Greater Manchester will not accept the government's proposal of a city centre Clean Air Zone charging taxis, vans, buses and lorries, Andy Burnham has said.
The mayor was told in a letter from Secretary of State George Eustice on Wednesday (1 June) to reduce the area affected by the controversial scheme by 95 per cent or more, effectively containing the Clean Air Zone within Manchester city centre.
However, the letter said there is ‘little robust evidence’ that scrapping charges and offering funding to upgrade vehicle instead would clean up the air enough.
It comes after the controversial scheme, which was due to come into force across the whole of Greater Manchester this week, was put on pause and the deadline by which the city-region must meet air quality targets was delayed.
Since then, Mr Burnham has said the city-region can achieve air quality compliance by the new date of 2026 without charging any vehicles at all.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Thursday, the mayor said Greater Manchester will no longer accept any charges as part of the Clean Air Zone.
He said: “We have said that this can be done by incentives and that’s the Greater Manchester policy. We’ve said if they want charges, they’ll have to impose it. That’s the Greater Manchester position.”
Greater Manchester put forward the plans for a Clean Air Zone which would cover the whole of the city-region and charge some vehicles up to £60 a day following a ministerial direction to bring NO2 levels below legal limits by 2024.
However, the scheme was halted after the government agreed to delay the deadline by which air quality compliance must be achieved by two years.
It came after research commissioned by the mayor’s office found supply chain issues caused by Covid increased the cost of some new vans by up to 60 per cent.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham
Mr Burnham says this delay makes a city centre Clean Air Zone possible – but he believes that all charges should be scrapped now that the deadline is 2026.
He claims that the Conservatives also campaigned to scrap all CAZ charges during the local elections and described their ‘false promises’ as ‘dishonest’.
Nevertheless, local Tories and anti-CAZ campaigners are claiming victory.
Leigh’s Tory MP James Grundy said the news will come as a ‘huge relief’ to many small businesses and working families across Greater Manchester.
Meanwhile, speaking on behalf of Bolton council – the only Conservative-led local authority in the city-region – one councillor proclaimed the CAZ ‘dead’.
RethinkGM, the campaign group set up to oppose the original scheme, has also said that the latest intervention by the government is a ‘substantial win’.
But Mr Burnham says there are businesses all over the city-region which use Manchester’s inner ring road and would therefore be affected by the charges.
In his letter to the Labour mayor, the Secretary of State said that a smaller Clean Air Zone would ‘achieve most of the public health benefits of the original scheme while greatly reducing the potential impact on local businesses’.
George Eustice. Image credit: UK Parliament.
Mr Eustice also said the mostly unspent £132m which the government has given Greater Manchester would help businesses upgrade to cleaner vehicles.
However, it is unclear whether taxis, vans, buses and lorries based outside of the city centre would be eligible for funding if the Clean Air Zone is cut in size.
Mr Burnham suspects the move is an attempt to reduce access to funding.
He said: “What they appear to be saying in this letter is that the zone would be shrunk and therefore it would only be people in the zone who get the funds.
“That’s why we came up with the construct of a non-charging zone in a wider area and therefore businesses outside of it access the funds because there’s a fair chance they’d have to pass through as part of their business.”
How politicians have reacted
Manchester council leader Bev Craig gave her reaction to the latest news about the Clean Air Zone during a town hall meeting on Wednesday (June 1).
The Labour politician backed Mr Burnham’s position on scrapping all charges.
She said: “It is Manchester’s position and Greater Manchester’s position that we will be continuing forward with plans to submit our proposal of a non-charging Clean Air Zone plan by July 1 and the ball is firmly in the government’s court as to whether or not they are prepared to accept it.
“We will be working forward on the plan around being able to tackle the crisis that is air pollution in a way that doesn’t hit those who are already suffering with the cost of living crisis at the moment.”
However, Mr Grundy – the Conservative MP for Leigh – welcomed the news, claiming that the government is ‘forcing’ his parliamentary predecessor Mr Burnham to ‘scrap his controversial GM wide CAZ congestion tax scheme’.
The Secretary of State describes the proposal of a city centre Clean Air Zone as ‘early thoughts’ by his department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
However, the Tory MP has interpreted this as an ‘instruction’ to the mayor.
Clean Air Zone signs currently say the scheme is 'under review'. Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service.
He said: “Andy Burnham’s 500 square mile CAZ congestion charge zone covering the whole of Greater Manchester was an unavoidable job destroying tax on going to work.
“The fact the Mayor wanted to keep the 500 square mile zone with all the charging infrastructure left in place, on a promise that the zone would be non-charging, raised a great deal of suspicion amongst Conservative MPs in Greater Manchester.
“The mayor could later have simply switched to a charging zone across GM at a later date.
“I’m delighted that the government has instructed the Mayor to restrict any CAZ to central Manchester instead.
“This will come as a huge relief to many small businesses and working families across Greater Manchester, including in my constituency of Leigh, which should never have been included in the zone in the first place.”
Bolton councillor Nadim Muslim, the only Conservative who sits on Greater Manchester’s Clean Air committee, also welcomed the latest development.
He said: “The Secretary of State has confirmed that the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone is dead.
“As I and my Conservative colleagues in Bolton have argued all along, Burnham’s charging zone was unnecessarily large with unnecessary charging.
“Going forward, any future proposals should only consider Manchester city centre, with residents of Bolton not affected for driving around our borough.
“We will always explore options that mean no charging, no cameras, and no clean air zone for Bolton – something other cities have shown is possible.”
What campaign groups have said
A spokesperson for RethinkGM, the campaign group set up to oppose the original CAZ scheme, said: “RethinkGM have received and are extremely appreciative of the government’s stance regarding the Mayor and GMCA’s unfunded attack on the livelihoods of residents and businesses across Greater Manchester, through the attempted imposition of a region-wide clean air zone.
“It is clear that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon George Eustice, has studied and taken time to note the lack of any supporting evidence and sheer scale of ineptitude illustrated by GMCA and the Mayor, which almost resulted in enforceable daily charges that would have impacted the lowest paid and poorest members of our society hardest.
“The government’s letter has made it clear that a region-wide scheme is not required and the joint councils should reduce the area by over 95 pc, release funding that GMCA held in abeyance for non-compliant vehicles and provide proof that supports any future scheme.
“Both GMCA and the Mayor, have systematically attempted to impose personal and political desires and wills on the people of Greater Manchester, without any concern for public health, welfare, mental health or the financial impact on lives.
“They should be ashamed of what they have done and imposed on residents.
Oliver Lord, the London-based UK Head of the Clean Cities Campaign, said: “The Government’s position is unsurprising given that a Clean Air Zone without charges would do very little to improve air quality.
“Its absolutely right to prioritise the city centre and if this unlocks inertia then I see it as a reluctant compromise.
“There must of course continue to be action across the region so that nobody misses out on cleaner air.”
Greater Manchester has until July 1 to agree a new plan with the government.
Leaders have promised a public consultation would take place, but transport bosses have suggested that this would happen after a way forward is agreed.
What the government has said
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was asked why the Secretary of State no longer supports a Clean Air Zone covering all of Greater Manchester which was signed off by the government last summer.
It was also asked whether businesses based outside of the Clean Air Zone would be eligible for funding to upgrade their vehicles to cleaner versions.
However, rather than answering these questions, the deparment sent ‘background briefing’ notes and further information from its website.
A Defra spokesperson said local authorities are responsible for developing Clean Air Zone schemes in consultation with residents and local businesses before submitting them to government for consideration and approval.