Opposition is growing just months before start of Greater Manchester's clean air zone
The introduction of the clean air zone across Wigan and the rest of Greater Manchester is now only months away.
But as signs are being erected to let people know about the charging scheme, anger is growing about the impact it will have on both motorists and businesses.
While there is no dispute that clean air is a good thing, the financial impact of this scheme is a big worry for many.
Campaigns and petitions opposing the plan have been launched and even Andy Burnham, former Leigh MP and now Mayor of Greater Manchester, who has been leading the roll-out of the scheme, has now expressed concerns.
He says the Government told the 10 local authorities across Greater Manchester that they should implement a clean air zone by 2024 to reduce air pollution.
Harmful fumes are believed to contribute towards at least 1,200 deaths per year in the city-region.
The clean air zone begins on May 30 and will mean the drivers of some vehicles which do not meet emission standards have to pay a daily charge to go in those areas.
It will cost £60 for heavy goods vehicles, buses and coaches, though the owners of coaches not used on a registered bus service will be able to apply for an exemption until June 1, 2023.
Hackney cabs and private hire vehicles will face a charge of £7.50, with most Greater Manchester-licensed vehicles exempt until June 2023.
There will be a £10 charge for vans and minibuses from June 2023, while the details of fees for motorcaravans depend on the tax class of the vehicle.
The zone will not include private cars, motorbikes and mopeds - though there are concerns from drivers that they could be added in future.
It is hoped that people will switch to less-polluting vehicles before the clean air zone is introduced and will therefore not have to pay the daily charge, and there is funding available to help people do that.
But some drivers are not in a position to upgrade their vehicles and do not know how they will afford to pay the daily charges.
In a joint statement, Mr Burnham and Coun Andrew Western, the city-region’s clean air lead, said: “We know this is a major challenge for many individuals and businesses which is why we have always been clear with ministers that it must be accompanied by a fair package of financial support.
“While the Government has provided £120m, we are concerned that they have so far failed to agree to our request for additional support for those who will find it hardest to make the change.
“We also warned them of our ongoing concerns about the vehicle supply chain and the co-operation of National Highways.
“Over the past few months, Greater Manchester has continued to monitor these issues alongside the ongoing impact of the pandemic and increases in the cost of living.
“In addition, late last year we commissioned new work to understand the impact of the growing global supply chain issues in the automotive sector which could affect the availability of some vehicles and people’s ability to upgrade. Greater Manchester leaders will consider the outcome of this work before asking the clean air joint committee to consider the implications for the clean air plan later in the month.
“We are committed to reducing air pollution in Greater Manchester but also to protecting the jobs and livelihoods of our residents.
“We are listening carefully to concerns being expressed about the current situation and will make a decision shortly on our next steps.”
Their comments have been welcomed by Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, which has spoken to business owners concerned about the plans.
Policy director Chris Fletcher said: “This latest statement shows that the local authorities and decision-makers are listening to the concerns we have been raising on behalf of business about the plans for the CAZ.
“We have been contacted by business owners concerned about a number of issues raised by the plans from affordability to massive delays in getting new, compliant vehicles.
“The trading environment that many businesses find themselves in now is unrecognisable from when the plans were first drafted and we look forward to further discussions which look to strike the right balance between the need to address pollution and the need to ensure that the implementation timetable and financial support available is both fair and realistic.”
One of the people broadly in favour of the clean air zone is Will Patterson, the former chairman of Wigan’s Green party and a candidate in the 2017 Greater Manchester mayoral election.
He said: “I remember when I was standing for the mayoral election and this is the sort of thing I would probably have supported then.
“It’s not a perfect solution - I don’t think anything is - and it’s important to remember this has been basically put on the combined authority by the Government.
“They have said, ‘we have let air pollution get out of control, it’s not our problem, you sort it out’.
“When I did stand for mayor I was worried a blanket congestion charge wouldn’t solve any problems, it would just allow the authority to profit.
“This is more nuanced because it’s for the more polluting vehicles and there is support financially for people to replace their vehicles.”
Mr Patterson believes it is vital to improve air quality and explained he had seen a map of air pollution which showed issues near The Deanery High School, which he described as “scary”.
He said: “This is our young people being affected by that and we have to do something here. Particularly over the last couple of years, with the pandemic, people have complained about the restrictions but most do listen to the science and go for vaccines or wear masks, because they know they will make a difference. It’s the same thing here.”
However, he can understand why businesses are concerned about the introduction of the charge, but hopes grants and exemptions will help them, and believes changing to greener vehicles will help businesses to save money in the long-term.
But Coun Michael Winstanley, leader of the Conservatives on Wigan Council, is urging Mr Burnham to put the introduction of the clean air zone on hold.
He is worried about the impact it will have on residents and businesses in the borough, but is also concerned that fewer than 400 people in Wigan took part in a consultation on the scheme and proposals were not put before a scrutiny committee or the full council. Coun Winstanley said: “I have noticed Labour councillors and Andy Burnham giving the impression that this scheme is down to the Government.
“Whilst it is true the Government has instructed councils to implement a CAZ scheme, the exact nature of the scheme was in the gift of the Greater Manchester mayor and the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester.
“They could have designed a scheme that was smaller in scale as other local authorities have done.
“I would urge Andy Burham and the 10 leaders to pause this scheme for at least 12 months whilst they examine if a CAZ scheme is still required and then to look at how this should be targeted rather than covering the whole of Greater Manchester.
“Labour constantly talk about the cost of living crisis whilst not offering any alternatives. This is a prime example of Labour being in a position to practically doing something that will help hard-working people and businesses.
“Failure to take such action will demonstrate that Labour are only interested in playing politics rather than helping residents.”
Conservative MPs in Greater Manchester have also raised their concerns about the clean air zone, which they described as a “crude one-size fits all plan” which is “too disruptive” and similar to the rejected congestion charge plan from 2008.
They have written to George Eustice MP, Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary, asking for the scheme to be delayed so further consultation can be carried out.
MP Chris Green, whose Bolton West constituency includes Atherton, said: “As the date for implementation of the clean air zone approaches, businesses and other organisations are becoming increasingly concerned with inherent problems in this scheme as well as insufficient funding to cover business costs of replacing fleets of vehicles.
“These existing problems are obviously compounded by the economic fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic.”
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