BUS operators will be banned from driving in Glasgow city centre by the end of 2018 unless their vehicles meet the toughest European standards for emissions, under plans to radically improve air quality.

Pollution is estimated to cause around 300 premature deaths in Glasgow a year. The city council is now seeking approval for plans to establish Scotland’s first Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) by the end of next year, but the restriction would initially only apply to buses.

Environmental campaigners said it was “very disappointing” that the LEZ would not also apply to lorries and vans from the start, while bus companies warned that it could lead to fare hikes or exacerbate congestion if operators were forced to axe services and passengers reverted to cars instead.

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The plan means bus operators will be required to purchase new buses which meet the cleanest ‘Euro 6’ rating for nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulates, or retro-fit existing buses with equipment to bring their emissions down to a compliant standard.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport estimates that the cost to the bus industry will be in the region of £10-17 million, although taxpayers are likely to foot at least some of the bill through schemes such as the Scottish Government’s Green Bus Fund.

Papers which will be voted on at the council’s Sustainability and Environment committee next week state that restricting the LEZ to buses in the first phase “promises the most significant immediate benefits for air quality in the city centre”. It said buses generate 70 to 80 per cent of nitrogen oxide in highly congested parts of the city centre, like Hope Street. It is thought that the LEZ will cut levels of nitrogen oxide in these blackspots by around 20 per cent.

Councillor Anna Richardson, convenor for sustainability and carbon reduction, said: “We know there are 300 premature deaths a year in Glasgow as a result of poor air quality. If that isn’t a reason to make you want to act, then I don’t know what is.”

The council intends to gradually extend the LEZ to lorries, vans, taxis, motorbikes and eventually to private cars, but this is expected to take several years.

Ms Richardson added: “If people are thinking about changing their cars then this might give them a push, but it’s years away.”

The LEZ will initially be enforced though Traffic Regulation Conditions, rather than fines. Bus operators will be required to ensure that a minimum percentage of their fleet are Euro 6 compliant and that no non-compliant vehicles are used on routes within the LEZ, which will be monitored by cameras. Companies breaching either condition would be called before the Traffic Commissioner for Scotland where they could face sanctions such as having their licence revoked. The exact area covered by the LEZ is still to be determined.

In future, when other road users are covered by the ban, drivers will be fined for entering the LEZ if their vehicle exceeds the emissions limit.

Emilia Hanna, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Whilst the council’s ambition to have an LEZ is welcome, it’s very disappointing that the plans would only restrict buses in the first instance. The Glasgow LEZ should apply to buses, lorries, and vans from the start and to cars and taxis at a later stage. This would help ensure even bigger improvements for the health of Glaswegians.”

A spokesman for the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Scotland said operators had not been consulted on the report and warned the plan could “gravely damage” the city’s bus service. He added: “Operators unable to meet new vehicle standards may be forced to withdraw services operating within the LEZ or mitigate the cost of accelerated fleet renewal through the farebox. Both reactions will reduce bus use, increase car journeys, and worsen congestion and air quality.”

Ralph Roberts, managing director of McGill’s said the outcome would be fewer services or "unprecedented fares increases".

Andrew Jarvis, managing director of First Glasgow, said it supported plans for an LEZ but was "deeply disappointed" by the focus on buses. He added that buses were "the one form of road transport capable of reducing congestion and improving air quality on the city’s roads, given that one bus can convey the people from 75 cars."

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THE race is on to create Scotland's first low emissions zone, with both Glasgow and Edinburgh drawing up plans designed to cut hazardous air pollution from traffic.

These toxic fumes - largely from diesel vehicles - have been blamed for 3,500 premature deaths a year in Scotland and 300 in Glasgow. Air pollution from cars, vans, buses and lorries can trigger heart attacks and strokes. The emissions aggravate lung diseases such as asthma and one recent study also found that those living near major roads were significantly more likely to develop dementia.

In Germany, research estimated that LEZs had delivered nearly $2 billion of health benefits at a cost of just over $1bn for upgrading the country’s fleet of private and commercial vehicles.

However, proposals to restrict Glasgow's first phase solely to buses has gone down like a lead balloon with operators. They fear the proposed timescale may be unworkable given that new bus orders can take 18-24 months to deliver, and retrofitting requires around two days per bus.

There is uncertainty over the level of public funding which will be available to overhaul bus fleets, and operators were keen to draw attention to a line in the Scottish Government's ongoing national consultation on LEZs which states that "bus-only LEZs are not being proposed for any location in Scotland".

Queried on how this squares with the proposals being put forward by Glasgow City Council, a spokesman for Transport Scotland suggested that since what the council envisages is a staggered introduction of bans on other types of vehicles over time, it was "not really a bus-only LEZ".

However, Transport Scotland added that it would "encourage local authorities to be ambitious in their proposals for LEZs" - which seems like either praise for the fairly rapid timescale proposed, or a swipe at the failure to include lorries and vans from day one.

As the council itself stresses, the report is only "the start of the conversation". An updated version is expected within six months. Clearly it would be unfair if passengers incur fare hikes or cancelled services as a result of the LEZ being rushed out. But the longer the delays, the longer Glasgow misses out on the potential health benefits.