The Clean Air Zone delay has led to an outcry from transport bosses who have described the latest roadblock as ‘disappointing’, ‘farcical’ and ‘deeply frustrating’.

The committee responsible for overseeing CAZ have put the blame of this delay firmly at the door of the government who are now reviewing whether retrofitting buses has worked. As of March, 1,153 of the 2,063 buses in Greater Manchester were retrofitted to meet emissions standards, costing £15m.

Now the government is conducting a review looking into the reason some retrofitted buses were not cutting nitrogen dioxide emissions as much as expected.

This means plans to roll out CAZ are on hold, the Greater Manchester Air Quality Administration Committee heard. Until the conclusion of the review in Autumn, Whitehall has paused funding which enabled operators to attach Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) exhausts to their buses for £16,000 a pop. 

There is question over whether councils will be able to claw back any of the millions spent in taxpayer money if the review finds retrofits to be ineffective. 

“It is farcical,” Coun Alan Quinn exclaimed. “You would think they’d test them first and get the results. 

“It is farcical public money being wasted when all of us are struggling (with the cost of living crisis).”

Oldham Council’s Coun Abdul Jabbar echoed his Bury counterparts’ words, and added: “To say if retrofit doesn’t work, after spending millions of public money is unbelievable. It is extremely disappointing that this has come to light at the late stage of our plan.”

He went on to question whether the government will aid councils with possible legal battles ahead and what operators who have already invested in retrofit can do to get their money back.

Looking ahead, Stockport’s Coun Mark Roberts said: “It is incredibly frustrating that the government dropped this bombshell on buses like they have. It was a government recommended scheme for retrofit. 

“It is deeply frustrating we find ourselves where we are with it. One concern for me in terms of timelines – what can we do whilst we are waiting for this to come back?”

The committee will now have to wait for what the government report on retrofit finds come Autumn. In the meantime they are seeking to source more electric and low emission buses, the committee heard.

Chairing the committee, Coun Eamonn O’Brien explained that the level of stock for electric and low emission buses was low in the market, which is why retrofit was the alternative sought in the first place. The idea behind this would be to reduce emissions of current stock in the short term as more environmentally friendly buses were brought in. 

“I do share your frustration and hopefully we can rescue some of the public funding,” Coun O’Brien said.

This latest ordeal puts plans to bring air pollution down below legal limits in doubt. Last year, the region put forward a proposal to scrap the charges that some vehicle owners were set to face under the Clean Air Zone.

The controversial scheme would have cost taxis, vans, buses, coaches and lorries which do not meet emissions standards up to £60 a day for driving on any of Greater Manchester’s roads except for motorways. But the plan was paused after a public backlash because, according to mayor Andy Burnham, the cost of buying new vehicles had risen significantly due to the pandemic.

The government agreed to extend the deadline by which Greater Manchester must comply with legal air quality limits to no later than 2026. If the legal limits are not met by then, the 10 councils in the region could be taken to court.

According to the latest air quality data, pollution increased in 2022 compared to the year before, but it is below the levels recorded pre-pandemic in 2019. Greater Manchester must now come up with a new plan to clean up the air.

Following the meeting on July 13, the committee has committed to allowing GM CAP funded bus retrofits to proceed where an operator has made a financial commitment but to pause any new bus retrofit applications. Additionally they will write to the secretary of state to express their concerns and frustrations with what is another delay for them.

The region was supposed to submit new modelling assessing the impact that charging certain vehicles in the city centre would have on air quality to the government by the end of June. Greater Manchester says it is still committed to an investment-led approach which would offer cash for cleaner vehicles rather than introducing charges.

As of March, £60m had been spent on the Clean Air Zone – including monthly costs of £375,000 for the cameras – all of which is funded by the government.