Cllr Waseem Zaffar writes about Birmingham City Council’s Clean Air Zone

This blog post was originally published on 10th November 2021

In late 19th Century Birmingham, under the leadership of its Mayor Joseph Chamberlain, the city set about an ambitious programme of renewal which began with the clearance of the slums from the city centre. The slums had long been associated with poverty and disease, and their clearance led the way for huge improvements for the lives of thousands of Birmingham residents.

Over 140 years later, Birmingham stands at another important crossroads which will come to define the city in the decades to come. As we fight against the climate crisis and seek to make the poisonous air in our city centre clean, like Chamberlain and the other Brummies of his age, we need to show great ambition.

Air pollution leads to almost 1,000 premature deaths a year in Birmingham alone, and the Council was mandated by the Government to bring nitrogen dioxide levels within the legal limit in the shortest time possible. We sought to take swift and decisive action and this meant introducing a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) to our city centre.

All vehicles which are not compliant with the CAZ standards are charged a fee to drive into the zone. Unlike other zones in the country where private vehicles are exempt, Birmingham’s scheme charges all non-compliant vehicles that drive into the city centre.

In the face of howling opposition from Labour’s political opponents, and scepticism and hostility from some parts of the press, we pushed on with our ambitious plans and the Clean Air Zone came into operation on 1 June 2021.

Five months on, we have found that compliance is higher than expected, and is rising. At the end of June, 79.9% of vehicles travelling into the zone were compliant, and by the end of September that had gone up to 81.8%. That these figures are higher than our modelling predicted, and are still rising, demonstrates that drivers of non-compliant vehicles are choosing other methods of getting into and around the city centre.

Early indications show that nitrogen dioxide pollution is down by as much as 20 per cent in some hotspots around the city centre. This will save lives, and is a crucial step in reducing the city’s carbon emissions.

The Clean Air Zone has had a positive impact, but on its own it will not be nearly enough to tackle the Climate Crisis. Birmingham City Council has outlined its ambitious Route to Zero (R20) plans to bring about net zero in the city by 2030, or as soon as possible after that as a just transition allows.

R20 will see the council take brave steps to tackle vehicle emissions and emissions from homes with a retrofitting programme to make our stock of social housing warmer, more efficient and greener.

As COP26 takes place, the Government must acknowledge that the battle for clean air, and the fight against the climate crisis will be won or lost in cities like Birmingham. Cities need to be strategic, decisive and bold.

However, cities and local authorities need the support of the Government when they are acting decisively. The UK’s cities are mostly governed by Labour Councils, and rather than using these councils as human shields and allowing their local Conservative representatives to rally against them, the Government should give us their support.

The Government needs to realise that the time to act is now. I am proud that Birmingham is playing its part, but I will continue to lobby the Government to be bolder in its fight against climate change. It is up to the Government to make sure that COP26 is the historic moment that we all hope it will be.