The ups and downs of one year in the Bath Clean Air Zone
Anyone who lives in or has visited Bath in the last year will no doubt have heard of the Clean Air Zone. Whether you’ve seen it online, spotted the signs around the boundary, or been sent a fine in the post – it will have made itself known. The scheme began on March 15, 2021, and aimed to reduce the dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across the city.
Older models of buses, vans, lorries and taxis became eligible for daily pollution charges, ranging from GBP9 to GBP100. As it was a Class C zone, private cars were exempt. Last month marked one year since the CAZ began – providing the perfect opportunity to reflect on whether it has been a success.
In this article, we will look back on the last 12 months and the zone’s story so far. : Bath locals driven mad as ‘worst potholes in England’ make houses ‘shake’
Our story begins with the Clean Air Zone kicking into action at midnight on March, 15, 2021. Chargeable vehicles with a pre euro six diesel or pre euro four petrol engine, would now have to pay either GBP9 and GBP100 a day to drive in the zone.
It was the first in England outside London and funded by central government. Several other cities, including Bristol and Birmingham have been earmarked for similar zones after Bath.
A map of Bath’s clean air zone.
The council secured GBP9.4m in funding from government to help residents and businesses, including coach companies and taxi drivers, to replace polluting vehicles with cleaner, compliant ones. : Man in his 60s dies after A350 crash The council set up a scheme to help owners upgrade their vehicles and, by March 15, more than 500 businesses had applied.
A further GBP1.58m helped local bus operators to retrofit fleet not already compliant in the zone. Automatic number plate recognition cameras were installed on all roads leading into the zone. Vehicle number plates would be checked against a DVLA database.
Motorists with non-compliant, chargeable vehicles – including those from outside the UK – would have to declare and pay for their journey at GOV.UK or receive a penalty charge notice. Cyclists celebrated the new initiative by cycling around the city wearing “I heart CAZ” t-shirts. They thanked the council for bringing in the zone.
However, not everyone was pleased to see the zone take effect.
Ian Green – a local taxi driver – said the GBP9 daily charge for some taxis was “ludicrous” after such a tough year for drivers due to Covid. He said: “There are probably about 400 taxis in Bath and two thirds will need replacing, in a year when hospitality has been non-existent and we haven’t earned any money. “The council might give us GBP4,500 as a grant, but it’s around GBP14,000 for a new car and it has to be under three years old to register as a taxi.
It just seems ludicrous to be doing it at this time.”
By April, a new group of people began to speak out against the zone – van-owners. Jules Cary-Williams was one of the first to be fined for driving her vehicle around Bath and received penalties worth GBP240 in total. The Batheaston woman said she had checked her Volkswagen Transporter online before the scheme began and was told it was exempt.
She also believed that – as private cars and motorbikes are not charged – her family van would also be allowed. After receiving the fines, she rang the council and learned that her vehicle was eligible for a GBP9 fee in the zone. By that stage, another three fines were already on their way.
Teresa Hall paid over GBP10K on a new van to be CAZ compliant only to be told it is not after a last minute regulation change (Image: Teresa Hall)
Theresa Hall, from Widcombe, actually bought a new van for GBP10,500 when she heard the Clean Air Zone was going to come in.
She said she checked online that it was compliant before parting with her cash. However, to her dismay, she too received a fine for driving her vehicle in the zone. And she was not the only one.
Jill Field, 67, with her campervan (Image: Jill Field)
Yet, these van-drivers were all saying a similar thing – the rules had changed. So, Bath Live approached the council to ask what was going on. A spokesman said: “On March 1, the government made an update to the Drive in a Clean Air Zone service (the gov.uk vehicle checker) which impacted a small group of vehicles that were previously incorrectly identified as being compliant.
“The council was only made aware of the impact of this change after the launch of the CAZ. We have been writing to the owners of these vehicles who failed to pay for their journeys. : Tributes paid to ‘one of a kind’ biker who died in A350 crash near Bath
“We have waived all outstanding charges since March 15, and no fines have been issued. We are also exempting these vehicles from charges for a further 10 days so that owners have some time to consider their options. “We have interest free finance and grants of up to GBP4,500 per van available to help drivers replace non-compliant vehicles.”
