The Covid-19 pandemic has caused undeniable personal suffering and fiscal chaos across the UK – and, indeed, the world - for most of 2020, a year that many of us personally, professionally and economically have found difficult in ways we could never have anticipated.

As well as the incredible endeavours of our NHS and other key workers, together with the inspiration garnered from the likes of Captain Tom and others, we can also learn from some of the unintended consequences of the pandemic. One benefit clearly seen and widely heralded from lockdown has been the undeniable breather that the changes and reduction in travel have given the local, national and international environments.

There are many examples showing the positive impact made by an overnight lockdown of road, rail and air commuting, none more so than the impact on the air quality in our cities and major towns. Lockdown, and the return to environmental status quo as it eases, has further raised the profile of, and urgency for, permanent Clean Air Zones (CAZ) across the UK.

A Clean Air Zone is simply a geographical area wherein action is being taken to improve air quality and is nearly always a specified zone where particular vehicle classes are targeted and charged - or fined - for entering unless their vehicle complies with the required emissions standards.

London already has its low emission (LEZ) and ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) in place, with Birmingham’s 2021 date expected to be announced in the coming weeks. These are the first of many, and there will be no fewer than 20 clean air zones across the UK within the next 12-18 months.

Transport for London’s city centre clean air zone, known as the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), will be enlarged within the capital’s North and South Circular roads by October 2021. Vehicles that don’t meet the strict emissions standards are charged £12.50 per day, and this charge is already operational 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Affected vehicles include motorbikes registered before 2007, petrol cars registered before 2006, diesel cars and vans registered before 2015, and all buses, cars and lorries that don’t meet ‘Euro 6 Emissions’ standards.

In the short term, whilst green technologies such as electric vehicles develop, and charge infrastructures are rolled out, Clean Air Zones are crucial in reducing the often overly polluted and dangerous air within our cities. They’re an important combat against this  invisible enemy, which is proven to exacerbate poor health and chronic diseases, restrict development of children (vehicle fumes are even more potent at children’s height), and drastically shorten many lives of those who live and work in our cities. In London alone, over 9,000 people die each year because of air pollution.

Enforced Clean Air Zones are, of course, essential in making our air cleaner for the benefit of everyone, not just Londoners. Numerous other UK cities have been mandated by the Government to introduce a Clean Air Zone (including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton). The Government has also named 23 local authorities where it expects air pollution to reach illegal levels by 2021, and each of these are undertaking feasibility studies to determine if they also require Clean Air Zones.

In addition to the undeniable health impacts, clean air zones are critical to our environmental, social and economic sustainability and futures. As per the Government’s Clean Air Zone Framework (Feb 2020), they ’improve the urban environment to support public health and the local economy, making cities more attractive places to live, work, do business and spend leisure time. They support cities to grow and transition to a low emission economy thus ensuring these benefits are sustainable for the long term.’

Without doubt the UK is a global beacon for Clean Air Zones and wider environmental and climate change issues. It is the home of the world’s first green bank and London boasts the globe’s biggest Ultra Low Emission Zone, which Capita (on behalf of TfL) designed and continues to operate in the most polluted roads of central London. Through ULEZ, Capita is supporting TfL in ensuring the level of harmful emissions caused by cars and lorries will almost halve over the coming years, saving countless lives ended or ruined through the inhalation of toxic fumes. We are immensely proud of the fact that the highly sophisticated technology we have built for TfL is a major step towards London becoming a zero-carbon city.

In August 2020 we also announced that Capita had secured extensions to its scope of work with TfL to continue to manage London’s congestion charge, LEZ and ULEZ. ULEZ has already contributed to a reduction of 44% in roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) within its current boundary and 79% of vehicles entering the area meet its emission standards.

Capita’s team of Clean Air Zone and transport experts have already delivered huge success in the Clean Air Zone fields for all those that live in or visit the city of London. There is much more work to be done both in London and across the country, and we look forward to delivering better outcomes in clean air for the benefit of everyone in the years ahead.

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