2023 sees the beginning of major changes for Newcastle City Centre through the introduction of a new Clean Air Zone. With so many of Lichfields’ projects linked to schemes and developments in the city centre, this blog takes a look at some of the key reasons for the introduction of the zone, and the potential implications for town planning in Newcastle and other cities pursuing similar initiatives.
The Need to Tackling Air Quality in Newcastle City Centre
In 2017, the UK government issued a legal direction which required various local authorities to deliver a response to reducing illegal levels of traffic-related pollution. This was in the context of the ‘UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations’ (2017) which provides a framework towards a cleaner and healthier environment for people to live and work. The UK government issued the order to both Newcastle and Gateshead Council after their modelling identified that levels of pollution on parts of the A167 Central Motorway and Tyne Bridge and would remain above legal limits unless further action was taken.
Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, being linked to around 40,000 early deaths each year, including an estimated 360 deaths each year in areas of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It has been linked to serious conditions such as heart disease, cancer and respiratory issues including asthma. It is also a danger to the natural environment as Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) contributes to acidification and eutrophication of soil and water courses, impacting on biodiversity and habitats.
Of course, Newcastle is not the only city which is responding to the legal direction, and a ‘Clean Air Zone’ (CAZ) is one measure that has already been introduced across various UK cities in order to achieve national air quality standards and objectives. Depending on the category of the CAZ, drivers will be required to pay a charge if their vehicle does not meet minimum emissions standards. Cities include Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol and Portsmouth and future clean air zones due to be introduced include Sheffield and Newcastle, with Greater Manchester currently under review.
The Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in Newcastle City Centre
In response to both the 2017 legal direction, and as part of a wider response aimed at achieving Net Zero Carbon by 2030, the category C Clean Air Zone in Newcastle is to be introduced from 30 January 2023. Charges will only apply to the most polluting vehicles and the charges will be paid per day, not per visit. The CAZ will cover most of Newcastle City Centre as well as routes over the Tyne, Swing, High Level and Redheugh Bridges.
The scheme aims to improve air quality, create a healthier environment across the cities and encourage people and businesses with older, more polluting vehicles to upgrade to cleaner models. To achieve this, it introduces charges for non-compliant taxis, private hire vehicles, buses, coaches and HGVs. However, charges for vans and light goods vehicles will be delayed until July 2023 to allow additional time for owners to upgrade their vehicles in the context of national vehicle supply issues.
New signage and cameras for the Clean Air Zone have been installed and are in operation. Owners of non-compliant vehicles will not be charged now but will be issued letters that will include information on how to get advice and support with upgrading their vehicle.
A benefit or burden?
From a town planning perspective, there is little doubt that there is a need to improve air quality, not just in Newcastle City Centre but across the UK. The targeted action for clean air zones should therefore be warmly welcomed, not least because it seeks to strike a balance between improving air quality in city centres, and maintaining the accessibility to the Urban Core, which is important in terms of the economic health of both UK cities and their wider region. Indeed, it aims to deliver a variety of socio-economic and environmental benefits, including significantly reducing traffic-related pollution, improving health and quality of life and encouraging the growth of electric vehicles, and it will also encourage more environmentally friendly modes of travel such as walking and cycling and the use of public transport – all of which are obvious benefits.
The CAZ will obviously present challenges for some users of the city centre road network – not least the logistics and construction industries who need to access city centres on a regular basis, and others have suggested that the CAZ could lead to a reduction in city centre business revenues. However, these claims have not been clearly evidenced to date, and the reality is that there needs to be change if air quality standards are to improve.
Over the long term, it seems likely that clean air schemes like the CAZ in Newcastle will evolve across more UK cities, with greater numbers of vehicles being caught by the charging regime. However, it can also be expected that people will continue to move towards ‘cleaner’ vehicles including EV and Hybrid models – so the initiative should continue to drive improvements in air quality over time.
Longer term measures may propose investment into intelligent traffic signals to regulate traffic flows and public transports on key routes. Coordinating new parking facilities as well as ensuring a safer environment for footfall and cycling will also be critical. With this in mind, it is to be hoped that the Clean Air Zone will work in harmony with plans to transform the pedestrianisation of our city streets.
Park and ride facilities, and improved cycle links from park and ride car parks into the city centre, is another area whereby there is a need for further, related infrastructure investment to run in parallel with the CAZ initiative. Although this is not the case for all UK cities, in general terms, cycle links into Newcastle City Centre remain poor and much more needs to be done to promote cycling into the centre as an alternative to driving by car – and this in itself has real potential to support the broader objective of reducing air pollution / improving air quality.
As the Clean Air Zone begins to take effect in 2023, take a look at the Government’s online vehicle checker to see which cities your vehicle would comply with, by entering your registration number - https://www.gov.uk/clean-air-zones