Clean Air Zones in English cities  

by Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager
10 July 2018

Clean Air ZonesIn spring 2017 Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, reported in One Voice magazine how the BMF was lobbying to mitigate proposals on air pollution that will adversely affect merchants and suppliers. Below is an update on further policy developments, what the issues are, and what the BMF is doing on behalf of its members.  


The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive 2008 sets legally-binding limits for air pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide that affect public health. In recent years, the Government has failed to bring down air pollution to within legal limits and has lost three court cases as a result.    

In July 2017, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published its latest plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. This plan set out action needed nationally and locally towards emissions from transport.  

The Greater London Authority and Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Leeds and Southampton City Councils must introduce Clean Air Zones from January 2020. Another 23 local authorities are forecast to exceed the legal limit in the next few years. They are required to devise plans to limit nitrogen dioxide within the shortest possible time. Councils should have lodged interim plans with DEFRA by 31 March and - after local consultation this summer - must submit final plans by 31 December 2018.  

Clean Air Zones  

To comply with EU rules and court judgements, DEFRA has produced air quality plans for English towns and cities, showing how ministers intend to improve air quality as quickly as possible. A network of Clean Air Zones is the main proposal and the first cities being compelled are Leeds, Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham and Southampton. Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities are due to follow.  

Restrictions on access for the most polluting petrol and diesel vehicles are planned, ie older buses, coaches, taxis, lorries and vans. Vehicles will be required to meet the Euro 6 standard or face a daily charge. Private cars and motorcycles will be exempt. The zones are expected to come into force at the start of 2020.  

The question of whether local authorities can charge drivers to enter is disputed. Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has decided charging is the option of last resort, not the first choice. This is a win for BMF lobbying, but it may ultimately end up in the High Court again.   

What is the BMF doing?  

The BMF has been working on air quality, Clean Air Zones, and the demonisation of diesel users for over two years. During that time, the BMF have:  

  • been involved in three DEFRA consultations, contributing to two from the Mayor of London and one by Leeds City Council
  • made representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Environment Secretary and Transport Secretary
  • attended a parliamentary debate and lobbied the MPs who spoke
  • submitted views to four House of Commons Select Committees
  • met councillors and officials from the local councils involved and
  • participated in fringe events at three political party conferences.  

In February 2018, the BMF had a letter published in the Daily Express that urged Whitehall and municipal leaders to proceed with caution, because most BMF members have no choice but to use diesel HGVs. Other associations signed the BMF’s letter, including the Freight Transport Association, British Vehicle Rental & Leasing Association, and the National Federation of Builders.   


Last November, four parliamentary committees conducted an unprecedented joint inquiry into air quality. The BMF submitted a 2,300-word paper to speak up for merchants who use diesel HGVs. Face-to-face lobbying was done to support the arguments the BMF made, including with local Government, Transport and Treasury ministers who had to appear before MPs.  

In March, these committees published their report in which the BMF was specifically mentioned. MPs endorsed the BMF’s view that current timescales for Clean Air Zones leave insufficient time for small businesses to prepare. They recommended ministers should investigate the feasibility of providing small businesses with more time, or resources, to upgrade vehicles. This is the first time in the BMF’s 110 year history that the BMF has been named in this way.   


The BMF is talking to local authorities to learn what their plans are. The BMF have been to see Leeds and Birmingham City Councils and Derby is next. The BMF want to persuade councils not to penalise its members unfairly and there are grounds to be optimistic. Options discussed include:  

  • tapered charges against the worst polluters: Euro 4 vehicles pay more than Euro 5
  • exemptions for merchants if receiving deliveries before 7am from suppliers
  • councils bidding for money from Whitehall to offer as grants to retrofit vans.  

The key question is what happens if our members can demonstrate that (by January 2020) they have taken reasonable steps to comply, but that it was not possible to do so - perhaps for technical reasons, or no suitable vehicles were available to buy or lease?   


Unlike buses, coaches and taxis, merchants have little or no choice but to use diesel HGVs to move heavy materials. Electric vehicles are not yet a realistic option. This may change as manufacturers make electric HGVs capable of carrying heavy loads without a loss in performance or payload.  

The BMF cannot stop Clean Air Zones being implemented. The best to hope for is flexibility to help businesses most affected with:   more time to enable members to make the necessary operational changesdiscounts or temporary exemptions for SMEs based in or near a Zonefunding or tax changes to help replace old lorries, trucks and vans with cleaner, greener models.  

The BMF hope to have more news in time for BMF Members’ Day Annual Conference on 27 September.