In recent days Labour in Brighton has been slamming the city’s poor air quality record and I’ve been using Twitter to raise the question of where the big vision is for Brighton traffic; in particular whether all parties in Brighton would be willing to support the kind of consensus approach to reducing traffic that would be needed to achieve this. So it was rather surprising when out of the blue the administration announced outline proposals for a Brighton Low Emissions Zone (LEZ). The plans are not worked out at the moment, and with LEZs – as with other traffic proposals – the devil is in the detail; but the potential is really vast.
The background to the proposal is that Brighton’s air quality levels, like those in many other cities, have consistently failed to meet European standards, to the point where the UK Government stands to face huge infraction fines – which would probably be passed on to local authorities. London already has a low emissions zone, covering the whole of the London area, in which pre-2006 heavy vehicles, constructed to less stringent emissions standards, are banned unless they pay a £200 charge – an obvious deterrent that is clearly working; London has seen significant air quality gains from keeping older vehicles off the road. The London scheme is self-enforcing through ANPR cameras, which are used to match vehicles against databases of vehicles meeting the relevant European standards.
The challenge in Brighton is not in principle different from London, but obviously starts with notable advantages – because the databases of vehicles are already in place, a system that used the same criteria would be relatively easy and cheap to adminiser. The London scheme does not cover taxis – a significant source of diesel pollution – so it would be necessary to integrate the licensing database, but that is not inherently difficult.
The key issues for Brighton would arise around area, enforcement and management. The administration has proposed a scheme for the centre of the city, but it is not obvious that the LEZ should be limited to the centre – the London Road corridor and Preston Circus have unacceptably high levels of pollution and there is a case to be made for an LEZ that covers the whole of the city. Management and enforcement would require the placement of ANPR cameras, and would require an administration, billing, registration and enforcement system; again, with relatively few routes in and out of the city, a ring of cameras on the periphery could be the cost-effective and workable solution. Moreover, this approach avoids diverting dirty vehicles down residential streets on the edge of the zone. Covering the whole city looks like the workable option, while bringing benefits to many more people.
And, finally, it will be obvious from the foregoing that all the elements of a more general congestion charging system are in place. In the longer term, I’d argue that we cannot afford not to consider this option – although other proposed congestion charges have foundered on a lack of political consensus and the absence of a clear proposition. Even in the Netherlands, with political consensus and a clear proposition built around the replacement of an unpopular vehicle purchase tax, the proposed national road pricing scheme foundered (not least on grounds of complexity). But in London and Stockholm – in the latter case supported in a referendum after a trial – successful and simpler congestion charges have brought real gains.
I do not expect a Brighton Congestion Charge to command the consensus it needs in the next two or three political cycle. To happen at all, it needs to be part of a package of transport and other measures, supported by a broad political consensus, which demonstrate clear benefits to local people, and in which revenues are used to generate a more sustainable local economy. It means a much more holistic understanding of the way in which a car-driven economy distorts and constrains local economies and quality of life, and the recent debates in Brighton over parking charges show how far away we are from that. But with a successful LEZ in place, the question of feasibility becomes far harder to duck. There are huge questions of equity, and of what levels of exemption would apply to local people; of how you protect local business, and how you would balance a charge against parking charges. But, with a functioning infrastructure, an appalling local congestion problem and the possibility of real distributional gains from reducing traffic, the question cannot be dismissed.
Unlike Park and Ride, a Low Emissions Zone provides real environmental wins and the long-term basis for a more sustainable approach to transport policy in the city. It’s encouraging to see the administration engaging with these issues. And following a cross-party consensus at yesterday’s Transport and Environment Committee, officers have now been tasked to work up proposals. Let’s hope they develop some radical options.