Birmingham City Council has recently asked everyone for their views on a proposed Clean Air Zone (CAZ) to tackle harmful levels of air pollution. It will have already chewed over everyone’s comments and submitted its proposals to government by the 15th September deadline. But will its proposals do the job?

What’s the problem?

Road traffic is responsible for a range of pollutants the most significant being nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10). Every year in Birmingham, the EU legal limit for the annual average level of nitrogen dioxide of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) is breached at a number of locations, both in the city centre and in the suburbs. Although the levels of PM 2.5 do not exceed the EU legal limit, they do exceed the more stringent World Health Organisation (WHO) limit. The WHO has identified that both PM2.5 and NO2 are harmful to health even at very low levels. These pollutants can trigger strokes and heart attacks, worsen heart and respiratory diseases and can cause lung cancer.

Why now?

Client Earth, a non-profit environmental law organisation, has taken the UK government to court over its failure to comply with the EU legal limits for NO2. The government lost on appeal and must now take positive action to tackle illegal levels of air pollution. The court ruling requires average annual NO2 levels to be reduced to below the legal limit in the shortest time possible. The government has delegated responsibility to local authorities and has identified five cities which must introduce a Clean Air Zone by 2020. Birmingham is one of these cities.

To reduce the NO2 levels by enough, Birmingham City Council must implement a package of measures, the most controversial of which is a Clean Air Zone where the most polluting vehicles, including cars, will be charged to enter. The boundary of the charging zone is defined by the Middleway (A4540). We strongly support the charging zone and the proposals to include cars since they account for more than 80% of total road traffic and are responsible for more than half of the air pollution produced by road vehicles.

However the charging zone alone will not be enough and additional measures such as bus priority corridors will be necessary. Even then, the air quality modelling predicts that compliance will not be achieved until 2021. We feel that this is totally unacceptable and is not soon enough; people will be exposed to illegal levels of air pollution for much longer than necessary.

We believe that the CAZ is just a starting point. It should be part of an ongoing process to continually drive down air pollution to levels substantially below the legal limits and should not be just a ‘tick-box’ exercise to achieve compliance.

The city council should urgently investigate various other options so that all areas of the city meet this legal requirement by 2020. These should comprise bolder measures including whether further areas of the city should be covered by the CAZ charging zone. This may be as additional separate charging zones and/or extensions of the Middleway boundary of the proposed CAZ in order to tackle areas where NO2 levels breach legal limits. However, the overriding aim should be to reduce NO2 levels to below the legal limits as soon as possible, whatever combination of measures it takes.

We are urging the council to take bolder action which must include the following:

  1. A city-wide Clean Air Zone by 2020
  2. Quick, clean and reliable public transport across the entire city, with road space reallocation in favour of public transport
  3. Cheap and easy-to-understand fares on public transport enabling seamless journeys using more than one mode
  4. Vastly improved safe and attractive cycle and pedestrian networks across the city
  5. A city-wide public cycle hire scheme

To see our full response to the city council’s CAZ consultation go to:

What’s next?

The city council will be launching another public consultation in late Autumn on the additional measures required to reduce the NO2 to below the legal limit. So watch this space!