Transport bosses and business organisation clash over Clean Air Zone

The green policy, which includes Wigan, has been subjected to angry criticism from a group representing small firms.

Friday, 23rd July 2021, 4:45 am

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has accused city-region leaders of misleading firms over the possibilities of retrofitting vehicles to make them greener and help them avoid the charges which could be brought in.

It said Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) as well as the office of the city-region’s elected mayor and its 10 local authorities, which include Wigan Council need to be more open and honest with businesses about what will happen to their fleets if the zone is introduced.

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A Clean Air Zone is being considered for Greater Manchester and will include Wigan

But TfGM said retrofitting - which involves installing emissions filtration systems on vehicles - is just one of a number of options which will be open to firms and an enormous multi-million-pound pot will be made available for upgrades.

All 10 councils in Greater Manchester have been asked to independently ratify the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) proposals by the end of July, paving the way for charging to begin next spring.

Wigan Council’s cabinet gave its approval to the scheme at a meeting earlier this month.

But Coun Michael Winstanley, the leader of the Conservative group in the chamber, has said the matter should be scrutinised and voted on at full council and changes should be made to the council’s constitutions so decisions of this size are not reserved to the cabinet.

Phil Thompson from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)

Businesses will be able to access government grants to help them mitigate the cost of changing or upgrading their fleets by November, with the FSB saying many believe the retrofit option is an achievable way to avoid the daily charge.

Businesses operating buses and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) have until May 30 next year to ensure their fleets are compliant, while owners of light goods vehicles (LGVs) and taxis have until the same date the year after.

Those that don’t comply by those deadlines will pay between £7.50 and £60 a day to drive anywhere in Greater Manchester, depending on the size and class of their vehicle.

The FSB is concerned about the availability of retrofitting, saying only one company in the UK makes and supplies the conversion kits and it only works for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.

It also says businesses will end up forking out around £6,000 for the conversion, more than the Government grant.

FSB area leader for GM, Phil Thompson said: “It’s fair to say that retrofit is not going to be possible for an awful lot of small businesses in Greater Manchester, despite the fact it has been billed as the silver bullet.

“This is simply not the case and it’s misleading to suggest anything else.

“Any business that operates a small LGV predating 2016, who thinks they will be able to get a retrofit to avoid the charge is in for a shock, because the truth is they have a big bill on the horizon.

“The authorities need to be having a frank and honest conversation with those businesses, because at the moment no one is aware of this.

“It also begs the question, where was the due diligence from the likes of TfGM? Do they know this, and if not, why not? And if they do, why have they pointed everyone to retrofitting as the answer?

“The problem for smaller LGVs that are suitable for retrofitting is also going to be supply and demand.

“There’s only one company able to supply the kits from their parent company in Germany. The other issue is that these kits only work on Euro5 vehicles – so on vehicles older than roughly 2013 it’s not available.”

TfGM, though, denied it had suggested retrofitting on the scale implied by the FSB and issued a list of seven LGVs which are currently suitable for a conversion.

It also said it wanted to work with business organisations on the CAZ and its effects.

A Clean Air Greater Manchester spokesperson said: “Retrofitting is one of the solutions funded by the Clean Air Plan. It is well-established for bus fleets and is a rapidly emerging technology for other commercial sectors.

“Currently, it is an option for a small proportion of vans that will be required to upgrade. Clearly, the majority of owners will need to make use of our vehicle renewal scheme, depending on their personal circumstances or business models.

“We are committed to providing support to businesses with advice on the options for them – our Clean Air GM website has an indicative vehicle checker tool and we welcome requests from business owners who require individual assistance.

“We have a £120+ million fund from government for GM vehicle upgrades and we want to support business and organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses at every stage of the process.”

Despite TfGM’s comments about the pot available for upgrades, the FSB said money needed to be put aside in Westminster for helping businesses get new vehicles to comply with the CAZ.

Mr Thompson said: “The truth is many businesses will need to buy a newer vehicle, and that’s quite a different proposition for a small business coming out of the pandemic already loaded with debt when a new Transit costs upwards of £30k, and the CAZ upgrade grant is just £3,500.

“For those that can’t afford to buy new, many are likely to just pass the daily cost of a penalty on to their customers: in other words you and me, and this won’t reduce pollution.

“We need the Government to come up with a more generous way to help businesses upgrade, with a cash grant towards the cost of a replacement.

“Retrofitting is a red herring and it won’t cut it for far too many small businesses.”

Clean Air Greater Manchester outlined the environmental case for the CAZ and said its work had been scrutinised in detail by Government.

The spokesperson said: “Air pollution damages our health and plays a part in thousands of deaths every year.

“Both Greater Manchester’s annual status report and GM Clean Air Plan monitoring results show that the pandemic reduced air pollution in the short term. However, as travel increased toward the end of last year, we’ve seen rising pollution levels and we do not expect any improvements in NO2 levels to remain through this year.

“All of our work is overseen by the Government’s Independent Technical Review Panel. The panel has looked in detail at Greater Manchester’s modelling and has endorsed our work, concluding that a clean air zone is required to achieve compliance.”

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