New charges for the most polluting vehicles should be introduced as an alternative to rush-hour road closures, committee members have urged.
Council chiefs are considering controversial proposals to install bus gates on Basford Bank and Victoria Road, in Fenton, as part of a £13.5 million plan to reduce illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.
The Government has ordered Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle Borough Council to cut NO2 emissions at the hotspots to acceptable levels by 2023, with the bus gates scheme currently the ‘preferred option’. This would see the roads partially closed to all private vehicles for several hours each day.
But members of the city renewal scrutiny committee at the city council believe chargeable clean air zones (CAZs) would reduce emissions more quickly while also having less impact on the local economy.
Under this scheme, only drivers of the oldest and most polluting petrol or diesel vehicles would be charged to enter the proposed mini-CAZs covering the two NO2 hotspots.
The committee voted in favour of recommending this option to the cabinet, which meets to discuss the issue today (December 15).
Councillor James Smith, who proposed the motion, believes the CAZ scheme would be fairer than the bus gates.
He said: “For me, bus gates are a bit like a teacher who punishes the whole class for their bad behaviour, whereas a clean air zone, or a mini-CAZ, is like a teacher who just punishes the one student who is misbehaving.
“It’s worth remembering in 2023 when the chosen option is implemented, only petrol vehicles which are over 17 years old or diesel vehicles over eight years old will be charged to use the CAZ. And so I feel that it would be a far better way to control the pollution in our city.
“I know businesses are worried about the charges of CAZs, but actually that can be mitigated as the CAZ charge is fully deductable.
“I think CAZs are a good idea because any money that is generated from a CAZ has to be invested in the city’s public transport. So all those people who unfortunately can’t afford their own private vehicle, they will see a benefit too, as we see our public transport improved.
“I do think it’s right that we clean up the air in our city, especially for future generations. But I can’t support the bus gate method because it punishes everyone in the city instead of that minority that uses dirty vehicles.”
Local air quality plan project manager Pete Price told the committee that while a CAZ could be effective, it would take too long to be implemented.
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Mr Price: “The reason the study has identified the bus gate option as the preferred option is because it complies with the Government’s requirement to deliver in the shortest time possible.
“The implementation of the CAZ would actually achieve better pollution reduction than the bus gates. However, the implementation of the CAZ takes longer than the implementation of the bus gates. It’s that ‘shortest possible time’ criteria which overrides all of the others in the legislation we have to work to.”
But Mr Smith suggested that the council already had the necessary technology and back-office staff in place to enforce the parking red zones elsewhere in the city.
While the city and borough councils, along with Staffordshire County Council, have been working together on the air quality scheme, the authorities currently have different positions on the issue.
Cabinet members at the borough council prefer the bus gates option, believing that a CAZ would have a devastating impact on businesses in Newcastle town centre.
But their counterparts at the city council are opposed to the bus gates, and want to find an alternative solution.
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The report to today’s city council cabinet meeting recommends supporting the ‘direction of travel’ of the bus gates scheme, but also calls for ‘variant options’ to be explored.
Phil Cresswell, director of place, told the scrutiny committee that it made sense to re-assess the proposals now, due to the huge impact of Covid-19 on people’s travel habits.
He said: “The pandemic that the nation, if not the globe, is dealing with in the current time will cause demonstrable and material behavioural changes and so the evidence base that’s being put forward should at least be questioned if not further scrutinised.”