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‘Shockingly bad’: Businesses condemn timing of introduction of Birmingham clean air zone

Business owners in Birmingham say the timing of the introduction of a clean air zone in the city is “shockingly bad” as they struggle to encourage customers back after a year of lockdowns.

Charges will apply to most vehicles travelling into the city centre from Tuesday, 1 June. The city becomes the third in England, after London and Bath, to introduce a clean air zone. A number of other cities are making plans to charge vehicles.

The plans have also been criticised as penalising people on low incomes as newer, less polluting cars and electric vehicles will be exempt from charges.

Lawrence Barton who owns two bars and a nightclub in the city centre told Sky News: “The concept of it – yes I welcome a cleaner city and a cleaner environment.

“The timing of it is shockingly bad for the city. It is just wrong to introduce this right now when the city has been crippled by the pandemic.

“It puts at a disadvantage the most disadvantaged. Some of my staff have had to leave their jobs because they can’t afford it and they don’t drive electric cars and they’re not in a position to make that payment.”

Drivers of cars, taxis and vans will be charged £8 a day, while drivers of larger vehicles, including HGVs and buses will have to pay £50 per day.

Residents and workers are able to apply for temporary exemptions to payments, but having already previously delayed the introduction of the scheme, the councillor in charge of the plan is determined it will now go ahead.

“Time is against us,” says Waseem Zaffar.

“The reality is in the city of Birmingham every year hundreds and hundreds of people are dying because of illegal and unsafe levels of air quality so we’ve got to get this right.”

Valentine Quinio, a researcher from the Centre for Cities, says action is needed to tackle what she describes as a “health emergency”.

“One in 19 deaths in the UK are linked to air pollution – that’s 25 times more than the number of people killed in traffic accidents,” she says.

“The real problem with air pollution is it’s really unequal and it doesn’t affect everyone evenly and so it’s mostly people from low income backgrounds or people who live close to very busy roads for instance who breathe toxic air and they’re not the ones who pollute the most.”

She says there are signs that businesses may not see the reduction in footfall they fear.

“There’s actually evidence from the UK and abroad that when you pedestrianise a street or reduce traffic people tend to stay longer just because it’s nicer to be in a street where there are no cars and so we know they also tend to spend more.”

Experts agree that key to the success of clean air zones will be improvements to public transport, making it a cheaper and more convenient option to persuade people out of their cars.

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