Allegations of ‘secret plans’ to put a toll on car drivers coming into Newcastle city centre have been met with a furious denial.
A top Labour Councillor shot down suggestions on Wednesday that daily charges from the city’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) could be extended to private cars.
Under the pollution-cutting measures introduced in January, certain vehicles that do not comply with emissions standards are now subject to fees of either £50 or £12.50 to travel through the centre of Newcastle – but all private cars are exempt.
The tolls currently apply to the worst-polluting buses, coaches, HGVs, and taxis, with charges for vans due to start in July.
At a Newcastle City Council meeting on Wednesday, Lemington Councillor Jason Smith called for bosses to give an assurance that no charges would be put on private cars until June 2026 at the earliest.
Cllr Smith, of the Newcastle Independents party, accused the Labour-run authority of offering no such certainty and then claimed that there may be
“secret plans to introduce a new stealth tax on some of the poorest people in our city”.
The allegation prompted a swift denial from Labour’s Jane Byrne, who attacked opposition parties for “scaremongering”.
She said: “Private cars are not in the CAZ and they will not be in the CAZ. There are no ‘secret plans’.”
Cllr Byrne, the council’s cabinet member responsible for transport, added:
“Our Clean Air Zone agreement with the Government does not include private cars because modelling information on future pollution levels shows we can achieve compliance with the current legal limits without having to include them. That is absolutely, unequivocally clear – it is in the agreement and you know that.”
The CAZ was imposed in response to a Government order for local councils to reduce illegal levels of air pollution, which has been linked to more than 300 premature deaths on Tyneside each year, though some environmental campaigners have said its restrictions do not go far enough.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the city’s Liberal Democrat opposition claimed that the CAZ “has not been effective in curbing air quality issues” and urged the council to pursue other methods such as a workplace parking levy, strategic cycle networks and greener public transport.
Cllr Thom Campion insisted he was not “playing politics”, but instead calling for more protection for people beyond the city centre and for the council to be more transparent about whether the CAZ is producing results.
According to the most recent available figures, the corner house junction in Heaton is the most heavily polluted spot in Newcastle but it is not within the CAZ boundaries.
Independents in the outer west have long opposed the CAZ, fearing it would push pollution away from the city centre and to the residential suburbs close to the A1.
Previously, the city council has not ruled out the prospect of the clean air charges being extended in the future.
The CAZ’s website states: “Although we are not charging private cars entering the Clean Air Zone initially it is possible that this could change in the future.
“This will depend on the impact of the clean air measures on pollution levels and other issues, including whether further action is needed on climate change. Any decision to charge cars in future would be subject to further public consultation.”