Chaos has hit the rollout of major clean air zones, amid accusations of garbled guidance and the looming threat of financial ruin for taxi drivers.
New restrictions on the most polluting vehicles are expected to be imposed in Greater Manchester and Bradford in the spring, following the recent introduction of similar rules in cities such as Birmingham and Bath.
Businesses reliant on driving in the cities are faced with the choice of expensive vehicle upgrades to meet emission standards or daily charges to operate in the clean air zone (CAZ).
Black taxi drivers in Manchester have warned it could spell oblivion for their trade, as most cannot afford new vehicles and the CAZ charges would leave them struggling to break even.
The backlash intensified this week and saw Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, endure a chastening experience on local radio as he took calls from the public.
The owner of an ice cream van company in Tameside, who gave his name as Mark, told the Labour mayor: “I want to congratulate Andy: from being one of the most-liked mayors, he’s now become the most unliked mayor of Manchester.”
He added: “Our company has been trading for 100 years, through one world war and through Covid – now we’re going to have to close this summer.”
Karl Warburton, who is part of the Greater Manchester Taxi Trade Coalition, told The Telegraph the forthcoming changes would have a “significant impact” on the number of cabs operating in the region.
He claimed financial support of up to £10,000 offered by local authorities was a “drop in the ocean” for a vehicle upgrade. Many drivers had instead decided to leave the trade, he said.
“We all want clean air, but not at any price,” he said.
Critics of the scheme have also pointed to the latest annual report on air quality in Greater Manchester, which said “in 2020, for the first time”, no monitoring sites registered a breach of nitrogen dioxide targets.
Air pollution levels have dropped noticeably during lockdown
Across the Pennines in Bradford, the introduction of a CAZ in the city centre has been mired in mayhem and confusion.
Bradford Council provoked fury by announcing just a fortnight before the new regime was due to begin in January that it would instead come into force in the spring.
Local businesses complained it had meant they had been forced to take out unnecessary loans to meet the January deadline for upgrading vehicles.
Asif Shah, the director of Baildon Taxis, said some drivers had already left their jobs after concluding they would not be able to save the necessary funds by January.
Confusion over which vehicles face charges
He told The Telegraph the problem was compounded by unclear and contradictory guidance from the council on which vehicles would face additional charges.
Many drivers had only recently upgraded their cars to so-called Euro 6 diesel standards – because this had been set as the emissions requirement in nearby Leeds. They were said to have been left aghast at suggestions by Bradford Council that Euro 6 vehicles would now have to pay to enter the city centre, unlike in Leeds or Manchester’s forthcoming CAZ.
Mr Shah said he had then contacted the manufacturer of his Euro 6 vehicle and was assured it should be compliant with CAZ requirements, leaving him in limbo.
He said: “The competence of Bradford Council is a massive issue – as well as the miscommunication.”
A spokesman for Bradford Council said the authority was providing the highest grants available in the UK to upgrade private hire vehicles.
Cllr Sarah Ferriby added: “The council has been regularly consulting on and promoting the CAZ for the last three years using a variety of channels.
“The taxi trade locally has been brilliant. There are now over 60 per cent of taxis in the district compliant with the new standards and more are accessing the grants every day.”
A statement released on behalf of Mr Burnham and Cllr Andrew Western, who is overseeing the CAZ, said: “We are committed to reducing air pollution in Greater Manchester but also to protecting the jobs and livelihoods of our residents.
“We are listening carefully to concerns being expressed about the current situation and will make a decision shortly on our next steps.”