“It’s all a load of absolute bollocks in my view and a blatant tax on the poor, many of us who can’t afford to buy an electric or newer vehicle to drive through the centre.”
This is the view of Riona, who lives in Easton and has to cross the city in her diesel van for her landscaping business. Because of Bristol’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ), which was introduced in November 2022, she now spends more time on the road, wiggling through residential areas to avoid the zone.
Her impassioned view is common. Bristol’s CAZ has faced constant criticism during its first year, from drivers being fined in error, to claims that it penalises those who can’t afford cleaner vehicles and causes gridlocks on the edge of the city centre.
But crucially, new data released by Bristol City Council shows nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have fallen by an average of almost 10% in the CAZ’s first year. The reduction between November 2022 and 2023 was even higher within the zone – almost 13%.
The CAZ charges drivers of older, more polluting vehicles £9 a day to enter the city centre. This comes after Bristol was ordered to take action to reduce illegal levels of air pollution by the government back in 2018. Toxic air pollution was estimated to contribute to 300 deaths a year in Bristol.
Despite nearly nine out of 10 journeys through the city centre now being compliant, the council has raised a whopping £26m from charges and fines, which will be reinvested into improving Bristol’s public transport.
A year since this highly controversial intervention came into force, it is on track to be a success, according to the government. But does it actually feel that way – and what does the data really say? The Cable collected the views of more than 100 Bristol residents and pored through the council’s evaluation report to find out.
Does the CAZ just push traffic and pollution to surrounding areas?
Before the Clean Air Zone was introduced, there were 18 sites with NO2 concentrations greater than the legal limit of 40µg/m3. This has fallen to six sites – Colston Avenue, College Green, Lewin’s Mead and Old Market Roundabout inside the CAZ and Parsons Street and Bedminster Road in the south of the city.
Locations with the highest reduction in NO2 were Hotwell Road (26.5%), Park Row (27.5%) and Upper Maudlin Street by the Bristol Royal Infirmary (26.9%) inside the CAZ and Bedminster Down Road (26.9%) outside the zone.
A common view from residents who answered our callout was that they had noticed increased traffic in areas around the edge of the zone.
Louise Spellwood lives in Southville near Coronation Road, which runs along the southern border of the zone. “The roads around the CAZ where the majority of schools are, are much busier, more traffic is being pushed onto smaller, back street roads and on surrounding roads,” she tells the Cable. “This means my journey times are now longer, due to being in traffic jams every day!”
Her vehicle is compliant and she tries to cycle when she can, but she feels for those who can’t afford to upgrade their vehicles.
She mentions Winterstoke Road and St John’s Lane in Bedminster as examples of roads that are more congested than before. “My main concern is people avoiding it, they’re going onto these roads on the outside near schools and nurseries. The people we should be really protecting are going to feel it worse.”
On the other side of the city lives Laura Hawthorne, who says her neighbourhood just off Gloucester Road is being used as a park and ride, as people swap their cars for a bus into town.
“The CAZ has not actually impacted how I travel. I am lucky enough to be able to afford a car which is not affected,” she tells the Cable. “But I am using my voice for those that are affected by this discriminatory system.”
But are these trends reflected in traffic and pollution data? The council’s report identifies increased traffic turning off Wells Road onto St John’s Lane to travel westwards through Bedminster and at peak times more traffic turning off the M32 onto Lower Ashley Road as vehicles drive into St Paul’s rather than the city centre.
There were increases in NO2 levels on Ashley Road, Cheltenham Road and Gloucester Road, but the reports of increased traffic on St John’s Lane and Winterstoke Road haven’t led to increased pollution. In fact, the vast majority of the monitoring sites south of the river registered lower NO2 levels than a year earlier.
Crucially, the council report says: “Any increase in traffic flow in the areas surrounding the CAZ has not resulted in an increase in the levels of NO2 concentrations, which have fallen by 7.8%.”
The reason it took so long for Bristol’s Clean AIr Zone to be implemented was to make sure temporary exemptions and a financial support package were agreed with the government to make life easier for people who needed help.
But these exemptions, including for people living in the zone, disabled blue badge holders and households on low incomes, were short-lived – only lasting until March 2023. Exemptions for some BRI patients and visitors were extended until the end of June this year.
The council also secured £26m grant funding to support residents to upgrade their vehicles and use more sustainable travel options instead. But there was limited information in the evaluation report about how much of this was spent or how many residents successfully upgraded their vehicles.
Despite these attempts to soften the impact, lots of people we spoke to talked about the negative effect on their business or ability to commute to work.
Riona, who drives a diesel van for her work, says: “We can’t afford an upgraded vehicle, even with the pitiful offers from the council. The scheme infuriates me and I think it’s an absolute sham. We spend more time on the road now than ever, which we don’t want to do being in a large diesel vehicle.”
Jason Brown, a builder who lives in Yate, has to drive for his work. He says he’s been punished by poor signage: in the last few months he’s been slapped with five fines totalling nearly £350.
“It’s impacting my prices because I’ve got to keep adding the bill onto clients,” he says. My firm has been going for 15 years, but it’s impacting me in a massive way. £350 for an average family – it’s a massive amount of money for us.”
“You can’t keep adding the cost of the CAZ to your prices, it’s becoming impossible to work in Bristol,” he adds. “That is the general consensus in the building trade at the moment.”
