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Sunday, April 14, 2024

CAZ grants rule change

Newcastle Clean Air Zone upgrade cash to be offered to more people – but limits remain on £15m fund

More business owners will be made eligible for funding to help them buy less polluting vehicles and dodge Newcastle’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) tolls.

Council bosses have confirmed that they are widening their CAZ grants scheme so that more people will qualify for financial support to upgrade to newer and more environmentally-friendly models.

Most of the £15 million worth of Government funding given to Newcastle City Council to hand out upgrade grants remains unspent, more than a year after applications opened, and bosses have come under pressure after imposing strict criteria that many motorists could not meet.

The scheme’s original rules required applicants to prove that they had a business need to enter the city centre CAZ at least twice a week over a three-month period, something which many small traders said they were unable to provide documentation for.

That requirement is now being relaxed so that any van, light goods vehicle or minibus that does not meet the CAZ’s environmental standards and is registered to a home or business address in Newcastle, Gateshead, or North Tyneside will now qualify for upgrade funding.

However, there will still be limits to the funding criteria that mean not everyone who has sought help will be automatically able to claim a grant, including those based in neighbouring areas like Northumberland and South Tyneside.

The council had previously paused the grants programme in order to launch a review into how to make more people and businesses eligible.

Only £2.5 million of the £15 million available has been handed out since applications opened in November 2022, though a further £2.8 million worth of grants have been approved but are as yet unclaimed.

Just 668 vehicles have been successfully upgraded, though funding has been approved for 1,298, while 1,379 applications have been rejected.

The council estimates that up to 500 residents, businesses, and community groups who were previously unsuccessful in their application will meet the new criteria and will be invited to reapply.

But the change will not satisfy everyone. Blyth-based Phoenix Executive Coaches is contracted by the council itself to provide home to school transport for children across Newcastle with special needs.

New signs warning drivers of the Newcastle Clean Air Zone. Image: Newcastle City Council.

But the company has been told it cannot get help to replace its specialist minibuses because they do not actually have to drop off or pick up anyone within the CAZ itself.

Phoenix director Ken Turner has complained that the result has been his vehicles putting more miles on the clock and “polluting other parts of the city instead” as they now take longer routes around the city centre to avoid being hit with a toll.

As it is based in Northumberland, the travel firm will still not be eligible for a grant.

A frustrated Mr Turner told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This money has been given to the council from the Government and is ringfenced for this purpose. Why not just give it out to the people who are asking for it, instead of keeping it in the bank and not spending it? It is crazy.”

Taxi companies based in South Tyneside have also complained previously that they had been excluded from the grants despite regularly taking passengers to and from the city from areas like Jarrow, Hebburn, and South Shields. They will also remain ineligible.

Under the new rules, the council also said this week that it would not accept any applications for retrospective funding.

A spokesperson for CAZ said: “We have always been clear that any review of the grants scheme would be subject to the funding that is available.

“The changes that we’ve made will enable hundreds more local businesses to qualify for funding support towards the cost of a cleaner vehicle.

“However, the funding we have for grants is limited and therefore we are continuing to prioritise it for those applicants who are most regularly required to operate within the Clean Air Zone.

“During the first phase of the grants scheme we found that a significant number of applicants with vans, light goods vehicles and minibuses – the majority of whom were based in Newcastle, Gateshead and North Tyneside – were unable to provide the information needed to meet the funding criteria.

“We are pleased that we have been able to change this so that these local businesses are not disproportionately affected by the CAZ.

“We recently applied for just over £7 million of additional funding from government so that we could provide further support. We were unsuccessful in securing the full amount but Government did agree to provide a further £1 million.

“Unfortunately, without additional funding, we have been unable to make further changes to the scheme to offer support to more businesses and to taxi drivers from other areas.”

The CAZ imposes penalties of either £12.50 or £50 per day on older buses, vans, coaches, taxis, and lorries that do not comply with emissions standards.

All private cars remain exempt from the charges, which were introduced in response to a Government order for local authorities to reduce illegal levels of emissions in pollution hotspots.

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