Disruptive action to create greener cities

The European Commission recently announced that it will be taking the UK government to court over its long standing failure to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide. Similar proceedings will be brought against Germany, France, Italy, Romania and Hungary.

In the UK the announcement follows three sets of successful legal challenges that have been brought by environmental interest group Client Earth against the government. Each challenge has found that the UK government is not doing enough to improve air quality in our towns and cities to comply with EU legislation. 

So what is the government doing?

One step that the government has taken is to require the introduction of clean air zones in 5 cities where air quality is at its lowest by 2020.  The 5 cities are:  Derby, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham.  London already has its own Ultra Low Emission Zone coming into force in 2019 so is effectively exempt from the legislation.

One of the biggest contributors to poor air quality is, of course, the number of vehicles on our roads and in our city and town centres.  A number of the measures being taken therefore seek to dissuade people from using private vehicles in built up areas, encourage use of public transport and encourage the uptake of electric and other low emitting vehicles.

Looking at Birmingham the City Council is still consulting on the extent of the City Centre clean air zone.  This includes whether and what types of vehicles will be charged to enter a designated clean air zone and how charges will be levied.  In the meantime the Council has already taken the following steps to try and improve air quality:


Taxi and private hire vehicle operators will become subject to increasingly stricter emissions standards in order to receive a licence to operate in the city.

In addition 65 of Birmingham's black cabs have been retrofitted with LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) to drastically reduce emissions from these vehicles.

The Council has also been awarded funding from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) to introduce 197 rapid charging points for taxis and private hire vehicles. It is hoped that this will encourage uptake of operators using electric vehicles especially as electric vehicles are likely to be exempt if the City Council does introduce a charging regime to enter the city centre.

For these measures to be successful there needs to be a consistent approach across the wider West Midlands region. Licensing regulation and charging infrastructure has to be implemented by neighbouring councils to Birmingham – the measures will not work if taxis are subject to different licensing restrictions or don’t have the infrastructure available to charge vehicles as soon as they leave the City’s boundaries.


Buses have traditionally been a large contributor to vehicle emissions because of the size of their engines and the start-stop nature of the journeys that they undertake.  They are, however, a form of transport that is ripe for electrification because of the relatively low mileage undertaken on each trip before returning to base. It would be easy to envisage a network of charging infrastructure being introduced at bus depots with buses being recharged in-between trips. 

National Express has already introduced a fleet of low emission buses across Birmingham Across the Midlands, bus operators have signed up to the Bus Alliance, the first of its kind in the country, which will see £150 million invested across the region in state-of-the-art, cleaner buses between now and 2021.


The City Council has an ambitious target of 5% of all trips being undertaken by bike by 2023 with this being doubled to 10% by 2033. To this end the Council is in the process of creating new dedicated cycling lanes along parts of the A38 and A45 - two arterial routes to the city centre which will help encourage cycling.

Much remains to be done, however, to create a coherent, joined up system of cycle lanes that ensures safe travel in and out of the City. As a regular commuter by bike it often feels that I am taking my life into my own hands by cycling to work particularly when compared to what colleagues in Cambridge experience where bikes dominate the roads to a greater degree.


The Council is reviewing and extending parking control in the city to discourage use of private cars in the city centre.

A fine balance needs to be struck here to ensure that people and businesses are not dissuaded from coming to and investing in the city centre. The struggles and pressures that city centre retailers are suffering is well documented.

How will these measures impact development?

Implementation of the clean air zones will disrupt how city and town centres have traditionally been accessed by vehicles.  This is likely to have a profound impact on how our city centres look and feel.  In the long term, town planning and future development of our cities will be influenced as a result, with less development being carried out with the private vehicle in mind.

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