More drivers will be given the chance to apply for money to help them upgrade to cleaner vehicles that are not hit by Newcastle’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) tolls.
Changes have been promised to offer more support for motorists trying to replace their high-polluting vehicles, with less than 15% of the grant funding on offer so far having been handed out by Newcastle City Council since applications opened 12 months ago. The local authority, which has admitted that the approvals have been slower than hoped for, has faced criticism for imposing strict conditions on who is eligible to receive the money – excluding many small traders and taxi drivers that are unable to meet the criteria.
But council chiefs announced on Wednesday that they will be pressing pause on the grant scheme in December and launching a review into how to enable more people to qualify for funding. Grants worth up to £16,000 are currently available to taxi drivers and owners of vans, buses, coaches, and HGVs that do not meet the CAZ’s environmental standards, meaning they face daily tolls of either £50 or £12.50 to drive through the city centre. All private cars are exempt from the tolls.
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But just over £2m worth of grants have been awarded so far from a total £15m, with only around 540 of roughly 2,500 applications having been successful. Marion Williams, Newcastle City Council’s cabinet member responsible for transport, said: “Vehicle upgrade grants have been hugely beneficial to hundreds of taxi drivers and businesses in our area and I’m very pleased that we are now in a position where we can look to extend this financial support to more people.”
Her Gateshead Council counterpart, John McElroy, added: “It’s important that we maximise the number of compliant vehicles on the roads to improve air quality for everyone. So it’s very positive that we’re looking at revising the criteria for more drivers to benefit from vehicle upgrade grants.”
Anyone applying for a grant under the current criteria must provide paperwork proving that they have had a business need to enter the city centre CAZ at least twice a week over the last three months – a task which has proved arduous, if not impossible, for many independent businesses. Taxi drivers based outside Newcastle, Gateshead, and North Tyneside have also been deemed ineligible so far, while the Kenton Food Bank led calls in October for the council to make charitable organisations exempt from the CAZ charges.
A review of the existing grant criteria will start on December 17, at which point applications will be temporarily closed – meaning anyone who wishes to apply under the current rules must do so before that date. The grant scheme is then expected to relaunch with a wider criteria in February 2024.
Pamela Holmes, Newcastle City Council's head of transport, admitted earlier this month that some applicant were finding it "difficult" to provide the evidence needed to meet the existing scheme's rules. Taxi firms based in South Tyneside told the Local Democracy Reporting Service in March that they could not afford to take passengers into Newcastle because of the toll charges and had been given "no help" to upgrade to newer, cleaner vehicles.
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