By Natalie Chapman, Head of Urban Policy at FTA
The lockdown of the UK to slow the spread of COVID-19 has had a positive impact on air quality, with results showing large reductions in air pollution across towns and cities nationwide. In this article, I will explore whether cleaner air could become a permanent legacy of the pandemic.
The overall volume of traffic on our roads has declined since the start of the lockdown, as the government banned non-essential travel and the public were encouraged to work from home. But while private travel decreased significantly, road freight activity has remained relatively stable. Businesses within the logistics sector have been working hard to deliver the food, medical supplies, hygiene products etc. the nation needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is necessary – and logistics businesses are committed to using the cleanest vehicles or method of transportation as possible – the pandemic has highlighted that there is space for improvement in private travel.
I am pleased to see the government is now encouraging active travel among members of the public by issuing guidance for councils to create additional road space for cyclists and pedestrians. And the public does seem willing to make a change: 40% of respondents to a survey by the AA in May 2020 said they intend to drive less after the social distancing restrictions are lifted.
However, as the business organisation representing the logistics sector, FTA raised concerns that the government failed to include the needs of logistics within its plans for our future cities. We wrote to Transport Minister Baroness Vere to request urgent clarification on several areas of the plans which are key to safe and efficient logistics movements throughout our cities, including access to kerbside for deliveries and servicing activity. While I believe the overall initiative has the potential to improve air quality significantly, we must ensure the scheme allows logistics businesses to continue servicing its customers effectively and efficiently. As a result, the government has revised its guidance to local authorities to include further details about the importance of ensuring kerbside access for deliveries.
The government’s decision to postpone the start dates of Clean Air Zones (CAZs) has been welcome news for commercial fleet operators. Logistics businesses have been working tirelessly to support the UK during the pandemic and many do not have the funding nor the resources to undertake the necessary vehicle upgrades, or alternatively, bear the charges of non-compliance currently.
The postponement presents an opportunity for national and local governments to pause and assess whether these schemes truly are the most effective way to improve air quality in the long-term, and, as COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, the need for clean air is more important than ever; government must get it right, and get it right first time.
In the view of FTA, CAZs will not provide any lasting benefit to air quality, as the Euro VI/6 vehicles required to enter a zone without charge will come into fleets of their own accord, as part of the
natural fleet replacement cycle. Euro VI has been mandatory in all new trucks since 2014; by the start of 2021 – when many of these CAZs are due to go live – FTA estimates that more than half of the UK truck fleet will already be Euro VI, so the scheme will soon become redundant and, in the short term, is simply a punitive tax on those tasked with keeping our cities stocked with the goods and services they need to function.
Instead, FTA believes that government would be better placed to adopt a more comprehensive range of measures, such as incentivising the uptake of alternatively fuelled and electric commercial vehicles, more effective management of congestion, and enabling more deliveries to be retimed.
The postponement of air quality schemes presents a golden opportunity for government to revaluate its approach and ensure its plans will deliver the desired long-term improvement to air quality. And while FTA and its members also support the government’s ambition to boost cycling and walking, we must ensure any reallocation of road space considers the needs of logistics businesses to provide the greatest benefit to society, air quality and logistics alike.
FTA is one of the UK’s leading business groups, representing the logistics industry, which is vital to keeping the UK trading, and more than seven million people directly employed in the making, selling and moving of goods. With COVID-19, Brexit, new technology and other disruptive forces driving change in the way goods move across borders and through the supply chain, logistics has never been more important to UK plc. FTA supports, shapes and stands up for safe and efficient logistics, and is the only business group which represents the whole industry, with members from the road, rail, sea and air industries, as well as the buyers of freight services such as retailers and manufacturers whose businesses depend on the efficient movement of goods. For more information about the organisation and its work, including its ground-breaking research into the impacts of COVID-19 on the whole supply chain, please visit www.fta.co.uk.