Petrol cars under attack in Oxford’s clean air drive

It’s 5pm and cars are already queuing on Oxford’s east side. Drivers pull up the handbrake as they sit on the narrow road, chugging out fumes and blaring out music. “As you can see there is a lot of traffic,” says Owen Mansel-Chan, 37, as a line of cars builds up next to his house during afternoon rush hour. “It was blissful during the pandemic.”

It is scenes like this that city officials hope to banish with the help of zero-emissions zones. This year, Oxford is set to become the first place in the UK to launch such a zone to tackle pollution and climate change. When fully implemented, petrol and diesel vehicles must pay GBP2 to GBP10 to enter a roughly 1.5 square-mile area in the city centre between 7am and 7pm until 2025, rising to GBP4 to GBP20 after that.

The plan is to cut dangerous levels of nitrogen oxide in Oxford’s narrow streets. The city also wants to cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2040 – a goal that will require an 88pc fall in transport emissions. Many residents within the zone, who are entitled to 90pc discounts until 2030, are keen on the idea, but there are also concerns about fairness.

“Obviously from a climate perspective it’s good, but it also penalises people who cannot afford to update to the newest car model,” says graduate student Alexis McGivern, who supports the plans overall. “I remember when the high street was pedestrianised – we have completely adapted,” says Josephine Cooke, 52, mum-of-three. “I’m all for it.” The Labour-led city may be ahead of the pack with its zero-emissions zone, but it’s unlikely to remain the only one.

Two-thirds of local authorities, stretching from Fife to Blackpool to Dorset, have declared a “climate emergency”. As of January, 50 local authorities, including Lancaster City and Shropshire Council, had pledged to cut their emissions to net zero at least five years earlier than the national target of 2050. Meanwhile, the pandemic has recalibrated views on the interventions that are acceptable to defend public health.

“[Net zero] is a huge, absolutely essential challenge. And I think one of the interesting things about Covid is that we’ve shown we can do huge potential challenges, if we really have to. But we do need strong leadership,” says Dr Brenda Boardman, research fellow at the University of Oxford, which is among universities and businesses backing the net zero goal.

Tory councillor Yvonne Constance, who was cabinet member for the environment on Oxford County Council until her party ceded control in May, is inclined to agree. “I’m a Brexiteer, a pretty right-wing thinker,” she says. “But I really do not see that we have to sacrifice all our living space in cities to the dominance of motorcars. We had a demonstration during lockdown.”

‘A whole lot cleaner’

Oxford already has eco delivery vehicles in the Covered MarketCredit: John Lawrence/TMG

“I’m not suggesting life should be that quiet,” she adds. “But certainly, it could be a whole lot cleaner. Everybody forgets, it was Maggie Thatcher who reminded us all, I think in the 1980s, that we’re on here on a full-repairing lease.

Time here requires us to leave the world in as good a place as we found it.” Oxford’s zero emissions zone, proposed in 2015 amid concern about residents’ health, was initially conceived as an outright ban on petrol and diesel cars in the city centre. “We then spoke with the Government who were very clear about what powers we had as local authorities,” says Tom Hayes, deputy leader of the city council, who would like to be able to ban polluting cars from certain zones.

Raised in Salford, Manchester, Hayes envisages a city in which curbs on private cars mean buses can run faster and more freely, allowing them to maintain or even cut fares. Those who still need to drive could do so in electric vehicles. “The job of the city council is to enable people to be free to move anywhere, anytime,” he says. “But in any society there will be a trade-off.”

He believes climate-friendly policies will encourage investors who are pouring money into green technology and infrastructure to bring some of their cash to Oxford. Pivot Power, part of EDF, is working with Tesla, Invinity Energy Systems and others on a GBP41m project to install new rapid chargers at Redbridge Park and Ride, as well as heat pumps and grid-scale battery storage. The wider economic impact of clean air zones are hard to assess, but supporters stress they cut health costs and make cities attractive.

Hayes says he would be “over the moon” if the zone raised no cash for city coffers but changed behaviours instead.

Current emissions by industry type

Small business concerns

There are nerves among business and residents, however, that the city is getting ahead of itself with its plan to penalise petrol and diesel cars. Sales of new petrol and diesel cars are not due to be banned nationally until 2030. Oxford’s plans have been delayed by coronavirus and technical problems, but a pilot zone is still set to start this year followed by the rest of the 1.5 square-mile area next year.

Businesses can register for 90pc discounts until 2025, although not for vehicles used for commuting. Romain Alaphillipe, assistant manager at Wilding restaurant and wine shop, is optimistic: “It could be a good thing for the streets and for businesses.” Gordon Piggott, owner of Bonners Fruit and Veg in the Covered Market within the pilot zone, uses diesel vans to collect goods in London four times a week. “It depends on how lenient the council are and whether we get exemptions for our vehicles,” he says. “I can understand why they want to do it, but it’s not going to make life easy for us.”

Colin Bennett, who works at David John Butchers nearby, is also concerned.

Butcher Colin Bennett fears the costs of electric cars could prove burdensomeCredit: John Lawrence/TMG

“It’s going to be a huge expense to get an electric vehicle,” he says. Taking a break around the corner, Meanwhile, Deliveroo driver Jonathan Ranzani, 27, is worried about the cost of a new scooter. “If I really stop to think about it, the way the world is going, it’s a good idea,” he says. “But if I think about my job, that’s a different story.” Barry Merchant, 57, foreman at Duckering Young Scaffolding, waiting in his truck nearby, notes that electric heavy goods vehicles are not yet available.

“In black and white the practicalities are not so easy,” he says. Oxford is still grappling with blistering rows over low traffic neighbourhoods introduced during the pandemic, angering those who say they suffer the effects of displaced traffic or cannot get around.

Oxford zero-emissions

Hayes believes the years of consultation over the zero-emission zone means it is unlikely to trigger major battles. He looks at fairness from a different angle.

“You’ve got significant car use which is overwhelmingly driven by better-off parts of our city. And you’ve got buses which are stuck behind cars. I am really concerned that we are preventing the main mode of travel for poorer parts of our city from being able to get around,” he says.

Roger Durrans, chief executive of Yorkshire mattress maker Jay-Be, left his new electric car at home to make the long drive to Oxford on Wednesday. He supports the zones in principle but says: “Our electric car is good for short trips but not practical for long day trips. “Until there has been more investment to increase the number of charging points, it would feel unfair to make people with non-electric cars pay to come into town.”

“The principle of zero emission zones is good but the EV charging infrastructure needs to vastly improve first to support people switching before charges are implemented.” In Oxford and elsewhere, even the ambitious net zero goal may not be the end point. Oxford officials say that by 2050 the city will be “moving towards a carbon negative future,” in which it removes more carbon than it emits each year.

Residents and businesses had better get ready for all that may bring.