Plans to implement low emission zones (LEZs) in Scotland’s four largest cities have been put on hold due to COVID-19, the transport secretary announced today.
Michael Matheson announced the decision to temporarily pause their introduction, which was planned as a way of reducing air pollution in the cities, due to the impact of coronavirus on local authorities.
He said it was "no longer practicable” to introduce the zones by the end of the year due to “necessary changes to priorities” for the Scottish Government and local authorities.
The move has been blasted by campaigners and health charities for avoiding an "urgent need" to reduce air pollution in Scotland's cities as claims of links between exposure to air pollution and a heightened risk of suffering a severe infection of COVID-19.
The decision was made by the Low Emission Zone Leadership Group which includes the transport secretary, climate change secretary Roseanna Cunningham, and representatives from local authorities, Public Health Scotland, and SEPA.
The Government added that COVID-19 has given it the chance to learn lessons about air pollution and to “consider the kind of transport systems we want to see return to our cities” after the virus is suppressed.
Mr Matheson said the pause could see a change to how LEZs are rolled out and designed, but that funding for businesses and council planning for their implementation will continue.
In a statement, Mr Matheson said: “The Scottish Government is fully committed to tackling air pollution in the quickest time possible. The unprecedented impact of the COVID–19 outbreak has resulted in necessary changes to priorities across government and across our local authority partners.
“Similar to other initiatives across public sector, we have come to the view that introducing low emission zones across our four biggest cities by the end of 2020 is no longer practicable.
“We remain dedicated to introducing Low Emission Zones across Scotland’s four biggest cities to improve air quality and protect public health. Local authorities share this ambition and Scotland’s first LEZ in Glasgow has been in place since 2018.
“LEZ planning within local authorities will continue, the development of regulations is ongoing and funding to support businesses and individuals prepare for LEZs remains unchanged.
“Given the recent uptake in active travel and air quality levels we are going to take the opportunity to review how Low Emission Zones can be designed and how our cities might witness a green recovery transformation in tandem with the COVID-19 recovery plans.
“We must be bold in our actions to reset the system to meet our climate change ambitions, reduce inequalities, improve our health and wellbeing and deliver sustainable economic growth.”
'Urgent need to reduce pollution'
Friends of the Earth Scotland’s air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson commented: “Of course we’re seeing many changes to councils’ priorities, and many projects have been rightly delayed until we are through this crisis. However, Low Emission Zones were already well underway, and Covid-19 has only highlighted our urgent need to reduce pollution.
“There’s a strong evidence base on the links between air pollution and vulnerability to Covid-19. Pollution from traffic causes and exacerbates many of the heart and lung conditions that put people at heightened risk from the virus. The longstanding need to take action on air pollution to improve public health has only been heightened by this crisis. Equally, the current shutdown has exposed the need to reform our transport system and highlighted the fact that so much public space is dominated by polluting cars.
“The Scottish Government acknowledges that the huge increase in cycling, alongside the temporary road reallocation measures gives us an opportunity to reimagine our cities for the better. Restricting the most polluting vehicles from built-up areas, with Low Emission Zones, has to be central to this plan.
“The short term drops in pollution we’ve seen during shutdown will not be sustained unless Councils and Government take meaningful action to change our transport system, restricting the most polluting vehicles while prioritising walking and cycling.
“Dundee, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh Councils had all passed plans for the first year of the zones, and Glasgow’s zone was preparing to enter its third year. The Government should limit the extent of any delay, and use any pause to make sure the zones are genuinely ambitious and change our transport system.”
'Vital' Scotland pushes ahead with LEZs
Joseph Carter, head of Asthma UK & British Lung Foundation Scotland, called for the government to reconsider the move.
He said: “We are shocked and disappointed to see Scotland’s Low Emission Zones (LEZs) paused at this time.
"Recent research has demonstrated a link between the levels of urban air pollution and the effects of COVID-19, so it is vital now more than ever that we push ahead with LEZs to help protect our nation’s lung health.
"We are calling for the Scottish Government to reconsider this action and follow the lead of cities like Paris who are strengthening their LEZs at this time.”
Aberdeen City Council transport spokesman, Councillor Sandra Macdonald, said “While it’s disappointing the introduction of LEZs has been delayed, it gives us a chance to consider how coronavirus will impact on city centre travel and how we can take positive measures into consideration.”
A Glasgow City Council spokesman said; “Glasgow’s LEZ which was introduced at the end of 2018 and presently applies to local service buses only, remains in place and in force.
“Development of future phasing for Glasgow’s LEZ to include all other vehicle types, has been paused temporarily in line with the current Scottish Government Guidance.”
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