Council leaders have furiously denied claims they are planning to charge cars £9 to enter Bath.
Conservatives, who lost overall control of Bath & North East Somerset Council to the Lib Dems at the local elections earlier this month, say they fear the new ruling group wants to reverse its Clean Air Policy that ruled out making motorists pay to drive in a Clean Air Zone.
Labour says it is also “suspicious” that the charges will be introduced.
But the Lib Dems have hit back, accusing the opposition parties of “scaremongering” and a “coordinated smear campaign” over the administration’s intention to review the policy, which was approved by the former Tory majority earlier this year.
It is the latest fallout from an acrimonious start to the local authority’s new political landscape,
Last week (Tuesday, May 21), a row erupted at B&NES Council’s annual meeting when the Lib Dem leadership was accused of blackmailing opponents and politicising a ceremonial appointment.
By convention it should have been the Conservatives’ turn to select a council vice-chairman.
But instead of Tory Councillor Lisa O’Brien’s nomination for the role going unchallenged, the new ruling group elected its own member, Andy Furse.
During the meeting, Labour group leader Cllr Robin Moss said his party had been asked to withdraw a motion on the clean air zone, which sought confirmation that cars would not be charged, because the annual meeting was meant to be non-political.
Conservative Cllr Michael Evans said Labour had been the victim of “straightforward blackmail”, claiming the Lib Dems would otherwise have refused to support Cllr Eleanor Jackson’s nomination as council chairman.
Now, Tory group leader Cllr Paul Myers has accused the Lib Dems of “suppressing discussion on clean air”.
He said: “Following the consultation on clean air, our then Conservative administration listened to the people and ruled out charging cars £9 to come into any Bath Clean Air Zone.
“The fear now is that the Lib Dems are seeking to reverse this policy which could have a catastrophic effect on the local economy, hitting the least well off hardest with a knock-on effect on businesses who rely on employees being able to commute into the city.”
He said Labour’s motion, supported by Conservatives, caused the Lib Dems to “go into apoplexy” and had left many wondering what they were “trying to hide on clean air”.
Labour group leader Cllr Robin Moss said: “We put forward a motion asking them to confirm that they were not going to charge cars, which I thought was fairly straightforward, and there was a massive overreaction from Lib Dem councillors, which makes me very suspicious.
“The worry is they are going to charge £9 a day for some cars to come into Bath.
“If you’ve got a new, more expensive or hybrid car, you will be exempt, so it’s local people with older cars who would be charged, and those tend to be on lower incomes.
“We thought we had made the case to the former Conservative administration that this should not happen and that it was over.
“For it to rear its head again as soon as the election is over is very worrying.”
Cabinet member for climate emergency and neighbourhood services Cllr Sarah Warren said: “The Lib Dems have been completely clear since before the elections that based on the current evidence we will not charge private cars to enter Bath’s Clean Air Zone.
“We are committed to taking bold action to clean up Bath’s toxic air and protect residents’ health.
“However we are also clear that there must be no unfair burdens for the least well-off.
“There are noticeable flaws in the plans we inherited from the Conservatives, particularly the absence of non-charging measures to tackle congestion, which we extensively trailed in our election manifesto.
“We can’t just do the bare minimum to meet targets. Hence the need for a review.
“We want a comprehensive approach to improving air quality and protecting residents’ health, looking at the wider picture and not just a few traffic lights.”
Deputy council leader Cllr Richard Samuel, said: “It’s very disappointing that the Conservative and Labour councillors are continuing their coordinated spin and smear campaign on the Clean Air Zone from the local elections and have failed to learn the lessons from their rejection by the electorate.
“By trying to hijack the non-political nature of the council AGM their motive was scaremongering – pure and simple.”
Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter