Environmentalists have praised Bath for forging ahead with its clean air zone proposals when other cities are holding off or u-turning on their commitments.
Legal action from Client Earth forced the government to commit to improve air quality, the largest known environmental risk to public health in the UK.
The court cases prompted a ministerial directive to Bath and North East Somerset Council and 62 other authorities to cut nitrogen dioxide levels as soon as possible and by 2021 at the latest.
Bath’s clean air zone is set to be the first outside London when it launches early next year.
Katie Nield, UK clean air lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “Clean air zones are the key to quickly reducing illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in our towns and cities – this is what research by central government and local authorities shows.
“They need to be paired with the relevant help and support for people and businesses to move to cleaner forms of transport. But some councils are holding off or u-turning on commitments to put these much-needed zones in place.
“This is incredibly short-sighted and we can already see traffic and pollution levels back on the rise in many towns and cities. People cannot opt out of exposure to pollution, and further delaying what we know to be the most effective measures to clean up illegally dirty air is a reprehensible risk to respiratory health as we grapple with the virus.”
Cities including Bristol and Leeds may rethink their clean air zone proposals, claiming they could lock in changes in lifestyle, work and travel patterns brought about by the pandemic that have improved air quality.
Birmingham’s zone was delayed by issues with the Government’s vehicle checker and then in March the council appealed for more time so it could deal with the pandemic. It will not start charging until the summer of 2021.
Derby, Nottingham, Southampton, and Cardiff have scrapped their clean air zone plans altogether.
They claim they can cut nitrogen dioxide levels through traffic management and by making public transport cleaner.
Ms Nield added: “Whilst authorities in Leeds, Bristol and Sheffield seem to be moving in the wrong direction, it is great to see that Bath is going ahead with its clean air zone and showing itself as an example of a council that is prioritising people’s health.
“Cleaning up harmful air pollution should be a top priority for authorities across the country – national and local government need to work together to protect people’s health with due urgency.”
Councillor Sarah Warren, cabinet member for Climate Emergency, said: “Air quality is a massive health risk for residents of Bath and North East Somerset and we remain committed to working together with central government to protect people’s health, by bringing nitrogen dioxide levels back within legal limits in the shortest possible time.
“Whilst traffic levels fell during lockdown they are now approaching normal levels and in Bath nitrogen dioxide levels are back up to where we would expect them to be.
“We’re carrying out a joint readiness review with central government with a view to agreeing a revised launch date for the clean air zone early next year.
“In the meantime our focus is on providing all the help and support we can for people and businesses to move to cleaner, lower emission forms of transport so that they can avoid charges when the zone is introduced.”
When the zone is launched, non-compliant taxis and vans will be charged £9 a day, while HGVs, buses and coaches will pay a £100 daily fee.
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter