By Alex King
It’s 10am on a crisp Sunday morning in Stockport. I meander across Lancashire Hill, traversing Heaton Norris Park before wandering beneath Hanover Towers on the way to a big Tesco on Portwood Roundabout. It hasn’t opened yet and there’s no one around. I must have come to the wrong place — no one would hold a protest here and now.
Then, I spot four white vans and trucks in the corner of the supermarket’s car park, tiny in the distance. I can make out several people getting out of their vehicles to chat, unfurling banners and draping them on the backs of their flatbed vans. I approach two of them. “We’re here to try and stop this Clean Air Zone,” says Ian Darbyshire, one of the men, whose company hires out mini-diggers.
The Clean Air Zone (CAZ) is Greater Manchester’s solution to tackling what are said to be lethal levels of pollution in the city region. Adopting the “polluter pays” principle, HGVs, buses, coaches, LGVs, hackney carriages and private hire vehicles will be subject to daily charges for pumping toxic chemicals and particulate matter into the air.
The CAZ was due to come into force in May, but an almighty backlash has forced a delay until July while local leaders and the government try to hash out some changes. At the time of writing, 85,300 people have joined the Facebook group ‘RETHINK the Clean Air Zone - Greater Manchester’, and dozens of rallies like this have been held across the conurbation to crush the CAZ.
When Andy Burnham was challenged about the plans on Question Time this week, he parlayed the testy exchange with Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry into a viral moment, attacking Berry for campaigning against the clean air zone when it is a Conservative government that is mandating its implementation.
In Stockport, steadily but surely, the protesters multiply. By around 11am, more than 20 people have turned up and I am the only one among the group who does not own a van. Why don’t you like the CAZ? I ask, knowing full well that my open question is the journalistic equivalent of throwing a tasty carcass into a pen of Sumatran tigers.
“It’s just a money-making racket,” says Luke Parsons, who does local recoveries and breakdowns. Luke, donning a “Fuck Burnham” hoodie, sees clean air as cover for a stealth tax on the working man. He’s got two recovery trucks, and more than that, he’s sceptical that the CAZ will even work. “It’s not cleaning the air up. The air will still be the same and we’ll be paying for it.”
Under the CAZ, lorries, buses and coaches with a Euro V or earlier diesel engine will be charged £60 a day; while LGVs with a Euro 5 or earlier diesel engine or a Euro 3 or earlier petrol engine will pay £10 a day from 2023, and taxis and private hire vehicles will pay £7.50.
Luke says he first heard about the CAZ a couple of months ago. “It’s been in the pipeline for years though,” he says. “They’ve not advertised it, they’ve not televised it. They’ve not done anything.” (The ten Greater Manchester boroughs conducted an eight-week consultation between October and December 2020. A Transport for Greater Manchester spokesperson told The Mill that they used “both online and offline channels to promote the consultation, including social media, digital advertising, out of home advertising, media and PR, working with stakeholders and other routes.”)
These guys aren’t the only ones to feel like they’ve been blindsided. Shirley Ryder is managing director of Peter’s Homemade Bakery Limited, based in Fallowfield. “I heard about the CAZ about three or four months ago on Facebook,” she tells me. “It was the Facebook group. That started to pop up, and I thought, ‘what’s all this about then?’ Initially I thought it was just buses and HGVs. I didn’t think for one minute that it would affect people like me.”
Why did Luke only hear about the plan just five months before it was supposed to be implemented? And if today is the first time you have devoted any time to thinking about the Clean Air Zone, should you conclude that it is a bad idea?
Is our air really that dirty?
“NO₂ is a toxic gas.” I’m on the phone to Dr James Allan, a leader in air pollution at the University of Manchester's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. I thought it perhaps wise to establish the facts about air pollution before wading into the controversies of its mitigation. “NO₂ is known to have direct effects on people’s respiratory systems, triggering people who are especially susceptible — asthmatics, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that kind of thing. High levels of NO₂ can exacerbate those conditions.” It can also hamper the development of children, he adds.
