Tolls could be placed on three bridges over the River Tyne in order to put an end to the area’s air pollution “crisis”.
Council bosses have finally revealed their proposals to cut emissions on Tyneside, and among the options being considered is a toll on the Tyne, Swing, and Redheugh bridges that would affect all drivers apart from buses and taxis, possibly with fees of £1.70 for cars and £3.40 for lorries.
If that is not implemented, the alternative would be a wider Clean Air Zone (CAZ), in which the most high-polluting vehicles could be charged £12.50 a day, or £50 for lorries, buses and coaches.
Newcastle, Gateshead and North Tyneside councils have been ordered by the Government to clean up the air in pollution hotspots across Tyneside by 2021 – including the Coast Road and the Central Motorway.
While Government has told the councils they must consider a CAZ, local leaders say such a charge would disproportionately hit poorer residents, be “profoundly damaging to our economy” and would not even bring emissions levels to within legal limits.
That is why the option of a bridges toll has now been proposed, though the councils have not yet completed modelling to see if that would be sufficiently effective in reducing traffic levels.
The idea of a Tyne Bridge-only toll was previously ruled out, with the councils saying it would simply shift the traffic elsewhere, but they now claim that putting a charge on the three bridges into central Newcastle could be a viable solution.
A public consultation on the two options will be launched in March, while additional measures could also include banning lorries, buses, and taxis that do not meet minimum emissions standards from entering Newcastle city centre at certain times. The consultation will also ask about possible restrictions to cut traffic on the Central Motorway.
Coun Nick Forbes, Labour leader of Newcastle City Council, said: “This is a public health crisis that has been several decades in the making.
“As councils we are not prepared to stand by and let people continue to die as a result of poor air quality.
“We have a responsibility both legally and morally to do something about it. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Under a system of tolls, charges would apply to all lorries, vans and cars regardless of their emissions – but buses and taxis would be exempt from the tolls, which are in line with those charged at the Tyne Tunnel.
In the CAZ – which could include the centres of Newcastle and Gateshead, stretching up to Gosforth and down part of the Coast Road – a £50 daily charge could be imposed on lorries, buses and taxis and £12.50 for vans, taxis and older cars.
Coun Forbes added: “We have not got a preferred option at the moment, unlike the Government who are pushing the CAZ.
“The real problem I have with the CAZ idea is that it penalises the poorest motorists from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – people driving the oldest vehicles.
“If you can afford a brand new car then, in effect, you get no financial penalty.
“Tolls feels more equitable, if we have to meet the Government requirement to reducing traffic on our roads very significantly in the next two years.
“Our modelling shows that the introduction of tolls on the bridges or a CAZ would have an impact on reducing traffic flows. Whether it would meet the government targets for improved air quality is still an open question.”
Coun Forbes and fellow leaders from across Gateshead and North Tyneside have urged the Government to take other action to cut pollution – such as investing more in public transport improvements and introducing a £1.5bn national scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles.
Political opponents have claimed that the councils are “failing badly on transport”.
Newcastle councillor Greg Stone, transport spokesman for the city’s Lib Dem opposition, added: “It is remarkable that a few weeks ago the council’s Labour leadership were announcing they did not support clean air charging zones and daily charges to drive in the city centre and key routes like the Coast Road and stated that they did not feel such steps would be effective.
“Clearly they have made a screeching U-turn and we suspect that they have been read the riot act by Government who have made it clear to them that doing nothing is not an option.
“Residents of my ward alongside the Coast Road want to see action taken on pollution levels which breach national limits and affect public health but there will be public incredulity that the council wants them to pay £12.50 a day to drive on the Coast Road.
“Nor will there be huge enthusiasm for bridge crossing tolls, although we acknowledge that the Tyne Bridge approach on the Central Motorway is the single biggest pollution hotspot in the city.
“The Lib Dem Opposition is willing to look seriously at other proposals including a low emission zone in the city centre core within the area of the ‘bus loop’ and associated measures to improve public transport such as switching to clean technology buses and taxis, more park and ride provision, and to encourage scrappage of high emissions diesels in favour of low emission vehicles.”
The public consultation will run from March 6 to May 2019, while the various plans being put forward will be considered at cabinet meetings of all three councils next week.
Daniel Holland , Local Democracy Reporting Service