A signpost reads "Bristol Clean Air Zone Coming Soon"

Disability activists to protest for fairer Clean Air Zone

A disability charity is to protest the implementation of the Clean Air Zone, saying it could ‘deepen inequalities’ faced by disabled people. 

Bristol Disability Equality Forum, a charity led by and advocating for disabled people, will stage a protest outside City Hall from 4pm on Tuesday, October 18, to coincide with a meeting of the full council. 

Emma Geen, project coordinator for BDEF, said that the charity is not opposed to the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) per se and supports action on clean air, but ‘we need to make sure that that action is carried out in a fair way.’

‘I see this is quite a defining moment in terms of what is Bristol’s transition going to look like and are [Bristol City Council] willing to make that good for disadvantaged communities or is it going to deepen inequalities in the city.’

Flyer reads: "Make our Air Fair. September 13, 5.30 outside city hall"
A flyer for the protest on Tuesday, September 13. Image: Bristol Disability Equality Forum.

The CAZ, brought in by Bristol City Council to meet air quality targets set by national government, will see high polluting vehicles charge a daily rate of £9 to enter a boundary around the city centre. It is scheduled to begin on Monday, November 28. 

Bristol City Council has extended exemptions to those who live or work in the CAZ and offered financial support to people to upgrade or adapt their vehicle to be compliant ahead of the November start date. 

However, Geen said that the financial support is insufficient. With disabled people far more likely to be living in poverty or unable to work, the council’s measures leave disabled to ‘fall through the gaps,’ said Geen. 

An exemption for blue badge holders expires in March 2023. ‘What are you supposed to do after that?’ asked Geen. 

Geen worries that the combination of a daily charge with the costs of upgrading or replacing a non-compliant vehicle, and possible fines for non-compliance, could leave disabled people trapped in their homes, unable to afford to leave. 

At the extreme, Geen said: ‘It’s not impossible that the current plans could lead to some disabled people dying.’ 

Responding to criticism following repeated delays to the implementation of the CAZ earlier this year, mayor Marvin Rees argued that the council was making efforts to ensure the CAZ would not disproportionately affect people on lower incomes. 

Geen said that BDEF has made efforts to engage with the council to share their concerns but where left ‘frustrated’ by the council’s unwillingness to listen. 

This is a shame, said Geen, as the council has been supportive of other efforts by BDEF, for instance their work on climate change

Geen said the implementation of the CAZ is an opportunity for the council to show its commitment to climate justice, tackling air pollution without leaving behind those already worse off. 

During the protest next week BDEF will demand that the council:

  • Extend the exemptions for blue badge holders
  • provide greater financial support for people switching to less polluting vehicles
  • reduce the CAZ fees and fines for non-compliance (currently £120), and increase the window in which payments can be made (currently 12 days)
  • provide better, more affordable and more accessible public transport. 

The final demand – for better public transport – comes as 18 bus services across the Bristol region are to be scrapped and a further 10 services operated by Bristol Community Transport also vanish from the roads. 

‘We do need to move to a city that has less reliance on cars, certainly less reliant on polluting cars. But to do that you have to make sure that all of the options to support people to travel in other ways are there and accessible and affordable. The city’s moving in the other direction right now,’ said Geen. 

Speaking of the need for protest, Geen said that while lobbying is BDEF’s preferred way of doing things, when that fails ‘you have to move to the point where you’re protesting.’

‘When you look at the history of disability rights, essentially everything we’ve ever won has been through protest, sometimes even direct action,’ said Geen. 

Bristol City Council had not responded to requests for comment by the time this article went to publication.

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