But April wasn’t over yet and as the month drew to a close, a plumber spoke out about his experience of the new zone. Kevin Keay was travelling into the city centre once or twice a week in his Euro five van, at a cost of GBP9 a day. He said: “I have had to explain to the customer that per day I have got to add GBP9 to the bill and that is maybe an extra GBP150 by the time I’ve done the job.
The customer I am working for, he is a builder and he is pretty understanding, but I have to work a little smarter now to combine little jobs into a day’s work. “I don’t do emergency trips at night anymore, I only do planned work now, and I haven’t done many one-off jobs since the Clean Air Zone has been in because I don’t want to put on the extra charge. I try to spread it over two or three jobs.”
You could say he was not best pleased. He said: “You just wait till the inevitable charging of all vehicles using the Clean Air Zone arrives, that really will destroy Bath’s chance of ever returning to being a tourist or shopping/dining destination.” Meanwhile, Andy Sochanik, who lives on Wells Road and owns a van, said he was going to be forced out of the city by the new scheme.
The council offered him a grant of GBP4,500 to upgrade his vehicle but he said this would not buy a new van. : Delays ‘likely’ as key stretch of A46 into Bath to close overnight But van-owners were not the only people to hit out at the zone.
Julian Broad, lived on Old Newbridge Hill on the west side of Bath and said heavy goods traffic had been worse since the “very first day” of the new scheme. He said: “It’s not just vans, it’s massive lorries too and they simply shouldn’t be coming down this way, it’s just dangerous for pedestrians. When articulated lorries are coming down the hill, very little else can come up.
There is a 7.5-tonne limit sign at the bottom of the hill, but the one at the top of the road is missing.” Julian believed that lorry drivers were using roads on the outskirts of the city to dodge the zone. This theory would be mooted by many others over the coming months.
He added: “There are loads of kids using the hill to walk up to Oldfield School from the buses at 8am and back again at 3pm. These kids they’re on the phone while they’re walking, they’ve just woken up and they’re crossing roads with this heavy goods traffic.” A resident of Penn Hill Road was of a similar view.
He said it had brought traffic to a standstill. Nearby on Lansdown Lane, a local woman expressed concern that there would be a repeat of the tipper truck tragedy if HGVs started using that road to avoid the CAZ. Her worry sparked a police crackdown in the area, which saw them stop lorry drivers with vehicles above the permitted weight for that road. It was around this time that the Cleveland Bridge closed, adding to the HGV traffic displaced across Bath.
By the time June came around, you would expect some of the initial teething problems to have been sorted out.
And so they were, however, a new issue was just around the corner. Peter Trevor, a local builder, had been given a black box by the council, which would track his movements for 60 days to decide whether he was eligible for a grant to replace his van. Although he was meant to be exempt from the daily GBP9 over those two months, a “technical issue” with the CAZ cameras meant they couldn’t recognise number plates as exempt.
This meant Peter got 11 fines in the post. Meanwhile, Mr Bowden – who wrote into the Bath Chronicle in May – was back with a vengeance. He penned another letter to his local newspaper, claiming the zone was “already moving rat runs“.
: Pedestrian taken to hospital after Queen Square collision Towards the end of the month, a Trowbridge woman spoke out about the fines she received for a trip to the Royal United Hospitals. She travelled there in agony with an eye infection and said “the last thing in her head” was the Clean Air Zone.
With many residents still smarting from the introduction of the zone in March, they will not have been pleased to hear June’s bombshell. As the month rounded off, the council said it was “open-minded” about extending the zone to address the displaced traffic problem. It then emerged that the CAZ had left the local council more than GBP1m out of pocket.
At that time, drivers were clocking up fines worth tens of thousands of pounds a day for entering the Clean Air Zone and not paying the charge. Figures shared with councillors revealed that more than 54,000 charges had been paid since the zone launched in March and 28,000 GBP120 fines have been issued. That means a third of drivers in non-compliant vehicles were failing to pay the daily charge within six days of entering the zone.
For the first eight weeks the council employed “soft enforcement” and said it would only seek to recover the entry charge and not the fine on top. By the end of June that period was over and the local authority had clocked up more than GBP560,000 in paid charges but only a fraction of the seven-figure sum it was owed in fines.
