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Birmingham Clean Air Zone ‘proved essential by Covid impact’, says health boss

Birmingham’s Director of Public Health has explained why the city council believes a Clean Air Zone is essential.

The CAZ comes into force on June 1 and means vehicles that don’t comply with emissions standards (and are not able to get an exemption) face a daily charge for driving in the city centre, within the A4540 Middleway ring road.

Dr Justin Varney said air pollution costs the city about 1,000 lives a year through cancer, lung disease and heart disease, and urged people to walk, cycle or use public transport much more instead.

And he says the way coronavirus affected Birmingham proves the initiative is necessary.

In a video posted on the council’s social media page, he said: “The pandemic has shown us many of the inequalities that existed across the city and respiratory disease increases your chances of dying or being severely unwell.

“And because air pollution has been such a problem in Birmingham for so many years, we came into this pandemic on a much worse starting point than many other parts of the country.

Dr Justin Varney, Director of Public Health, Birmingham City Council

“As we go through change it comes as a bit of a shock but we’ve got to keep in mind why we are doing it. We are doing it to protect our children, we are doing it to protect our city.”

Campaigners are not convinced, however, and say the measures will turn Birmingham into a ghost town.

Some accuse the council of not preparing sufficiently for the introduction of such a zone.

One man posted: “Reluctantly I can see the case to reduce pollution from the city centre, unfortunately this wonderful Labour-led council have not done it properly as usual.

“There are no new car parks near railway stations, no Park and Ride schemes and no extra free city centre buses. This ill-thought-out policy will kill the city centre shops and entertainment venues.

“The last train on the cross-city line in either direction leaves before midnight. This is a ridiculous situation as it is at a time we are being asked to not use our cars.

“With the coming clean air charges, it will be even more necessary to have late trains. Vote for a better council and we might see a sensible integrated transport policy.”

Another wrote: “Birmingham’s CAZ, when implemented, will see me no longer visit Birmingham city centre either for business or social reasons, I’ll adjust accordingly and I’m just one of a very many that will eventually have to do the same, it is an unsustainable, costly (to an already under-the-cosh motorist) project, one that has been ill-thought-out.

“Rather than create ‘clean air zones’ it will have the opposite effect by driving traffic out into the suburbs of Birmingham that have most likely seen zero infrastructure changes to roads and paths to help cope with the rat-runs the CAZ will inevitably cause, to say nothing of the extra pollution.

“The city centre is probably the least inhabited area, many larger businesses have gone out of town years ago, others within the zone will no most likely look to do the same rather than place the burden of the costs they and their employees/customers will over time incur. May the Birmingham CAZ rot.”

And one opponent of the scheme insisted that Birmingham’s Category D CAZ was much stricter than in other areas.

Bath has a Category C zone, the same as the scheme coming to Manchester – with neither of those applying to private cars.

Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton all cancelled their plans for clean air zones.

Tim Alcock, from LeaseCar UK, said it was important that councils supported the encouragement of greener transport as part of the moves.

He said: “Whether you agree with Clean Air Zone plans or not they are now being rolled out across the country.

“Though initially they may seem confusing, or even in some cases annoying, it is worth considering how the scheme will affect your daily commute and your wallet. Electric vehicles are our future, and this initiative while frustrating will make the public more aware of their impact on the environment and encourage them to upgrade to more electric or hybrid vehicles.

“We have seen a major increase in customers driving electric cars in the back half of 2020 and the start of 2021. British people are embracing the move to Electric and Plug-in Hybrids before Clean Air Zones are introduced throughout the UK. We just hope that the Government facilitates sufficient charging infrastructure to support the increased demand in EVs that clean air zones will create.”

He pointed out the Royal College of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health estimates that 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK are linked to poor air quality.

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