What is the Clean Air Zone and why is it such a big GM mayoral election issue?

Date published: 05 May 2021

The proposed Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone has become one of the biggest points of contention in the lead-up to this year’s mayoral elections.

Vans, buses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles and lorries that fail to meet emission standards would pay a daily charge to drive on the region’s roads under plans due to be signed off ‘no later than this summer’.

Air pollution, primarily caused by vehicles, is said to contribute to 1,200 deaths a year in Greater Manchester.

The plan has prompted heated hustings and spiky social media exchanges with candidates accused of introducing ‘stealth taxes’ and campaigning ‘straight from the Trump playbook’.

It has also created uncertainty for businesses, while also emboldening campaigners who see its introduction as a ‘now or never’ moment for the environment.

But what exactly is a Clean Air Zone, and why is it so important in the race for Greater Manchester mayor – and the future of the city-region?


What are Clean Air Zones, and why are they needed?

The government defines a Clean Air Zone as ‘an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality, and resources are prioritised and coordinated in order to shape the urban environment in a way that delivers improved health benefits and supports economic growth’.

Greater Manchester’s zone will be the same as the ones in Bath and Birmingham, which cover buses, minibuses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, vans and HGVs.

But the planned area of targeted action covers all 493 square miles of the conurbation, making it the largest Clean Air Zone in the UK.

This means that high-polluting vehicles would pay £60 a day to drive within the zone, with vans paying £10 and taxi and private hire vehicles paying £7.50.

Failure to pay the charge would result in a £120 fine plus the daily charge.

In 2017 a legal responsibility was placed on more than 60 local authorities to develop clean air plans to tackle illegal roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

This is because the government’s policies to tackle the air pollution crisis were deemed ‘not sufficient’ and ‘unlawful’ by High Court judges on three separate occasions.

Clean Air Zones were identified by the government as the benchmark measure to improve air quality ‘in the shortest possible time’ as directed by the High Court.

Councils were asked to consider charging Clean Air Zones unless they could find other ways of reducing nitrogen dioxide levels which were as effective – and as quickly.

Having assessed nine other options the Greater Manchester authorities settled on a charging Clean Air Zone which would not affect private cars – though the idea was explored.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is now under ministerial direction to introduce a charging Clean Air Zone to reach compliance by 2024, meaning that it needs to be put in place in spring 2022 – a year later than originally planned.


Why has the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone been delayed?

While the GMCA and the government agree on the Clean Air Zone in principle, disagreements remain over how it should be funded.

To help encourage commercial drivers to switch to cleaner vehicles before the zone comes into force, local leaders are asking for a £150m package of support to help those affected.

This will include a £10m hardship fund to support businesses that are most vulnerable to the economic impacts of the daily charges.

So far the government has committed £41m towards retrofitting non-compliant vehicles, though ministers have told MPs that more funding will be forthcoming.

This stand-off has meant that the GMCA missed several deadlines to submit their final Clean Air Zone proposals, which have been developed with the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit.

A public consultation on the Clean Air Zone due last summer was also delayed by the Covid-19 outbreak, but was carried out later in the year with more than 4,700 people taking part.


Emissions of a starting diesel engine
Commercial vehicles which fail to meet emission standards would pay a daily fee to drive in the Clean Air Zone


Why is it controversial?

Many businesses who depend on commercial vehicles fear that the cost to change their cars to cleaner vehicles will put some people – and firms – out of business.

Last year taxi drivers gathered in their hundreds to protest the Clean Air Zone by sounding their horns in unison and blocked a main road in Manchester city centre.

It is believed that the Clean Air Zone will affect an estimated 11,000 HGVs and 77,000 non-compliant vans.

The timing of the Clean Air Zone’s implementation has also been criticised with some firms still reeling from the impact of Covid-19.

The Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce have called for the GMCA to pause the rollout of the Clean Air Zone until 2024.

While business supportive of the plans in principle, a letter written to TfGM says: “Poor air quality needs addressing, we agree with that, as do our members.

“But many are uneasy that this is not the right time to be moving forward with this in its proposed structure and format.