Other residents who filled out our survey mentioned going into debt to upgrade their car in order to commute to work, having to resign from jobs at the BRI and the Children’s Hospital, considering moving their business out of the centre, and being charged twice when working night shifts.
Aside from the impact on making ends meet, people mentioned feeling cut off from certain areas of the city.
Fiona Perry, who is retired and lives in Horfield, says she no longer makes trips to the south of the city, which she used to regularly to visit small businesses, friends and take her dogs walking around Ashton Court. Although she could get the bus for free, she has been put off by the lack of reliability.
“I feel trapped in Bristol, psychologically, as if I can no longer freely access places and roads I have travelled on for 40 years,” she says.
“I’m not against taking on action against air pollution, but it feels like it’s part of a wider agenda to drive people who use cars and tradespeople off the road. All this about behaviour change, it’s alienating people who might otherwise do things for the environment.
“There’s a zealot-like mentality to behaviour change,” she adds – an opinion others have expressed in the debate about restricting through traffic with the city’s first liveable neighbourhood in east Bristol.
Beverly Rooney, who is Disabled and has a Disabled daughter, says: “I have a blue badge but we both only have 10 points on our mobility. I cannot afford a newer car. I do not meet the criteria for help to buy a newer car and cannot get an exemption to drive into the zine. So I can’t take my daughter out very much now due to cost.”
Another criticism has been that the CAZ would lead to a declining city centre, but the council’s data showed that footfall stayed steady in Broadmead, the Galleries and Park Street and increased at St Nicholas Market.
Is the Clean Air Zone just a council cash cow?
The idea of the scheme earning the council income from residents during a cost of living crisis appears to have been a huge source of resentment among the CAZ’s critics.
Over the 12-month period, the council issued 570,000 Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) – about half of which were actually paid. The most fines in one location were 132,000 PCNs issued on Newfoundland Circus, while other hotspots were Brunel Way (127,000) and Hotwell Road and the Portway (77,000).
Lots of people mentioned being confused about signs and surprised when they were fined, including turning the wrong way out of Cabot Circus.
There has been lots of news reporting on fines being overturned. The council report said just over a third of the 69,000 appeals were accepted so far. A total of 985 appeals were escalated to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which overturned two out of three.
The council’s income from daily charges and fines comes to £26m once costs are taken away. And the council expects a further income of £50m over the next two years.
While this might enrage some, it will actually provide important funding for public transport and active travel in years to come.
At the council’s cabinet meeting on 23 January, plans will be approved to spend the extra cash on supported (non-profitable but important) bus routes, new walking and cycling routes, new transport projects at neighbourhood level and other improvements to the public transport network.
Car culture wars
The controversial expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in London has brought Clean Air Zones into the national headlines and fed the idea that environmental policies are unfairly targeting motorists. And there is certainly a strong contingent of Bristol drivers, who feel angry at the very idea of the CAZ and how it has been implemented.
Such is the heat around this topic at the moment, that Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham recently announced plans to tackle pollution without charging drivers.
But data shows that these kinds of policies are often working. In London, a new analysis shows that even before the ULEZ was expanded, more toxic air pollution has been averted than is produced by the capital’s airports or its river and rail transport combined.
Bath’s Clean Air Zone, which doesn’t even charge private vehicles, saw a 7% reduction in NO2 in the first year. Bradford City Council reported in September that a year after introducing its CAZ, pollution is now at its lowest levels since records began. And Birmingham, which has similar rules to Bristol, has also registered a fall in NO2 since its CAZ was brought in.
In order for Bristol to reach legally compliant levels of air pollution, all locations within the CAZ have to register an average NO2 level below 40µg/m3.
While Bristol’s average NO2 reduction of 13% is positive, there are still a handful of locations just above this limit – so further reductions will be required.
In the council’s evaluation report, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees claims the scheme is working. On what the future holds, he says: “While some people have called for a charging CAZ to cover the whole city, like the majority of fellow Bristolians, I remain convinced that is a road best not taken.
“The CAZ was never about making money for the council: it was about clean air. If our progress cleaning up our air continues, then, in the not-too-distant future, the CAZ should come to an end.”
In response to the council’s report, Bristol Clean Air Alliance (BCAA) said: “This shows that the CAZ is doing its job. We note that few of the possible adverse side-effects have materialised. We also note that there remain a number of sites where the level of pollution is above the legal level, so there is more to be done.”
The campaign group said that the decrease in pollution must partly be due to natural vehicle turnover, as old vehicles are scrapped and new, clean ones bought, which means the observed decrease of NO2 may not be as significant as first appears. But they added that the reductions in NO2 could be more prominent in the second half of 2023 and in 2024 due to temporary exemptions no longer being in place.
BCCA called for the CAZ to further crack down on other types of particulate pollution from industry and domestic wood-burning, and for the council to do a proper study into which journeys people are taking as a result of the zone.
A report to determine whether the CAZ was successful in achieving legal compliance in 2023 is expected from the government in June 2024. But it’s worth remembering that the WHO’s guidelines for annual NO2 levels have been reduced from 40 to 10, so legal compliance in the UK is only one measure of what is safe for our lungs.
There’s no doubt Bristol’s Clean Air Zone will continue to come under fire from sections of the city, some of whom have legitimate concerns. But early data shows it’s working – the air we breathe is getting cleaner.