Conservative advisers, lawmakers and local associations have strongly opposed air pollution measures, often in opposition to government policy, a Guardian investigation has revealed.
The decarbonization of transport is one of the government’s “priority areas for action” during the next COP26 global climate negotiations. However, UK cities have been slow to adopt Clean Air Zones, programs that discourage the use of older, more polluting vehicles and encourage cleaner modes of transport. Only three cities currently operate a CAZ.
There are 25 municipal zones covered by clean air zone proposals which also have more than one conservative advisor. Conservative advisers opposed the plans in about half of them (13).
The Guardian also analyzed Facebook advertising around clean air zones and found that 17 Conservative MPs, candidates or associations had released 50 ads criticizing a clean air zone, often before local elections.
Responding to the Guardian’s findings, Andrea Lee, Clean Air Campaign Manager at the Client Earth environmental charity, said: “The government is not doing enough to tackle air pollution. The ministers’ approach to dealing with the air pollution crisis left local authorities to do the heavy lifting.
“This has mainly resulted in delays and weak proposals, as local authorities often lack the resources, capacity and, in too many cases, leadership to tackle the problem.”
In the 32 municipalities with a Labor group, Labor advisers opposed the plans in just five. However, local Tories were not universally opposed, supporting Clean Air Zones in a number of regions including Dundee, Aberdeen, Bath and North East Somerset and Oxfordshire.
The Guardian’s Facebook analysis found that clean air zones were a controversial topic heading into local elections, with around a quarter of the 593 clean air zones placed from month to election day. In May, the Birmingham Tories paid for an ad that read: “Help stop the Labor war on motorists by … opposing the tax on Labor travel”. A clean air zone was introduced in Birmingham in June, the first outside of London to charge for passenger cars.
Councilor Robert Alden, leader of the Birmingham Conservative Group, told the Guardian that the clean air zones had “been shown in the council’s own reports as penalizing Birmingham’s less well-off and [failed] to ensure clean air compliance ”. Alden said the Conservative group was in favor of investing in “green infrastructure”.
Opposition to clean air zones was also a campaign issue in Newcastle, where the local Conservative Party ran 11 ads criticizing Tyneside’s clean air zone proposals ahead of the 2019 local elections. One ad read: ” Hurry up. This is our last chance to stop Labor’s plans for a car tax of £ 12.50 a day. The Tyneside Clean Air Zone is expected to launch in July 2022, 18 months later than planned.
Labor has placed 56 ads mentioning clean air zones, all positive – the majority paid for by the London Labor Party before the expansion of the capital’s ultra low emission zone (Ulez).
In 2018, judges called on the government to bring air pollution levels back to legal limits as soon as possible, after being taken to court three times by Client Earth. More than 60 councils have been asked to improve their air quality, whether through clean air zones or other means, but only London, Bath and Birmingham have a clean air zone in operation . Other cities, including Glasgow and Oxford, have a low emission zone that only affects buses.
Some councils canceled clean air zone plans after air quality improved during the pandemic when the lockdown initially caused traffic volumes to plummet. Traffic has since returned to pre-lockdown levels in a number of cities that have canceled clean air zone plans, including Southampton and Leeds, according to Green Alliance research.
Lee, of Client Earth, said, “Road transport, especially diesel vehicles, is the number one source of illegal air pollution in our cities. The councils should not rely on temporary drops in pollution suffered during the lockdown to escape the urgent need to clean our air in a sustainable manner. “
Philippa Borrowman, policy adviser at Green Alliance, said successful clean air zones should be implemented as part of a larger transport decarbonization agenda. “We believe you have to do this at the same time as improving public transport, it cannot just be a stand-alone piece,” she said.
“, [charging] passenger cars in an area where there is no public transport or it is expensive so it is completely unfair.
Borrowman highlighted other examples of successful mitigation strategies, including scrapping programs and investments in safe cycling infrastructure.
Facebook’s analysis also revealed several anti-clean air zone ads placed by think tanks and lobbyists with ties to the Conservative Party.
Companies owned by Thomas Borwick, the former chief technology officer of Vote Leave and consultant to Cambridge Analytica, have placed three Facebook ads criticizing London’s Ulez. The TaxPayers’ Alliance – a libertarian think tank founded by Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave – also placed two ads on Facebook criticizing Ulez.
The most active lobby group was EcoCentral UK, which placed eight ads opposing clean air zone programs in London, Bristol and Bath. “We are fed up with tax hikes and bans in the name of ‘saving the planet’,” one ad read. “Join us in stopping the war on motorists.”
Eco Central UK, whose Facebook page has since been deleted, has been described by Desmog as a ‘pro-Brexit Welsh group … promoting climate science denial’.
A conservative spokesperson said: “Local authorities are best placed to address the issues they face in their local areas, working with their local communities and businesses.” The spokesperson also said the government was implementing a £ 3.8 billion plan to clean up transport.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs highlighted the “significant” improvements in air quality since 2010 and said the government is committed to helping councils to comply with NO.2 legal limits.