“The introduction of daily charging should be delayed to allow businesses adequate time to make changes to their vehicles recognising the extreme economic circumstances created by Covid-19.”

The letter also says the £150m sought by Andy Burnham and the GMCA ‘falls way short of what is realistically needed’.

But for some the Clean Air Zone carries echoes from the not-so-distant past, namely the failed plans to introduce a Greater Manchester-wide congestion charge in 2008.

Local leaders had hoped the move would lead to billions of pounds being invested into the regions’ public transport network, namely the expansion of the Metrolink tram system.

The Greater Manchester public voted overwhelmingly to reject the plans put forward by the GMCA’s predecessor, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities.

More than a million people voted in the referendum, with 79 per cent voting against the proposals.


Is the Clean Air Zone a congestion charge?

For years the incumbent Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has fielded accusations that by introducing the Clean Air Zone he was presiding over a ‘crippling’ congestion charge or congestion tax on road users

Stockport’s Labour group has even erected a billboard in the borough reading ‘No congestion charge in GM’ next to a picture of Mr Burnham and council leader Elise Wilson.



Spats between the Labour incumbent mayor and his Conservative opponent Laura Evans have become commonplace on social media and during mayoral hustings.

Ms Evans recently said that they had argued until ‘blue in the face’ that it was effectively a new congestion tax.

But the former councillor’s views clash with those of environment minister Rebecca Pow, who told a parliamentary debate last year that the zone was not a congestion charge.

In a response to a question from Tory MP Mark Logan around how his Bolton North East constituents could ‘avoid a future of £15 congestion taxes’, Ms Pow said: “I assure him that only the most polluting older vehicles are charged in a Clean Air Zone, and it is not a congestion charge.

“The Greater Manchester plan does not include charging private cars, and the evidence provided by Manchester authorities to date shows that this is not needed.”

Despite this Ms Evans has continued to he Clean Air Zone a congestion charge, prompting accusations from Mr Burnham and other Labour politicians of spreading lies ‘straight from the Trump playbook’.

Other mayoral candidates who share the same view as Ms Evans include Reform UK’s Nick Buckley, Stephen Morris of the English Democrats and Independent candidate David Sutcliffe.

But both Simon Lepori of the Liberal Democrats and Melanie Horrocks of the Green Party have spoken in favour of the Clean Air Zone.


Who else supports the Clean Air Zone?

ClientEarth, the environmental charity behind the three High Court challenges to the government’s clean air policies, have been pressing hard for the Clean Air Zone.

Air pollution largely caused by vehicle emissions has been linked with 1,200 deaths a year in the city-region.

After its implementation was delayed until 2022 they accused the GMCA of showing a ‘lax approach to protecting people’s health from the harmful impacts of air pollution’.

Katie Nield, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said in January: “Time and again, analysis has shown that Clean Air Zones are the most effective way to quickly slash illegal pollution levels.

“The quicker local leaders finalise and start implementing the Clean Air Zone, the sooner they can start helping to ensure that people and businesses in Greater Manchester have the support they need to move on to cleaner forms of transport.”

Friends of the Earth Manchester wants the GMCA to go even further and bring private cars within the remit of the Clean Air Zone, something which has been ruled out by leaders.

Sue Huyton, of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said in January: “A Clean Air Zone across Greater Manchester will be a major step forward in tackling the region’s toxic air problem but the proposed plans don’t go far enough to protect people’s lung health or lower the staggering levels of health inequality.

“We are disappointed that the zone will not include charging for private cars, which we know are responsible for 80 per cent of total miles driven in the region.”


What happens next?

Whoever is elected as mayor of Greater Manchester, they will still be legally obligated to produce a plan to tackle illegal levels of air pollution across the 10 boroughs.

They will chair a meeting of the GMCA to give their final verdict on the Clean Air Zone, with a decision on the final plan expected no later than this summer.

The meeting will include reports setting out responses from the most recent consultation and analysis of how the Covid-19 will impact on its rollout.

Discussions are continuing with government officials to review the funding case that Greater Manchester has set out.

But as the government has already given its blessing to the proposals, it is unlikely that ministers will consider an alternative.

Niall Griffiths, Local Democracy Reporter

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