Motorists who drove into Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) were fined at least £7m in July alone. The charge to drive in the zone is £8 per day, and the penalty for not paying is a hefty £120 per offence (£60 if paid within 6 days). Nearly 113,000 drivers fell foul to this penalty in the first month of the zone rollout, leading some people to question the effectiveness and fairness of the CAZ.
These zones are becoming more common, with rollouts planned in Manchester and Bristol by next year, and London’s ULEZ expanding significantly in October. We wanted to take a closer look at how these zones are impacting drivers, as well as those who live within these city zones.
As Clean Air Zones become the norm, the debate around their effectiveness and fairness grows. It's not difficult to understand why, given that 112,772 penalty charge notices were issued to Birmingham drivers in July alone. With each fine generating up to £120 in revenue for Birmingham City Council, there are questions being asked as to whether this is as a stealth tax on those unable to afford newer, cleaner vehicles.
Links between air pollution and respiratory illness are well established, and the impact of vehicle emissions on the health of those living in our busiest cities has been high on the government agenda for policy change. Poor air quality is linked to up to 36,000 deaths in England every year and costs society more than £20 billion. 
Two of the most dangerous pollutants are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) both created by vehicles. Fine particles of soot, in the form of PM2.5, are of particular concern because they’re small enough to pass from our lungs through the circulatory system to all organs of the body, where they remain. 
Increases in asthma and other respiratory conditions are a problem, and exposure to pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles is linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In Birmingham alone, more than 900 people died as a direct consequence of air pollution in 2020. This is understandably a cause for concern, particularly because it disproportionately affects children and the elderly, as well as those with underlying conditions. 
We’re all being encouraged to walk and cycle more, and to drive less, even switching to hybrid and electric vehicles where possible. To help enforce this local authorities are introducing low emission and clean air zones across UK cities, and the roll-out of these is set to accelerate. The positive impact that these zones aim for is clear, but what about the impact on those that need to drive, and who cannot afford to switch to newer vehicles that are exempt from the charges?
The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) came into effect in April 2019 and is set to expand in October 2021. Birmingham introduced its own Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in June 2021 and has increased the controversy around such zones, prompting strong responses from government officials and local residents on each side of the fence.
Waseem Zaffar, the Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment at Birmingham City Council, is sure that clean air zones (CAZs) will improve air quality:
“I'm confident that this initiative will save lives, and provide a cleaner, greener, safer space for our communities in a part of our city that has a problem with poor air quality.” - Councillor Waseem Zaffar MBE
Clean air zone charges are an effective tax on vehicle usage, but are these being fairly applied? There are several factors to consider, COVID-19 has rebalanced the way many of us work, meaning fewer people now have to commute daily. Government incentives in the form of credits or reduced taxation on electric and hybrid vehicles, which are typically exempt from paying these charges, have been enjoyed by those that can afford to buy these (often more expensive) vehicles. 
Those opposed to emission-based city charges point out that lower-income families are the least likely to be able to benefit from the increased option to work from home, and least likely to be able to afford newer and cleaner cars. 
Birmingham City Council themselves admit that less fortunate people are disproportionately affected and have known this since 2018 when they published a 125-page report titled ‘Birmingham Clean Air Zone Feasibility Study - Distributional Impact Appraisal Report.’ One of the aims of the report was to determine how different socio-economic groups would be affected by the introduction of a clean air zone.
"low income households across Birmingham would bear a disproportionate amount of the increased vehicles costs for personal journeys," - Birmingham City Council
AA President Edmund King echoes these thoughts and believes that these charges have a disproportionate impact on less affluent groups:
“CAZs in Bristol and Birmingham and the extended ULEZ in London are very blunt tools that create a tax burden for low-income families and workers.” - AA president Edmund King
It’s not an unreasonable statement to make when you consider that in order to be CAZ exempt, petrol vehicles require a Euro 4 engine, and diesel vehicles a Euro 6 engine. Roughly speaking this means that petrol vehicles first registered after 2005, and diesel vehicles registered after 2015, will not have to pay. Over 8,500 unique vehicles with a requirement to pay entered the Birmingham CAZ each day in July. These are more likely to be driven by those who have a requirement to drive for work, and who cannot afford to upgrade their vehicle.
With the zone less than 3 months old, it appears the intended deterrence of non compliant vehicles is working. During the two week soft launch from June 1st - 13th, 73.8% of vehicles entering the CAZ zone were compliant and didn’t need to pay. The following two weeks (when the zone began to charge) this rose to 80.4%. 
This 7% reduction in high-polluting vehicles driving in Birmingham's CAZ reduced NO2 pollution levels by up to 20% compared to the same period in 2019 & 2020. This has brought pollution down from levels that regularly registered between 45-60 micrograms per cubic metre to within the legal 40 microgram threshold. The area outside the zone has seen a 5% increase in the same period, presumably due to more vehicles now choosing to go around, rather than through the city centre. 
Then there is the financial impact. In July alone 112,772 Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) were issued to people who forgot to pay the £8.00 charge. Assuming all of these are paid within six days of issue, before the fine doubles to £120, then the total revenue from these PCNs is £6,766,320. However this only tells a small part of the story. 
Small businesses within the zone such as zero waste supermarket ‘The Clean Kilo’ have spoken out both in support of the CAZ for air quality reasons, but also questioned the implementation schedule:
“good public transport and cycling infrastructure needed to be fully in place before it launched, with time allowed for city centre businesses to recover from COVID first”
(The Clean Kilo, 2021)
Despite opposition, the roll-out of such zones continues. Bristol is set to roll out its own CAZ in Summer 2022 , and Manchester in May 2022 . London’s ULEZ is expanding on October 25th, becoming 18 times larger, impacting an additional 350,000 vehicles  and residents. There will be no exemption for those that live within the zone, which extends to the north and south circular roads, the area within which is primarily residential.
Failure to pay these charges will result in a hefty fine, £120 in Birmingham and £160 in London per offence, and easy-to-miss signage means that many will fall foul of these charges without even realising they have entered the zone. To make matters worse, government websites set up to allow drivers to pay these charges are slow and cumbersome, requiring as many as 20 steps to successfully make payment.
Caura was set up to make life easier for drivers, making paying for ULEZ and CAZ charges a doddle. It takes two taps and three seconds to make payment via Apple Pay or Google Pay, with no processing fee or additional charges. Download and get set up in seconds, all you need is your vehicle registration number.