Yes To A Clean Air City, No To The Clean Air Zone Charge!

June 11, 2021

In Birmingham a new tax has been forced on the city by the Tory government which will hit the poorest hardest, takes no account of income or ability to pay, and which is causing growing anger among the community. No, this is not the poll tax again, but sure enough we have a Labour council doing the Tories' dirty work and hammering the working class instead of fighting back.

On June 1st the city council introduced the Birmingham Clean Air Zone (CAZ) which requires drivers of older and more polluting vehicles to pay an £8 charge to use the roads in central Birmingham.

The CAZ is supposedly an attempt to drive down the levels of air pollution in the city, in particular the ‘fine air particles’ which can cause numerous very serious disease such as strokes and cancer. Birmingham suffers from very high levels of these pollutants in its air, at the maximum limit as recommended by the World Health Organisation. 

Public Health England has reported that air pollution causes an estimated 1460 excess deaths each year in Birmingham and the surrounding areas. A Kings College London study in 2019 showed that pollution caused the shortening of lives of children and specifically named north Birmingham suburb Erdington as a pollution hotspot with as many as 91 deaths attributed to pollution in 2011.

Working class people have always been aware of the problem and most of us agree that something has to be done. But all this shoddy scheme will do is cause inconvenience to a minority of drivers while emissions and congestion continues apace.

Even the city council’s own feasibility study found that introducing a daily charge on motorists would not be sufficient to make the city comply with government’s new emissions restrictions.

There are looming climate and public health crises. Socialists have always argued that there needs to be an urgent shift from cars to public transport, cycling and walking. To facilitate the necessary change there needs to be a massive improvement in the public transport options on offer. 

It is to be welcomed that after many decades of local campaigning, and inaction by Labour and Tory governments, the Camp Hill line is finally being reopened for passenger rail services and the Metro is to be extended. But without a serious plan to tackle over-use of cars across the entire city and addressing the continuing long term decline in bus usage the impact on traffic levels will be insufficient to effectively deal with the problems. 

Immediate steps should be significant investment in bus and cycle infrastructure, make public transport free to all, increase the frequency and reliability of buses with security measures such as additional on-board staff and proper bus stations to enable all members of society to feel safe travelling during at all times of the day and the night. There should be massive investment in all types of electric buses and a push towards demand-responsive bus services which are more flexible to people’s needs. Re-nationalisation of the bus network should be a first step, an industry which has been bailed out by the state during Covid, despite racking up massive profits while overseeing continuous decline in ridership.

Instead the Blairite Labour council has simply gone for the low hanging fruit and introduced a charge for motorists who do not drive the newest or cleanest cars and vans. Unlike when London introduced its Congestion Charge there has been no increase in the frequency of quality of public transport in advance of this scheme. The result is that those who cannot afford to change their car will be either forced to drive a longer route around the city or stump up the £8 charge.

There are now 2 classes of motorist in Birmingham: those who are allowed to drive freely, and those who are not. To make matters worse the council has placed the onus on the motorist to take the initiative in paying the daily charge. Should they forget or fail to pay for any other reason they are liable for a £120 fine!

We now have the spectacle of local Tory politicians like the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street opportunistically arguing against the implementation of his own party’s scheme on the basis that it unfairly hits poorer working class people. Northfield Tory MP Gary “Big Dinners” Sambrook jumps on the bandwagon and writes “this impacts our poorer residents the most who cannot afford to buy shiny new cars." However, nobody should be fooled into believing that Sambrook holds any sympathies for the suffering of the poor - this character was one of the 318 Tory MPs who shamefully voted down feeding 1.4m of the poorest children during the school holidays last year.

So where is the opposition from Labour? Judging from the comments of Preet Gill MP (Birmingham Edgbaston), we shouldn’t expect much! She supports the CAZ and described it as a “bold, new idea”. Since they’ve been running the city Birmingham’s Labour councillors have sacked 12,000 council employees, tried and failed to cut bin workers pay, attacked the Homecare workers and closed down countless local services.

Perhaps the clearest expression of opposition simply comes from than the boss of the AA, a motoring organisation, who explains the plight of those hit by the charge: “These drivers are least able to afford to replace the vehicles they depend on for work, often night shifts, and sometimes emergencies such as going to hospital. They are also the ones least able to pay the fines.”

Finally we need to replace the remaining petrol and diesel vehicles with affordable hybrid or fully electric vehicles in the shortest time possible. This could be done by nationalising the electric vehicle industry under workers control and management and retooling the existing car plants to produce electric vehicles. 

New Workers' Party Needed

What is crystal clear is that working class people in Birmingham have no party who will stand up for them either in the council chamber or in Westminster. Labour have proved time and time again that it is willing to stick the boot in to the working class on behalf of the Tory government and the bosses in general. This is because, despite receiving millions of pounds in funding from trade unions, they want to prove that they can be relied on to look after the interests of British capitalism if they are ever to win power again. Keir Starmer has made it clear that he is shredding what remains of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical manifesto of 2017 to this end.

We in the Socialist Party say that this isn’t good enough. The unions should no longer hand over their members’ money to a party which is batting for the opposite side. We need a new mass workers' party which will take urgent measures to clean up the environment and make sure that it is the rich and the elite of society who foot the bill, not ordinary working class people through charges and fines.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, an organisation involving the RMT transport workers’ union, the Socialist Party, former Labour MP Chris Williamson’s Resist party and others, stands in local and national elections and opposes all attacks on the jobs and living standards of working class people. We believe this can play an important role in the establishment of a new workers party.

We urge you to join the Socialist Party today!

Ted Woodley

Birmingham North branch

Written by workers for workers.

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