By July, residents and traders were learning to live with, and work around, the Clean Air Zone. A new app called Waze emerged to help them do this, by showing drivers how they could avoid crossing the boundary. Waze lets users indicate if their vehicle is due to be charged so they can use alternative routes or get a reminder to pay the charge when they enter.
It said the routing would “help drivers steer clear of unnecessary fines and ultimately reduce their carbon footprint by finding optimal routes to travel”. Yet, letters were still flooding into the Bath Chronicle every month, arguing for and against the Clean Air Zone. It was clearly still at the forefront of debate.
In July, former Tory councillor Bob Goodman wrote into the newspaper to say the local authority had let people down by implementing the zone. He called it a “shambles”. He suggested that charging older vehicles would hit poor people the hardest and drive them out of the city.
Mr Goodman also blasted the council for failing to install pollution monitors on roads outside the zone. What do you think of the Bath Clean Air Zone? Sign in and join the conversations in the comments below.
August 1 dawned with a yet another CAZ “nightmare”.
Although fewer tales of woe were coming to light each week, some people were still wrestling with the scheme. As drivers became wise to the zone boundary, they chose other routes to get around the city. It wasn’t long before locals on Whiteway Road said the traffic was “astronomical”, “absolutely horrendous” and keeping them awake at night.
One couple, who lived on Rush Hill, said that the increased traffic had put people off buying their house and they were at a loss as to what to do.
Alan and Laura Weston, who live on Rush Hill in Bath said they are struggling to sell their house because of the road (Image: Bath Live)
Then, yet another local wrote into the Chronicle to lambast the scheme. Eleanor Swift described how Whiteway was being turned into a “dirty air zone” by the displaced traffic. Meanwhile, it emerged that job adverts for builders in Bath were specifying if the job is within the Clean Air Zone or not, as traders opt not face charges, according to an industry expert. Julian Harvey, a construction consultant for Logical Agency who has been working in Bath for the last ten years finding traders for jobs within the city, said that he had marked jobs as “non-CAZ” or “CAZ” as traders pushed back against charges.
September is often considered as a time for new beginnings.
New notepads, new school shoes, and – in our case – a new narrative about the Bath Clean Air Zone. As data began to emerge on air pollution in the city, there were promising signs that the scheme might just be working. A report revealed that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have dropped by more than 12 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2019.
However, four areas still had the potential to exceed government limits within the zone. Cleveland Place East junction, Dorchester Street, Victoria Buildings and Wells Road near the Churchill Bridge gyratory were thought to still exceed the level of NO2 allowed in government guidelines. : Cleveland Bridge ‘could fail’ if fully reopened due to severe corrosion
The council added around 90 per cent of HGVs travelling into Bath were now compliant with the zone. That proportion was also true for taxis. Yet, perhaps the local authority should have been keeping an eye on its own vehicles, as well as charging others.
News soon broke that council vehicles had clocked up thousands of pounds in charges driving into the zone. The council said it was upgrading its 207-strong fleet but a fifth – 43 vehicles – were still non-compliant with the zone’s emissions standards. The authority had sent most of those vehicles away from the city centre, but 25 had strayed into the zone nearly 300 times since it launched in March – racking up GBP7,360 in charges.
However, perhaps the report on air pollution reassured locals, because October and November were eerily quiet months for the CAZ debate. It was December before we were contacted again regarding the scheme.
As December kicked off, a woman contacted us to say a huge lorry had hit her car, on a narrow road in Bath. Siobhan Coyle was driving down Oldfield Road on Friday, December 3, when she saw the two-tiered transporter coming towards her.
She turned onto Junction Road and pulled in beside some parked cars, but as the HGV drew closer, things went wrong for the lorry driver. As he swung around the corner, the back of his vehicle hit Siobhan’s car. Later that week, it emerged that council leaders wanted to tweak the clean air zone so even the cleanest HGVs weighing more than 12 tonnes would be charged to enter.
The authority had been given until the end of the year (2021) to cut nitrogen dioxide levels but roadworks on Cleveland Bridge were being blamed for worsening air quality in the area. Around the same time, another report from the local authority showed that air quality had improved across Bath since the zone came into effect. NO2 levels had dropped by 14 per cent on average and fewer chargeable vehicles were crossing the boundary.
