Edinburgh's low-emission zone: Capital could be last of Scotland's big cities to crack down on pollution – Ian Swanson

The talking in Glasgow went down to the wire as delegates from around the world hammered out the final wording of an agreement so COP26 did not end in failure.

Tuesday, 16th November 2021, 4:55 am

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And despite frustration at the last-minute compromise, watering down the commitment on coal from “phasing out” to “phasing down”, the fortnight-long summit on how to beat the climate crisis does seem to have achieved progress, though not as much as campaigners wanted.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, there have been environmental talks too, albeit with a much more local focus.

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Politicians and officials at the city council have been trying to rescue the Capital's plan for a low-emission zone (LEZ) after its unexpected rejection by the transport committee.

The LEZ aims to improve air quality – and therefore public health – by banning the most-polluting vehicles from 1.2 square miles of the city centre.

The opposition parties, who combined to defeat the SNP-Labour administration's proposals, each had their own criticisms of the plan but voted together for the Green amendment which called for changes to the boundaries of the zone and the two-year grace period on enforcement, along with a stronger emphasis on cutting greenhouse gases as well as NO2.

The problem is that any significant change to the proposals risks having to hold a fresh consultation, which could seriously delay the scheme, currently scheduled to be introduced in May 2022 and enforced from June 2024.

Edinburgh's low-emission zone is designed to cut air pollution and so improve public health (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Ideally, the Greens – and the Lib Dems and many who responded to the consultation – would like to see the return of a second element to the scheme which was proposed in the original plan, namely a city-wide ban on buses and HGVs which fail to meet emissions standards.

Transport convener Lesley Macinnes has said that she too was initially enthusiastic about this idea, but that the figures showed the extra benefits were not as great as she expected. And officials say the measure would have a big impact on small businesses who could not afford new delivery vans that meet the criteria.

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So changing the boundaries in the sense of adding a city-wide second zone is not looking likely. More feasible might be tweaking which streets are included around the edges of the zone in order to meet particular concerns.

On the grace period, the Greens would ideally like just one year’s transition before enforcement begins. But there are concerns that allowing less time for people to prepare will have a severe effect on low-income families who are more likely to have older vehicles which fall short of the required standards.

The whole process of declaring LEZs is new, so many details are unclear, but one interpretation is that a fresh consultation would be triggered if changes are proposed which would make the scheme’s requirements more onerous – which would likely include any major alteration of boundaries and any reduction in the grace period.

A few years ago, Edinburgh hoped to be the first city in Scotland to introduce an LEZ but when the Scottish government announced support for zones in Scotland’s four biggest cities, it chose Glasgow to lead the way. Now Edinburgh could be the last.

The question could be whether the changes are important enough to accept a delay or if it is more important to stick to the timetable.

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