such as a congestion charge at a later date.

Beyond that, the NGO is also calling for the bus sector to be re-regulated to allow councils to have the chance to exert greater control over bus emission standards and prices, while Hanna also argues that LEZs need to be introduced in tandem with measures to help shift away from cars and to walking, cycling, and using public transport. Doing that, Hanna says, requires financial support as well as political intervention from government.

The PfG also outlined plans to double active travel funding to £80m a year, though, like other aspects of the plans unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon, details have yet to be released.

Hanna said: “Public transport is part of the solution to air pollution. If we get the right kind of public transport, it is a much more space efficient and fairer way. Often it is the poorest who rely on buses so if that service is put at risk or undermined, it could lead to more social inequality. We want our transport to be a way to make our society more equal and more cohesive and that means putting public transport at the heart of LEZs.”

She adds: “What we want to see created is the start of new transport models for urban centres, so urban centres can really thrive. It’s not just about limiting emissions of certain vehicles, it’s about how transport works in city centres. We want these LEZs to be really visionary and we want councils to look at LEZs as a kind of focal point for a new, more sustainable approach to public transport which puts walking and cycling on an equal or higher footing than cars.” 

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