Campaigners calling for a Clean Air Zone in Greater Manchester say its delay may have cost lives, a year on from when it was supposed to come into force.
Daily charges for some of the vehicles which pollute the city-region’s roads the most were set to start from May 30, 2022.
Lorries, buses and coaches which did not meet emissions standards would have been charged £60 a day from this date, while non-compliant vans, taxis and private hire vehicles were set to face daily penalties of £7.50 in 2023.
But, it was halted following huge public backlash, and the deadline to bring air pollution below legal limits was pushed back by two years to 2026.
City-region leaders then released new proposals for the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone (CAZ), where it argued the scheme should be non-charging, and instead £120 million of government money will be used to help owners adapt or retrofit their vehicles.
However, responding to the proposals, Environment Secretary George Eustice, has suggested the zone should still charge - but only in Manchester city centre.
But campaigners say the delays are likely to have cost lives.
Sarah Rowe from the Clean Cities Campaign said: “In the time that’s been wasted since the original plan became a wrangling match between local and national government, it seems that the most important point has been lost: we all want to breathe clean air.
“Recent [government] statistics show that Manchester has some of the dirtiest air in the country.
"If we are to meet our goals of being a greener and fairer city, then we must act to limit polluting cars and vans in the city centre.
“There must be financial support for people who are dependent on cars or vans to transition to cleaner vehicles.
"But cleaning up our air is not a cost, it’s an investment that is good for us, good for our NHS and it could generate a huge economic boost for the city.”
Dr Aimee Priestman, a GP and Primary Care Network Green Lead explained the reality of inaction.
She said: “As a GP, every day I see multiple people presenting with new respiratory symptoms and prescribe endless inhalers.
“Clinicians struggle to manage their workload and as waiting times grow ever longer, I can’t understand why politicians and public health are not taking more of a lead to tackle the root causes.
"There are steps we can all take to tackle pollution like not idling, (unnecessary running of the engine when stationary) or choosing active travel - but politicians must take a lead to create widespread change.”
In January 2022, the government agreed to move the deadline by which pollution must be brought down by.
Soon after, local leaders said they no longer wanted any charges to be introduced, calling for a ‘investment-led’ scheme instead.
By summer 2022, they submitted a revised scheme to the government which suggested using the cameras which had already been installed to signpost vehicle owners to funding for upgrades to cleaner models.
But six months later, the government said that it required more evidence to support this approach.
Specifically, Greater Manchester has been asked to provide modelling data for a "benchmark CAZ to address the persistent exceedances identified in central Manchester and Salford".
The government confirmed this means comparing the impact of introducing charges in the city centre only to not charging at all.
The local authorities are currently gathering this additional evidence, but they said it would not be ready before the end of June.
However, local leaders say they remain committed to an investment-led non-charging Clean Air Plan.
Meanwhile, more than £60m of public money had been spent so far on the scheme by the end March of this year.
This includes the cost of covering up almost 1,200 CAZ signs which stated the original start date with stickers saying ‘Under Review’ and cameras which are costing £375,000 a month.
All costs are expected to be covered by the government, but because no revenue raised from charges yet, a hole has been left in the budget for the scheme.
The cameras are being used by the police in some investigations.
A Clean Air GM spokesperson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “Greater Manchester is continuing its work to gather the additional evidence requested by government and remains committed to an investment led, non-charging Clean Air Plan that cleans up the air without harming jobs and businesses.
"An update will be provided to the Greater Manchester Air Quality Administration Committee at its meeting in June.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have reviewed Greater Manchester’s proposals and identified a number of underlying gaps in the evidence, meaning it is not yet possible to understand how the proposed approach will achieve compliance with NO2 limits in the shortest possible time.
We have requested further evidence from the Greater Manchester authorities to enable us to consider the plans.”