As concerns about poor air quality in our cities grow, air pollution caused by vehicles is rising up the political agenda and momentum for action is building. New air quality plans are expected from the Government this spring, but what might this mean for fleet managers and businesses relying on vehicles as part of their organisation? Laura King investigates.

Last year, a report published by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimated that air pollution contributed to 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. In March 2017, Public Health Wales said that air pollution was a “public health crisis”, second in priority to smoking. As a result, concerns about air quality are quickly becoming a national health issue — and one that is becoming harder to ignore.

In the UK, overall levels of air pollution have been dropping. However, in cities, levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) have regularly exceeded the health-based levels set by legislation. Over the last few years this issue has been rising in significance, spurred on by the Government losing cases in the Supreme and High Courts about their plans to tackle air pollution in urban areas. As a result, the Government has had to amend its national air quality plans twice. The latest amendment is required by 31 July 2017, although the Government has applied to the courts to delay publication of the draft plan — due 24 April 2017 — until after the general election.

Although there are several causes of NOx and PM, including gas-fired central heating, industry, aviation and wood-burning stoves, transport and particularly diesel vehicles are under fire as they are significant sources of both the problem pollutants. Transport is the most dominant source of NOx, with diesel vehicles accounting for most of the emissions. Similarly, all road transport modes emit PM10, but diesel vehicles emit a greater mass of particulates per vehicle kilometre.

Consequently, transport and particularly older diesel vehicles are being targeted to ensure that the UK meets its legal limits for air pollution. As well as plans already in place to reduce emissions from diesel vehicles in cities, it is also likely that these vehicles will be targeted in the new air quality plans as well as other measures such as additional taxes.

Diesel scrappage scheme

There have been calls for a diesel vehicle scrappage scheme and it was hoped by many campaigners that it would be included in the Spring Budget. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, provided support to any such scheme by presenting a potential framework and set of recommendations to the Government in February this year. The proposal was supported by businesses and included measures such as payments to scrap polluting vans and minibuses, and a national fund to support charities and small businesses to replace older diesels. However, with no mention of a scrappage scheme by the Chancellor, it appears to have been ruled out for the time being.

Changes to tax

Instead of a diesel scrappage scheme, the Spring Budget 2017 suggested that there would be changes to how diesel vehicles are taxed with the written statement from the Treasury declaring that “… the government will continue to explore the appropriate tax treatment for diesel vehicles, and will engage with stakeholders ahead of making any tax changes at Autumn Budget 2017”.

The announcement has put diesel drivers on high alert. Alongside changes to vehicle excise duty (VED) which will mean that some vehicles will cost significantly more to tax from 1 April 2017, the announcement has led to concerns that there will be an increase in diesel fuel duty by the end of the year.

Ban of diesels from city centres

Following on from the example set by Paris, Madrid and Mexico City, which are planning on banning diesel vehicles from their centres by 2025, London is under pressure to follow suit. However, instead of a complete ban, London is currently working to reduce the number of diesel vehicles through its Toxicity Charge (T-Charge), by which older cars will have to pay £10 to drive in the centre of the city.

Westminster City Council in London is also trialling a new parking scheme in Marylebone from April 2017 whereby pay to park bays will be 50% more expensive for diesel vehicles.

Although driving old diesel cars in cities is likely to get increasingly expensive, a complete ban is unlikely as it has the potential to significantly anger motorists. This is especially the case as many motorists were encouraged through previous government incentives to buy diesel cars on the belief that they were better for the environment.

Clean Air Zones in city centres

The most likely measure following the Government’s defeat in the High Court is to introduce more Clean Air Zones. Originally, Clean Air Zones were expected in 16 of the most polluted cities, but this was cut on the grounds of costs to business to 6 zones in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton. However, it is possible this number might now have to rise.

Under the original plans for Clean Air Zones, councils would be given powers to introduce charges for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), buses and taxis where there is a problem. Leeds and Birmingham’s Clean Air Zones also included charges for vans.

London is currently implementing its Clean Air Action Plan Zone. Along with the T-Charge, the Mayor of London is due to consult on introducing the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) one year earlier by 2019, extending the ULEZ for HGVs and coaches, and extending the ULEZ to the North and South Circular. The ULEZ will require that all vehicles will need to meet exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily charge. Penalty charges will be issued for vehicles that have entered the zone and not paid the daily charge.

Although charging for polluting vehicles to enter cities is one aspect of Clean Air Zones, this is not the only method deployed to improve air quality. They can also include other non-charging measures such as park and ride schemes, changes in road layout and the provision of infrastructure for alternative fuels, all of which could have potential benefits for businesses.

Impact on businesses

All in all, there is a lot of uncertainty for businesses with regard to the future costs of using diesel and older, polluting vehicles. The second-hand value of some diesel vehicles may drop, which could be problematic if not accompanied by a vehicle scrappage scheme. Fleet managers will also need to review any potential increases in running costs for diesel vehicles as well as changes to vehicle taxes.

Fleet managers operating in urban areas would also do well to keep an eye on the draft air quality plans — when they eventually are published. If more Clean Air Zones are to be introduced, organisations will need to look at what the proposals mean for them. Where charging schemes are suggested, managers will need to consider options for their vehicle usage; for example, whether or not vehicles can be deployed elsewhere, whether the daily charge is affordable or whether there are other transport options available. If not, costs associated with retrofitting vehicles or purchasing new vehicles will need to be accounted for.

Last reviewed 25 April 2017