Smaller haulage firms could "struggle to absorb" the costs of fleet upgrades when Clean Air Zones are created across five key UK cities, according to a Defra impact assessment published today.

The impact assessment accompanies a national consultation, launched today, to decide the best way to implement Clean Air Zones as part of the government's drive to improve air quality.

Zones will be required in five cities by 2020 - Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton  – however the government said any local authority can look to introduce one should it see fit.

All Clean Air Zone cities will see the most polluting vehicles, including HGVs that do not meet the Euro-6 emissions standard, diesel buses, taxis and coaches, discouraged from entering.

Birmingham and Leeds will also extend the requirements to vans, requiring Euro-6 diesel standard or Euro-4 if petrol.

However, cars are excluded from Clean Air Zone requirements – a decision previously condemned by the FTA, which believes all road users have a part to play in reducing emissions.

Significant impact

Defra’s impact assessment finds that for smaller HGV operations and owner-operators, measures requiring them to upgrade their vehicles “could pose a significant financial impact and could lead to an increase in retail prices of the goods they carry”.

It also said research has shown that for particular sectors, such as construction haulage, it may be difficult for operators to pass on costs due to a competitive market. This could see some smaller firms “exiting the market”.

With regards to vans, Defra points out that often older vehicles are owned by small business or owner drivers, who are less likely than HGV operators to be able to offset costs.

Some operators may therefore “struggle to absorb such costs” and again leave the market.

The FTA has raised concerns over the impact of Clean Air Zone proposals, in particular the time frame for their introduction, on freight operators.

Christopher Snelling, FTA head of national & regional policy, said: “Introducing this too soon, and without support, would not only impose substantial costs on the whole logistics industry, but would significantly disadvantage small businesses that use HGVs and, most especially, vans.”

He added: “We all understand the need to continue to reduce the impact on human health of emissions, but as the proposals stand there is a real chance many small businesses will be disproportionately affected and locked out of their current work.”

The FTA said the planned timescale to launch Clean Air Zones would mean there is not yet a sufficient second-hand market for small businesses to be able to buy compliant fleet vehicles.

It therefore wants more flexibility and support for those operators that will have the most trouble complying.

Today's consultation follows the announcement earlier this week that London plans to bring forward its Ultra Low Emission Zone introduction to 2019.