Our region has appalling levels of air pollution, local leaders say. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) states on its website that “poor air quality contributes to the equivalent of 1,200 deaths a year in Greater Manchester” — a figure that comes from the UK Health Security Agency.
A think tank report found that Greater Manchester’s poisonous air would knock off 1.6 million life years in the coming century — an average of six months per resident — and cost the regional economy approximately £1 billion every year. The report also states that Greater Manchester has the highest rates of emergency admissions to hospital for asthma in the entire country.
The vast majority of NO₂ pollution in cities comes from road transport. “The worst offenders generally are older diesel vehicles, which were manufactured before certain emissions controls were introduced,” says Allan. He acknowledges that pollution has fallen during the pandemic, but says it would be a mistake to re-evaluate the need for mitigation based on conditions that will soon pass.
‘The grant is a joke’
“These dogs are my babies,” Alison says. “It’s like a childminder losing all their children. I’ve brought these dogs up from when they were puppies.” She runs the Ramsbottom branch of the franchise Digs For Dogs and says she can get behind clean air. “I am countryside mad. I recycle. I’m completely up for this clean air thing. I really am.”
Under the CAZ, businesses will be able to claim a small grant through Greater Manchester’s financial support scheme, but many businesses say this won’t come close to covering the costs of replacing their vehicles, while doing nothing could be equally financially ruinous. “I have two vans and one employee,” Alison tells me. “We earn about £300 a week each and love our job. We can’t afford a new van and the grant is a joke.”
Alison stresses that small businesses like hers will be buried under the CAZ, damned if they claim the grant and damned if they try to weather the costs incurred from having non-compliant vehicles. “If I don't claim the grants, it will cost me about £13,000 for each van in charges, so £26,000 a year altogether,” she explains. “If I do claim the grant, which for me is about £3,500, I have to go through a designated dealer who then charges me £21,000 for one electric van while they sell my van to someone else outside the CAZ.”
It’s important to remember in all this that the worst affected will be the smallest enterprises, emerging as they are from the pandemic. “For me and my employee, Lindsey, this is our way out of signing on. We support each other, we earn a bit of money, we have a really good time. We’re the smallest of businesses — there aren’t many businesses that earn £200 a day.”
Far from being atypical, Alison’s story is familiar to many across Greater Manchester. A source at the Chamber of Commerce tells The Mill that there are 25,700 HGVs and 135,700 LGVs registered in Greater Manchester. Of these, an eye-watering 91,000 LGVs and 8,700 HGVs are non-compliant and therefore liable for the charge, they said.
For business owners like Alison, this is very far from the “just transition” envisaged by environmental activists. The idea is to see the benefits of a green economy transition shared widely, while support is provided to those who work in polluting industries. As one climate activist puts it: “If the provisions aren’t in place to support people who drive these vehicles for work, it’s the antithesis of the just transition, isn’t it?”
Shirley owns a bakery in Fallowfield. She speaks of the intense pressure she feels as a small business owner facing the prospect of yet another financial burden. “Most of the women who work for me have all got families. My head baker has got a family. It really plays on my mind. What’s going to happen with this business if we go down the route of saying we can’t afford to do deliveries? We supply other small businesses. Do I whack a £10 charge on?
The arguments against the CAZ have been significantly strengthened by the terrible timing of the scheme, during a cost of living crisis. “The price of electricity — which bakers use a considerable amount of — has gone up,” says Shirley. “All the costs of our dry ingredients have gone up. Flour went up in November — the biggest increase I’ve ever known in thirty odd years of being in this trade.”
‘We are now the canaries’
“Andy Burnham thought he was pretty good during lockdown, didn’t he?” says Simon, a baker based in Cheadle, who sells at artisan markets across Greater Manchester. “The one thing I’ll never forget him saying was that we northerners were being set up as canaries down the coalmine.” Now he feels like the mayor has done the same to him and the thousands of others who will be impacted by the CAZ. “We are now the canaries. We aren’t going to survive. It’s as simple as that.”