However, some parts of the city had seen nitrogen dioxide soar since the Clean Air Zone came in. These areas included Wells Road, Victoria Buildings, Broad Street and Chapel Row. But the council said pollution would “stabilise” there once roadworks – like the Cleveland Bridge project – were completed.
The report added that more than 90 per cent of HGVs, coaches, buses and taxis entering the zone are now compliant with the zone, and nearly eight out of 10 vans are compliant. We went to Chapel Row to find out how people there were being affected by the higher levels of pollution. Some workers said they needed the face masks they bought in the pandemic to protect themselves from air pollution.
Martin Bonnici and Sarah Dedakis in Chapel Row, Bath. Stephen Sumner.
One woman said she could not open the windows and had moved offices to get away from the fumes. Everyone on the street blamed the new traffic lights in Queen Square for the congestion.
As 2021 drew to a close, Kevin Keay – a plumber whom we interviewed in April – got back in touch to say he was now avoiding jobs in Bath. He explained that the council’s grant would not have bought him a new van and that he had just finished paying off his current one.
As the new year began, we had a lot to think about. The Omicron variant of coronavirus was gathering pace and ominous rumblings had begun in Eastern Europe.
Yet, for some people, the Bath Clean Air Zone was still a major sticking point. Like Ian Akers, who said he was forced to move after the scheme took effect. He usually cycled into the city centre, but had a campervan he drove to visit family.
Ian soon found that paying GBP9 for the van every time he left his street was “draining his finances”. Now, he has moved house and bought a car, as he is too far from the city centre to cycle. This was “ludicrous” he argued, because he is now driving more than he used to, as a result of the CAZ.
Readers of the Bath Chronicle hadn’t put the scheme to rest either. John Chapman penned a letter to the newspaper saying that Bath’s plan to make the city greener, which is based on the plan being used in the Belgian town of Ghent, is ill-suited to the needs of Bath. Mr Chapman says that using a plan formulated for a town that is very geographically and structurally different to Bath is a problem that needs to be addressed with a proposal that accounts for the individual attributes of the city.
Pointing to differences like the differences in road traffic and the ease of using public transport and alternative forms of transport like cycling, the letter calls on Bath and North East Somerset Council to focus on creating a plan for Bath that is suited to the city and more inclusive to its people. After that, the people of Bath fell silent on the issue of the Clean Air Zone. But, as the anniversary rolled around the council published its findings on whether the scheme was working to reduce air pollution.
More than 90 per cent of HGVs, coaches, buses and taxis entering the zone are now compliant with the city’s minimum emission standards, which means they don’t need to pay. Van compliance rates have also improved, rising from 60 per cent during the first month of the zone’s operation to more than 80 per cent compliance. Since its launch, the zone has generated GBP5.3million in revenue, much of it being used to cover start-up costs and running costs.
Around 41,000 unique vehicles travel in the zone every day. Most of these are private cars, but around 5,300 (13 per cent) are buses, taxis, vans or HGVs that only pay in the zone if they don’t comply with emission charges. An even smaller percentage have to pay, and this figure has halved since launching from 4.5 per cent of all vehicles having to pay, to just 1.5 per cent (just over 600 vehicles) by February 2022.
The annual report on Bath’s CAZ will not be published until July 2022 following an analysis of the results by central government. However, available data from the first half of the year suggests that NO2 pollution across Bath – not just within the zone – fell by 14 per cent compared with the same period in 2019. This is despite traffic returning to normal and, at times, above historic levels as pandemic restrictions eased.
Is it working?
We are not experts in the area of air pollution, however, council data suggest that the Clean Air Zone has reduced nitrogen dioxide levels across the city.
This is good news for everyone who lives and works here. However, questions still remain around how to manage the traffic which has been displaced into the suburbs. Pinch points like Queen Square will also need careful monitoring.
Adjusting to the zone will be a gradual process and may take many years, but the benefits of clean air are surely something all of us can appreciate. More data will be published in just three months’ time and we will update you when that happens. Do you have a story about the Bath Clean Air Zone?
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