Are clean air zones a threat to business owners
February 2020 saw the Government launch its delayed Clean Air Zone (CAZ) online checking tool, enabling motorists to find out whether they will be charged when driving in Birmingham and Leeds city centres. Its delay has been blamed for the postponement of the two cities’ CAZs, with both now expecting to see a full roll out later this year.
The list of towns and cities across the UK looking to implement similar charges continues to grow, but so does the controversy around them. While the drive to reduce toxic pollutants from our high streets and surrounding neighbourhoods has been welcomed by many, others are worried such measures will have serious implications for local residents, business owners and hospital visitors, to name a few.
In London – a city that has long suffered from harmful levels of air pollutants – the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) which came into force in April 2019 has proven to be particularly polarising. In the six months following its implementation, toxic air pollution reportedly fell by a third when compared to figures from February 2017. However, the Federation of Small Businesses has said that companies were ‘very worried’ about their future as a result of the ‘additional cost burdens’.
We can expect to see plenty more Clean Air Zones (CAZs) being rolled out by local councils across the UK over the course of the next few years. While these zones are a step in the right direction for the environment – transport, after all, is the biggest emitting sector in the UK constituting for about 28% of total emissions – one of the major concerns is the impact they will have on businesses both in and around participating cities. Many firms are still in the dark about the imminent rollouts over the next few years or have no strategy in place to deal with the impending charges. As a result, many will fall foul of the penalty charges, which could severely impact their bottom line while simultaneously negatively affecting the UK’s emission goals.
At the same time, those aware of the rollout could resist switching their fleet due to the expense involved and a lack of incentives. Indeed, one in five fleet operators have said they will choose to pay fines if charged to enter a CAZ rather than switch their fleets to newer, cleaner vehicles.
To stop this from happening, and to encourage more businesses to opt for a zero-emission fleet, the Government must do more to incentivise electric vehicles above and beyond the current taxation relief. It also needs to significantly improve access to supporting infrastructure across the UK. A perceived lack of infrastructure continues to be a major deterrent when it comes to choosing whether to introduce EVs to a company fleet, as shown by LeasePlan’s 2019 Mobility Monitor Report, in which 51% respondents said that they felt there were insufficient charging possibilities.
While these changes are unlikely to happen overnight, one of the short-term strategies the Government could adopt to support business owners and their decision-making is an awareness raising campaign around a vehicle’s whole life cost. It’s easy to focus on the headline sticker price when choosing a vehicle, however there are many other costs involved – from taxes and insurance to fuel and vehicle depreciation. Depending on how you intend to use the vehicle, choosing to purchase or lease an EV can end up cheaper than a petrol- or diesel-fuelled model.
Businesses of all sizes need to take the time to consider the types of behaviours exhibited by their fleets. This helps to narrow down the type of vehicles that would be most appropriate for the needs of each driver, such as extra-urban vs congested city driving. EVs are still relatively new, and this can make it difficult to determine whether they will be able to meet the demands of the business. Therefore, it might be best to start with a more flexible approach, by trialling different vehicles to see the short-term impact – an option that is available through select leasing companies. Once firms have this information to hand, it’s easier to make a smart decision about the best time to purchase or lease the most appropriate vehicles.
It goes without saying that Clean Air Zones are a significant step forward for the UK in tackling air pollution. However, the Government cannot use this legislation in isolation. During 2018, 57.3% of all first registrations for cars were made by companies, so the more the automotive industry and the Government can do to encourage the uptake of EVs, the better. This means educating business owners about the different options available and empowering them with information, while ensuring that the right infrastructure is there to support them. The sooner we see more electric cars, vans and lorries on the UK’s roads, the less we need to worry over additional fines, no entry zones and emissions.
Matthew Walters, head of consultancy and customer data services at automotive fleet management company, LeasePlan UK