Leeds clean air zone: Taxi drivers ‘spent tens of thousands on new cars they did not need’, claims union

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Taxi drivers and politicians in Leeds have hit back after the council revealed that it was putting plans to introduce the city’s long-awaited Clean Air Zone on hold, following the coronavirus outbreak.

Leeds City Council this week claimed work on the proposed clean air charging zone in and around the city centre would be halted while the Government, which is funding the majority of the work, looks into whether the project is needed.

Plans for the scheme would have seen older, less eco-friendly HGVs, buses and taxis charged for going into certain parts of the city.

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However, the head of a Leeds taxi drivers’ association has claimed many of his colleagues in the city have spent tens of thousands of pounds upgrading to eco-friendly vehicles “only to be told it no longer matters”.

Leeds City Centre, which was set to be subject to a clean air charging zone. (Credit: AdobeStock)Leeds City Centre, which was set to be subject to a clean air charging zone. (Credit: AdobeStock)
Leeds City Centre, which was set to be subject to a clean air charging zone. (Credit: AdobeStock)

The deputy leader of the council has since claimed the Covid-19 pandemic has improved air quality in Leeds to such an extent that the government has suspended its funding while work was done to assess whether the pollution in the city could ever actually reach illegal levels.

But a Leeds MP has claimed scrapping the scheme would be short-sighted, while taxi drivers have been angered by the fact they had already spent large amounts of their own cash upgrading their cars to get ready for a scheme that might not now take place.

Ghulam Nabi, the secretary of Eurocabs Hackney Carriage Association, said: “I had been sending the council requests two months ago asking them to postpone it. One way or another they have made a change.

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“Our stance was always to let drivers change vehicles naturally – vehicles are only licensed for eight to 12 years. But Leeds City Council wanted to force it through.

“I know two drivers who have spent more than £70,000 on electric vehicles because they were wanting to be compliant with the zone. It’s bad for a lot of drivers – it would have been better if Leeds City Council had listened to what we were saying.

“Some drivers had (previously) gone for the most fuel efficient vehicles that were out at the time, only to be told that they have to change again – it’s totally unfair because they could have gone for an older vehicle and not bother about the clean air zone.

“It’s sad that some of the drivers have been the first to change their vehicles only to be told it no longer matters.”

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Leeds City Council had given some financial support to taxi and private hire drivers, allowing them to apply for a grant of up to £1,500 to go towards buying a hybrid (electric and petrol) car and up to £3,000 to purchase a full electric vehicle.

Hundreds of drivers are now understood to have taken up the scheme.

A Leeds MP claimed the city still needed a clean air zone, suggesting it would be complacent for the government to assume recent improvements in air quality would continue after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alex Sobel, Labour MP for Leeds Northwest, said: “As a resident off the A660 in the proposed clean air zone area the improvement in air quality since March has been very clearly observed and welcomed.

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“However, I am deeply concerned that the noticeable improvements to air quality made during lockdown are unlikely to be sustained as life returns to normal in the coming months and years.

“Improvements in some vehicles such as buses and taxis has only been achieved due to the CAZ being on the horizon and this achievement can be undone if the project is withdrawn. I have written today to the Secretary of State asking him to re-affirm his commitment to the project.”

Plans for the zone would see older models of buses, taxis and HGVs traveling in areas around North Leeds and the city centre pay a congestion charge. The fees would be administered via a £6m camera network, which would identify number plates of cars which didn’t meet green requirements so that drivers could be charged.

It was originally expected to be up and running by January 2020 but, following numerous delays from central government in creating a vehicle database, it was announced in July 2019 that the charging zone should be going live “some time in 2020”.

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Leeds City Council yesterday claimed a decision on the future of the zone is likely to be made in the autumn.

Coun Neil Buckley, Leeds City Council Conservatives’ transport spokesman, supported the decision, suggesting the cameras already installed could instead be used by the police.

He said: “This seems like a sensible move, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the volume of traffic on our roads and it is appropriate to pause to see what the detailed impact that has had on air quality in Leeds.

“There have been delays to the CAZ which will have made planning and delivery of the scheme more difficult. However, it is important that whatever money has been spent is not wasted and where possible the investment is utilised for other purposes, could any cameras be utilised by West Yorkshire Police for example?

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“It is also vital that a clear and consistent message is passed on to businesses in the city. The taxi trade and haulage companies have been significantly impacted by the CAZ proposals and the council must continue to communicate with those businesses.”

Announcing the postponement, council deputy leader James Lewis said: “Leeds City Council is now working closely with central government to review the long term impact that the pandemic and these other factors will have on the city’s air quality to understand whether pollution will ever reach illegal levels.

“If the city’s air pollution is expected to stay below legal limits then we will no longer have the support of the government to introduce a charging clean air zone. Given this uncertainty, our financial support will continue to be paused until the review is complete and we have received further direction.

“I recognise that at an already uncertain time, this latest update will be frustrating for many businesses. However, I would like to ask drivers and operators for their continued patience whilst we carry out this urgent review. I hope to be able to clarify the future of the Leeds CAZ in the Autumn.”

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A government spokesperson said: “The people of Leeds are breathing their cleanest air for a long time – and we want to keep it that way.

“That is why we are working closely with Leeds City Council to understand the impact of Covid-19 on their plans to maintain cleaner air.”