Burnham insists the government mandated and shaped the CAZ. “It was based on a legal direction from the government requiring action in all ten Greater Manchester boroughs to clean up the air and compliance in as short a time as possible and by no later than by 2024,” the mayor said in a statement earlier this month.
In 2015, the government was taken to court by climate activists for illegal levels of air pollution, and then passed the task of doing anything about it to local authorities by directing them to make a business case for implementing a clean air zone. That government directive also stipulated the clean air zone cover HGVs, LGVs and private hire vehicles but not private cars.
Greater Manchester’s outline business case says the government allocated £255 million for implementation. Of that pot, among other things, local leaders requested £59 million to cover the costs of businesses replacing non-compliant HGVs and LGVs. Based on the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce estimates of the number of non-compliant vehicles in the conurbation, that works out as approximately £591 per vehicle.
But local Tories see this as political cover for Burnham, who they say is looking to dodge blame for providing insufficient funding for small businesses. “It’s easy for Greater Manchester to say we want clean air and claim all the brownie points for that and then to say that these bloody Tories in Westminster aren't coughing up the cash,” Chris Green, the MP for Bolton North East, told the Mill. “Why did Greater Manchester leaders sign off on a plan if there’s no cash?”
For Green, whether Greater Manchester had the political space not to sign off on the plan having received the government directive isn’t necessarily relevant. “Andy Burnham has a very loud voice,” he points out. “Ministers and the media can’t not listen to him. If he’d said a couple of years ago he didn’t support the plan we would’ve heard about it, ministers would’ve heard about it. It’s clear he’s supported it the entire time. He hasn’t challenged it.”
For the Stockport truck drivers, the CAZ is emblematic of a deep disconnect between elected representatives and ordinary people. “These MPs do not live on a council estate,” one says at the Sunday rally. “Let them live on a council estate for a couple of months and they’ll see what it’s like driving a van, going out doing scrappage work”.
I sense the political scandals of the past few months have contributed to his anger. “Instead they’re sitting behind a desk and eating cheese and wine. Why can’t we drive a van? It’s all a government scam to get more money because the people at ClientEarth are suing them. The MPs, Boris – they should live on a council estate in Brinnington.”
“The problem in Leigh is that there were large volumes of HGVs causing traffic in residential areas because of inadequate infrastructure. Atherleigh Way, for example, has never been finished.”
I’m speaking to James Grundy, the local MP for Leigh. We’re sitting opposite each other at a roundtable and there’s a big map of Leigh behind him. Grundy, whose recent question in the House of Commons prompted the prime minister to describe Greater Manchester’s plans as “unworkable”, is outlining the particularities of the problem of air pollution in his constituency.
For Grundy, the CAZ fails to recognise the local nuance of air pollution, which leads to a frighteningly granular conversation about Atherleigh Way and Winnick Lane, which I have chosen not to reproduce in this story. “The problem is the one-size-fits-all model,” he says.
The CAZ covers all 493 square miles of Greater Manchester (for reference, Greater London is only 23% bigger at 606 square miles with three times the population). Greater Manchester is the only local authority acting under the government’s air pollution directive to have taken this blanket approach.
“Look at every other solution in the country, you’ll see they’ve chosen different models, bespoke to local conditions,” Grundy continues. “This CAZ treats everyone the same. There was no nuance. There was no one saying, ‘OK, perhaps we could build a bypass here to stop traffic going through a residential area there.’ There was such a lack of imagination about how to resolve the problem.”
I ask the Greater Manchester Combined Authority who made the decision for the CAZ to cover the whole of the city region. “It is the nature of the Government's direction and guidance which shaped the original CAZ proposal,” a spokesperson said, adding: “Obviously, Greater Manchester is now working on a revised clean air plan.”