“In Greater Manchester, we need to clean up the air we all breathe.” So says the website for Clean Air Greater Manchester – and we couldn’t agree more. Vehicle Consulting put down its roots on the A6 not all that far from the city centre, the new HQ we subsequently moved to is only what feels like a few Maybach-lengths further out, and many of our staff and clients are based in the Greater Manchester area. Our interest in the clean air zone (CAZ) almost certain to be introduced to Manchester in the near future is of personal interest to us.

Who’s behind Manchester’s CAZ and what area will it probably cover?

Along with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), Clean Air GM also works in collaboration with Highways England, Public Health England, GM Health and Social Care Partnership plus the region’s ten local authorities or councils.

Greater Manchester’s net technically stretches over a wide area as far as the border of Skelmersdale to the west, Littleborough to the north, Uppermill to the east and Woodford to the south. If every town and village within the current geographic boundary ends up being included in the region’s likely clean air zone, it would be the UK’s largest CAZ outside London.

Following the submission of an outline business case to the government in March and the conclusion of an initial online public survey in June, feedback will be analysed, a formal public consultation will take place and the region’s full business case will then be submitted.

While we would say that improving air quality and public health by reducing CO2, NOx and particulate matter (PM) emissions and other harmful pollution has got to be held dear as the primary objective of a CAZ for Manchester, the Clean Air Plan’s forecasts also point to wider anticipated benefits we would undeniably welcome, from an economic boost resulting from eased traffic congestion, to social care savings plus even less obvious improvements such as the reduced environmental impact on buildings.

When will Manchester’s clean air zone be introduced and will private cars be included?

Everything points to Greater Manchester’s CAZ being introduced in 2021, although it’s not been set in stone yet as to whether this will be from January 1st or another date. It was initially planned that the zone would only apply to HGVs, taxis and other private hire vehicles, buses and coaches for the first couple of years, before being extended to include non-compliant vans and minibuses as well as less common vehicles like horseboxes and motorhomes from 2023.

The government has now instructed the region’s ten local authorities to charge vans from the outset, without offering much in the way of financial support in comparison to some of the UK’s other cities.

Including older vans will undoubtedly hit many sole traders and SMEs hard, but tradespeople, couriers and other businesses who lease their vans on contract hire will be in a much better position to avoid being charged, because the vehicles they drive are cleaner. The message that we continue to communicate to our clients is that clean air zones will definitely be implemented throughout the UK including here in Manchester and early planning is highly recommended for financial and business continuity reasons.

The daily charge for buses and lorries will be £100 and for taxis, private hire vehicles and vans the fee will be £7.50, but these penalties will likely only apply to vehicles with engines that don’t meet Euro 4 petrol and Euro 6 diesel emissions standards. We think the price sounds reasonable for profit-making road users and that the strategy seems fair, targeting older and dirtier vehicles rather than an indiscriminate blanket payment being imposed. Besides, London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is structured similarly around g/km CO2 emissions and Euro engines, and it will definitely be a happy day to see Manchester’s current swathes of black cabs comprising plenty of old Toyotas, Mercedes and other cars either taken off the road or charged daily fees, no doubt making way for self-charging hybrids like the Hyundai IONIQ, Nissan LEAF and Toyota Auris.

Although private and company cars will be exempt from the forthcoming Manchester clean air zone unless they become chargeable at a later date, it’s worth mentioning that all cars produced since September 2015 have had to meet Euro 6 criteria anyway and this rule was applied to vans a year after, one of the benefits of business contract hire and personal car leasing being that all vehicles are brand new and therefore the cleanest and most efficient available.

Should personal cars be charged for entering Manchester’s CAZ?

The debate over whether personal cars should be charged to enter Manchester’s CAZ is unsurprisingly contentious. Air Quality News highlights that “In the outline business case for Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Plan, private cars were identified as the main cause of Greater Manchester’s air pollution problems, accounting for over half of road-based NO2 emissions.”

It certainly seems logical on that basis that all dirtier cars should face the same fees as taxi drivers, if the Northern Powerhouse city is going to stand a chance of cleaning up its air with any aplomb. After all, 250 roadside locations in GM have been identified with illegally high levels of air pollution, such as Oxford Road near the hospitals and universities.

Many motorists cynically perceive congestion charges, speed cameras and other levies as revenue-generating schemes first and foremost, which is somewhat understandable given annual rises in VED and fuel, but we’ve got to agree with Alex Ganotis, former Stockport Council leader, who has described air pollution as today’s ‘invisible killer.’ And to TfGM’s credit, its strategy director Simon Warburton has assured the media that Manchester’s future clean air zone “is about penalties with the goal about reducing the number of polluting vehicles as quickly as possible. Success is not having any vehicles to charge.”

On that note, we would love to know what percentage of the UK’s registered cars meet Euro 6 diesel and Euro 4 petrol engine standards, as it would be fairer to impose CAZ fees on non-compliant vehicles rather than charge drivers of newer and cleaner models. We appreciate, though, that replacing their old car may simply be unaffordable for some motorists, highlighting that it’s typically impossible for governments to devise measures that are welcomed by all walks of society alike.

Clean Air Greater Manchester did, to be fair, consider an initial longlist of 96 options and whittled them down into three different packages aimed at delivering emissions compliance by 2024, some of them including charging all older private cars, before deciding not to take this route. Maybe the move was political in order to prevent alienating voters by imposing yet another vehicular charge on them, but we can’t help feeling that it’s inevitable that non-commercial cars will eventually be included, partly to avoid any more EU emissions and air quality deadlines being missed, regardless of Brexit.

Will Greater Manchester’s clean air zone work?

Stating the obvious, only time will tell, but it’s concerning and disappointing when we glean comments from environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth who have said that our region, which has the UK’s highest hospital A&E admissions rate for asthma, “will not tackle illegal levels of air pollution before 2024” – a deadline that many voices feel will itself be missed.

With Stagecoach having given signals that bus travel across Greater Manchester may become more expensive from 2021 onwards as operators seek to cover the cost of vehicle upgrades and retrofitting and recoup clean air zone charges in passenger fares, the CAZ could ironically motivate a number of people to return to using private cars.

The M60 ring-road and other motorways within the Greater Manchester Boundary won’t come under the umbrella of the clean air zone because they are not council-controlled and maintained, and this is understandably a worry for organisations including the Liberal Democrats, as motorway traffic volumes to the north and west of the city in particular remain high despite the introduction of smart motorway technology and improvements. The party’s assertion that “replacing polluting diesel vehicles with cleaner engines should be a key part of this” is questionable, though, because it portrays fuel from the black nozzle in a wholly bad light, whereas car manufacturers’ latest diesel engines are the cleanest they’ve ever been, which our fleet leasing clients are testament to.

With circa 26% of GM’s 8,000 lorries facing penalties or compliance modification, the government’s £59million Clean Freight Fund is welcome, as is the £28million Clean Taxi Fund that the region’s 1,400 older taxis can benefit from.

Nevertheless, despite the question marks hanging over it, the proof will be in the pudding and implementing a clean air zone of any kind to Manchester’s roads has got to be embraced for the sake of our children, elderly, cyclists, other citizens and the environment. Simultaneously, we’re excited to see increasing numbers of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles contributing to making our communities cleaner and also quieter during this exciting chapter of history.