The Green Belt battle and the Clean Air Zone battle are the same fight
Updated: Jan 22
On 30 May 2022, the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone will come into effect. It will span the whole of Greater Manchester and be the largest Clean Air Zone in the country—even larger than London's. Owners of commercial vehicles that do not meet specific environmental standards will be charged to use the roads, with the charges ranging from £7.50 to £60 per day. You can find out if the charge is applicable to you at the CleanAirGM website. This article hopes to explain why it has come about and how it relates to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.
Does Greater Manchester have an air pollution problem?
Yes. And contrary to some of the claims on the various Facebook groups, air pollution spans the whole of the conurbation. In Royton, a diffusion tube registered an annual mean of 25–35 μg/m3 of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) between 2016 and 2019. Perhaps a better location to test would have been the Broadway/Shaw Road junction by St. Anne's school which is already part of an Air Quality Management Area. It is a similar story in Shaw (25–35 μg/m3 of NO2) and Uppermill (25–40 μg/m3 of NO2).
The air quality is often classified as "good" or "acceptable" even when it really is not, simply because the nitrogen dioxide levels do not surpass the legal limit of 40 μg/m3. The World Health Organization recommends a "safe" level of 10 μg/m3.
There is an established link between high nitrogen dioxide levels and breathing ailments such as asthma and COPD. Indeed, Oldham has the worst hospital admissions rate in the country for children with asthma complaints, at THREE TIMES the national average (https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/air-pollution-greater-manchester-cars-21989130). Every parent in the town should be concerned.
There is a serious pollution problem across Greater Manchester, and especially in Oldham, and the council is legally obligated to tackle it. It is on this pretext that the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone will be introduced.
Will the Clean Air Zone work?
At face value the Mayor and the councils seem to be justified in introducing the zone. However, what is the actual evidence that simply charging road-users will reduce air pollution?
Various studies have arrived at contradictory conclusions. In Germany clean air zones were found to be effective, but in the Netherlands they had no impact. Perhaps the most comparable example is the Greater London Clean Air Zone: research discovered that in the five years following the introduction of the charges, particulate matter was reduced at three times the national average, but there was do discernible impact on nitrogen oxide emissions. Research undertaken by Transport for London also found that vehicle replacement rates accelerated when the charges were introduced but eventually returned to the national average.
So there is some circumstantial evidence that they do reduce pollution to an extent, but there is also contradictory evidence and the jury is still out on how effective they are in tackling nitrogen dioxide.
Perhaps it is wrong to take the question in isolation. The goal of a clean air zone is two-fold: to discourage dependency on private transport and to encourage adoption of cleaner and greener technology. However, this is contingent on what alternative options are available and how affordable they are. Royton, for example, does not have an alternative public transport option. There is no Metrolink and the bus service is not fit for purpose, so residents are locked into private transport. The residents of Royton will be left with no option but to pay this punitive charge, effectively making it a tax on living and working in Royton.
While it will not directly affect private vehicle users, we will all pay this tax through every loaf of bread we buy, every plumbing job we have done, and every delivery we have. The most unbelievable part of the Clean Air tax is that it is also being levied on buses, so there is a clear logic fail here: how will putting up bus fares incentivise people to use public transport more?
What does it have to do with the Green Belt?
Environmental assessments undertaken as part of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework found that without mitigation Greater Manchester would breach legal limits of pollution and therefore the GMSF could not be passed as legally compliant.
However, the GMSF also holds the key to tackling pollution. It has become a common mantra for the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the councils to scapegoat the Government for the proposed plan to builds tens of thousands of homes in the Green Belt. However, this is far from the truth. Building in the Green Belt is not inevitable, it is a choice, and one that is easily avoidable. As part of preparing a development strategy the planning authority is legally compelled to "consider the reasonable alternatives". There were five proposed "spatial options" for the GMSF, three of which did not necessitate building in the Green Belt, and two of these could also deliver the required number of homes.
One of these options, Public Transport Max, proposed focusing development along public transport corridors. This option would have not entailed any development in the Green Belt. Cambridge also considered a similar option for their Local Plan and their modelling concluded that the carbon output for transport would be 26 percent lower if they focused development along public transport corridors than if they built in the Green Belt. This is a fairly intuitive conclusion, because if you make public transport an accessible and cheaper option then people will choose to use it.
Since traffic accounts for 65 percent of nitrogen oxides and 79 percent of particulate matter as opposed to only 31 percent for carbon, we would likely see even greater overall reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions and particulate matter than we would for carbon, if the GMSF were to opt for a similar spatial option.
The answer to saving the Green Belt and abolishing the Clean Air Zone is one and the same...
Simply put, both problems stem from pursuing the wrong spatial option within the GMSF, and both can be fixed by selecting an alternative spatial option that the Mayor and the councils have already conceded to be a "reasonable alternative". The Public Transport Max solution can deliver the projected housing need without having to build in the Green Belt. By focusing this development along public transport corridors it will also make significant inroads in reducing private vehicle dependency, as evidenced by Cambridge's carbon modelling, which in turn will substantially reduce pollution levels.
Introducing a pollution tax should only be a last resort if every other solution has been tried and failed. We are clearly not at that stage yet. A gulf is developing between the Labour Party and the people of Greater Manchester; destroying our environment and privatising the roads is not protecting our interests, it is financial exploitation of our economic circumstances.
There is an obvious and common solution to the housing crisis and the pollution problem. Save Royton's Greenbelt strongly urges the Mayor, the councils and the Labour Party to start listening to the people they supposedly represent and reconsider their decisions regarding the GMSF and the Clean Air Zone.