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Nine UK Areas Breach Legal Pollution Limits as Manchester Tops League

Campaigners say the most polluting vehicles must be taken off the roads to save lives

Greater Manchester Labour Mayor Andy Burnham has scrapped plans to charge the most polluting vehicles. London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan has gone the other way. Photo: Jacob King/PA

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Nine UK cities and regions including Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and London are currently in breach of legal limits for toxic air pollution with Greater Manchester topping the league of shame.

While air pollution has fallen in many parts of the UK over the past year, levels in Greater Manchester are still on the rise, with residents breathing dangerously high levels of the toxic gas Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2 ).

According to the for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Greater Manchester recorded annual average (mean) concentrations of NO2  of 54 micrograms per cubic metre – above the UK legal limit of 40 and more than five times World Health OrganiSation guidelines. 

Between 2019 to 2022, NO2  levels in the Greater Manchester urban area – home to 2.8 million people – increased by 17%. Over the same time period, the level in the Greater London Urban Area decreased by 42%, owing to the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, campaigners say.

It has led to fresh scrutiny of the fact that Greater Manchester’s Clean Air Plan has been on pause since last February, after its Labour Mayor Andy Burnham put the brakes on a new Clean Air Zone amid a local backlash.

The Government is yet to be convinced that the GMCA’s replacement plan – which scraps charges – will be sufficient and it’s not clear when any decisions on next steps will be taken. Meanwhile, London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan expanded his anti-pollution charging scheme, ULEZ, to the whole of the capital this summer.

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Plans Pulled

Manchester’s Clean Air Zone was due to start last May, but was put on pause by the authority amid increasingly loud opposition. Local officials however cited the pandemic and supply chain issues for the delay.  

The Government had also withdrawn the legal direction requiring the Greater Manchester local authorities to implement a charging-based Clean Air Zone.  

Greater Manchester went back to the Government with an alternative, ‘investment-led’ plan that would provide financial support for people to upgrade their polluting vehicles and would not include any sort of charge. 

But the Government – despite it’s pro-motorist rhetoric – was not convinced that the plan would meet legal requirements on air quality quickly enough, and came back to Greater Manchester to ask them to do additional modelling, including looking at a city centre-only charging zone. 

That should have been submitted this summer. However, it was believed to have been scuppered by the Government saying that the region’s bus retrofit programme was not having the impact on reducing pollution that had been expected. 

Until the Government comes back with the evidence on bus pollution (due to be this autumn), then the process remains paused. It’s unclear after then how long the Government will take to consider Greater Manchester’s evidence again.

That in turn means it’s not obvious when a decision on a new Clean Air Zone could be made, Byline Times understands.

Part of the reason for the scheme’s collapse was likely to be a backlash from drivers once the CAZ signs started going up, according to one clean air campaigner. Many people believed they would be charged and in fact would not have been, as the plan was never to include private cars.  

The UK is divided into 43 zones for air quality assessment. Thirty-four zones met the annual mean limit value for NO2 (40 micrograms per cubic metre) in 2022. The nine zones that exceeded this limit value were:

  • Greater London Urban Area
  • West Midlands Urban Area
  • Greater Manchester Urban Area
  • West Yorkshire Urban Area
  • Liverpool Urban Area
  • Sheffield Urban Area
  • Nottingham Urban Area
  • Bristol Urban Area
  • South East

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Campaigners Hit Out

Sarah Rowe, the Clean Cities Campaigner for Greater Manchester, said: “We’re sad but not surprised to see Manchester top the league when it comes to one of the most toxic air pollutants, Nitrogen Dioxide. 

“Car ownership is on the rise in Manchester and with other cities implementing clean air zones, we’re getting the dirty diesel cars that aren’t welcome elsewhere. Improved public transport is a key part of the solution and we celebrate the efforts to clean up the bus fleet but this data shows that we must urgently do more to reduce the excess numbers of dirty cars and vans in our city… Where’s the plan to clean up our air?” 

Clean Cities research has shown that the number of private cars in Manchester increased by 31% between 2012 and 2022; 2.5 times the average increase in England over the same period.

Harry Gray, of Walk Ride Greater Manchester, said: “We are really supportive of GM’s ambition with the Bee Network as a one stop shop for all local public transport and active travel journeys. However, there needs to be more done to proactively disincentivise driving for shorter journeys, particularly around Manchester City Centre, whilst further increasing investment in active travel to make it easier and safer for people to walk, wheel and cycle, if we want to see pollution levels going down.”

Asthma rates in the UK are one of the highest in Europe, affecting one in 11 children and are particularly high in Manchester. 

Last year, admissions of children to hospital with asthma in Manchester were almost twice the national average, according to Cazz Ward, of Let’s Talk Clean Air.

“We have to remember that this is an issue of social justice with those families without cars living closest to the most polluting roads and experiencing greater health inequalities, even though they create the least pollution,” she added. “We need to do more and quicker to reduce the levels of NO2 in our city.”

In 2016, the Government was instructed by the High Court to meet air quality limits in “the shortest time possible”.  Seven years later, the GM Clean Air Plan is effectively on ‘pause’ and even before the latest delays, the revised GM Clean Air Plan did not expect to meet the legal limits until 2026/7.

Legal limits are not safe health limits. In September 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) drastically reduced their guidance for limits on air pollution levels because of the increasing research evidence of the health harms that air pollution causes.

“Greater Manchester is a World Health Organisation Breathe Life City region and has pledged to meet the WHO air quality levels by 2030. We need our political leaders – both national and in Greater Manchester – to show more ambition to tackle dirty air pollution,” a Friends of the Earth spokesperson said. 

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Contrast to Sadiq Khan’s Charging Scheme in London

Greater Manchester officials say they remain committed to an “investment-led”, non-charging Clean Air Plan that “does not harm livelihoods, jobs and businesses”.

A Clean Air Greater Manchester spokesperson – representing Andy Burnham’s combined authority – said cleaning up the air for residents was still “a priority”.

“We are doing that through delivery of the Bee Network, bringing buses back under local control and connecting journeys with trams and active travel,” they said. “In addition, residents now have access to new electric buses, better services and cheaper fares, as well as travel options that are affordable and sustainable.”

“We are continuing to develop the city-region’s investment-led Clean Air Plan, but we are still waiting for evidence from the Government following its review of the national bus retrofit programme announced earlier this year,” the spokesperson added.

The GM Clean Air Plan is being developed to meet the Government’s direction on legal limits for roadside nitrogen dioxide. 

The original clean air plan would have imposed daily driving charges for some vehicles which owners may not have been able to upgrade. “[It] could have risked significant financial hardship for local people, and threatened businesses and jobs,” a Greater Manchester combined authority source said. 

The Government has revised its legal direction for councils and combined authorities to tackle harmful nitrogen dioxide on local roads by 2024. The Government withdrew its legal direction and issued a new (weaker) one, to meet legal limits for nitrogen dioxide on local roads “in the shortest possible time” and by 2026 at the latest.

Clear Breach

Analysis by Friends of the Earth showed that every single neighbourhood in Manchester is breathing air that is above the WHO guideline limit for NO2.

According to the data, there are 12 local authorities that are still exceeding the legal limit for NO2, and of those the local authority with the highest level is Manchester City Council. Overall, the number of authorities exceeding the limit has halved from 23 in 2021 to 12 in 2022. See the full Defra data here.

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