HEATED CLASH: Clean Air Zone tolls ‘one big failure’
Nick Cott, leader of Newcastle Liberal Democrats, Image: NCJ Media
Plans to cut illegal pollution levels in Newcastle with new city centre road tolls were branded a “big failure” in a heated clash between top councillors.
A new Clean Air Zone (CAZ) due to come into force next July will see the highest-polluting lorries, buses, coaches, vans, and taxis charged either £12.50 or £50 a day to enter the city centre – though all private cars will be exempt from the fees.
The controversial scheme sparked a row on Monday night as Newcastle City Council’s Lib Dem opposition leader slammed the proposals for not being ambitious enough.
Coun Nick Cott claimed that the CAZ “was announced with a big bang and it seems to be going out with a whimper”, with the council having scaled back earlier plans for it to cover a much wider area and include fees for car drivers.
The opposition leader told a council cabinet meeting that the tolls would cause problems for people making “essential” road journeys, risked increasing bus fares, and failed to address “critical” issues – branding it “one big failure for this city council”.
Coun Nick Forbes, the authority’s Labour leader, accused the Liberal Democrat of “talking out of your exhaust pipe” and demanded to know if the opposition party would have imposed a congestion charge-like toll instead which would target cars too.
He said: “What you are saying in your press release is that you want to reduce the number of cars. The clear implication is that you want to slap a congestion charge tax on private motor vehicles and get motorists to pay.”
Coun Cott said that the Lib Dems “of course” supported the principle of a CAZ but “would have done it differently”, adding that Monday’s cabinet meeting was not the forum to question the opposition’s ideas.
He added that Labour would “get a better idea of what we are proposing” when the road charging scheme next comes for a debate before the full council.
The CAZ is being introduced in response to a government order telling local councils to bring down illegal pollution levels in the shortest time possible.
Coun Clare Penny-Evans, Labour’s cabinet member for climate change, said that air quality is “bad for people’s health, bad for our environment, and bad for our economy”.
She also revealed that the authority will soon announce some changes for the Coast Road, West Road, and the Great North Road, though did not give any detail on what they could be.
Poor air quality has been linked to more than 300 deaths on Tyneside each year and Coun John-Paul Stephenson, the cabinet member for public health, told colleagues that a recent study found that it shortens lives more than any other external cause worldwide – cutting life expectancy by an average 2.2 years.
The CAZ had been due to start this year, but was pushed back amid delays caused by a High Court battle and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Councils had also planned to halve the number of lanes on the Tyne Bridge in order to discourage car traffic alongside the introduction of the CAZ, but that plan was axed this summer.
Grants of up to £20,000 are expected to be available to help upgrade vehicles that would be subject to the tolls, but details of those are yet to be fully confirmed as the offer is dependent on the government approving a £23m funding request.
Words: Daniel Holland, Local Democracy Reporter
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