‘No plans to introduce congestion charge in Leeds’, insists council deputy leader

A Leeds City Council decision-maker has insisted there are “no plans” to introduce a congestion charge in the city centre, despite a multi-million pound camera network being installed to monitor traffic.

The cameras would have formed part of Leeds’s Clean Air Charging Zone (CAZ) – a £29m scheme to issue fines to drivers of high-polluting taxis, HGVs and buses using roads in the city centre and certain parts of north Leeds.

The leader of the Leeds Liberal Democrats group attacked the administration’s decision to scrap the scheme, claiming the ruling Labour group was not serious about combating climate change.

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The CAZ was shelved, after pollution levels in the city had unexpectedly improved over the past few months, but council chiefs said the camera network would remain in place for as yet unknown future uses.

The clean air charging zone was scrapped.The clean air charging zone was scrapped.
The clean air charging zone was scrapped.

At a meeting of Leeds City Council’s executive board, deputy leader of the opposition Conservatives group asked Coun James Lewis (Lab) to rule out the possibility of the camera network being used to introduce a congestion charge for the city.

Coun Lewis, the council’s deputy leader, said: “The government paid for the cameras so any future use would have to be agreed for the government, but at the moment we have no plans for a congestion charge.”

Speaking earlier in the meeting, Coun Lewis said: “I think we need to recognise that the point we are at is a positive one. Ourselves and the government have reviewed the evidence and come to the conclusion that we have legally compliant air quality in Leeds.

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“We have never accepted that reaching legal levels is a position we feel is good enough – we don’t believe there is a safe level of pollution.”

He added that government was allowing Leeds to continue distributing grants to help taxi and private hire drivers to upgrade their vehicles, but was withdrawing support to help HGV drivers change to greener engines.

Plans for the scheme followed a ruling from the European Union in 2018 that air quality in Leeds was reaching illegal levels and needed to improve.

The funding from central government would have seen £23m go towards helping businesses adapt and get greener vehicles, while £6m went towards creating a CCTV network to monitor number plates of vehicles entering the zone.

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The scheme had been expected to go live at some point during 2020, but was subject to numerous delays before a review was announced recently into whether it was still needed. The outcome of the review, out in the past week, suggested the scheme be shelved as it was unlikely pollution levels would ever again reach illegal levels in the city.

Liberal Democrat leader Coun Golton responded to Coun Lewis: “This was a really disappointing decision that has come from the Labour administration.

“They were told to do it by the Government because the Government thought they were going to be taken to court, and now the Government says ‘we are not interested anymore because we are not going to be taken to court’, and you go ‘fair enough’.

“It just emphasises to us that there is no real commitment that this is a priority – it’s always a reaction rather than something that is central to improving our environment.

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“Having a climate zone coming means people are catalysed into doing more. They are given an incentive to improve what they are doing – all the new vehicles are testament to that urgency.

“Nobody has an incentive to go forward.

“It’s good that you are not going to introduce congestion charging – I am glad you have confirmed that. Why not use the equipment as a gauge as to how well we are doing as a city?

“It’s a really disappointing decision that has been made. It’s ironic that it is a European Union law.”

Coun Lewis said: “We do not believe the legal limit is a basis for quality, but we are in a position where that is a basis for legal charging.

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“You had five years in Government where you could have changed that and nothing happened.

“We will continue to monitor air quality and vehicles on the road. It is disappointing that our requests for further money has been turned down, but we will do what we can to improve air quality.”