A group of influential MPs has called for a significant increase in low emission zones across England's major cities to tackle air pollution.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this week called for dozens of towns and cities in England to become Clean Air Zones, broadly equivalent to London's Low Emission Zone.

The Select Committee believes the government needs to be bolder if it is to tackle England's air pollution problem, which it is claimed kills up to 50,000 people a year.

Neil Parish MP, chairman of the committee, said: “Only five cities - Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton - will have new powers to charge polluting vehicles to enter new Clean Air Zones.

“Councils in the dozens of other English cities currently exceeding EU pollution limits must also be given the option of using such powers if their communities support action.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set out its plan to introduce Clean Air Zones in five cities by 2020 at the latest last year. London, with plans for an ultra-low emission zone, is seen as being ahead of the curve and wasn't included.

The zones would demand HGVs are Euro-6 if they are to avoid a fine for entering. Councils would be able to set the level of fines to suit their locality, but Defra intends this to be at a cash-neutral level that deters polluters and pays for the administration of the scheme but nothing more.

Clean Air Zones would not apply to "private cars" under the current plan.

Parish also wants councils to be given greater powers to manage their Clean Air Zones. “The zones need to deliver local solutions to local problems. Defra’s proposed 'one-size-fits-all' clean air zones will set rigid rules on cities as diverse as Southampton and Leeds.

“Communities must be given legal powers to set controls that meet their own circumstances—for example, some might want to charge polluting vehicles to access zones at certain times of day," he said.

The select committee wants Defra to publish a revised strategy by 21 July, and would also like to see a diesel vehicle scrappage scheme for cars and vans more than ten years old to be announced in the next Budget.

Not fair that cars are excluded

Commenting on the report, the FTA said it had consistently rejected the instruction that the burden of Clean Air Zones must fall exclusively on commercial vehicles, buses and taxis. It believes cars should not be excluded from consideration.

Christopher Snelling, head of national and regional policy at the FTA, added: “Other options such as local traffic management could be better suited in some cases – one policy action should not be artificially promoted over others as if it was some magical solution."