Newcastle air pollution levels fall in first year of Clean Air Zone

Heavy traffic on the A167 Central Motorway approaching the Tyne Bridge
-Credit: (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

Air pollution appears to have fallen across much of Newcastle in the first year of the city’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) tolls.

New figures have revealed a notable drop in the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in the air on Tyneside in 2023. There was a fall in the average NO2 level at all but one of around 70 monitoring locations across Newcastle compared to 2022, according to data published by Newcastle City Council, including around the Tyne Bridge and other well-known pollution hotspots.

That data coincides with the launch of the CAZ in January last year, in which some high-polluting vehicles are charged daily tolls of up to £50 to drive through Newcastle city centre, though local authority bosses say the falling pollution “could be due to a number of factors” and there remains “uncertainty” about the scheme’s impact.

The most-polluted location in the city remains close to the Corner House junction on the Coast Road. A sensor at the junction of Stephenson Road and Jesmond Park West recorded an annual mean NO2 level of 67.1 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3), though that has reduced significantly from 92.2 in 2022 and 97.7 in 2021.

The legal maximum is 40 μg/m3, though the council says that the NO2 concentration at the nearest residential areas to the Stephenson Road sensor rather than the roadside is within that limit. There are a total of five roadside locations in the city, the other four of which are in the city centre, with average readings above 40 μg/m3. They are:

  • Stephenson Road, entrance to Jesmond Park West - 67.1;

  • Percy Street - 45.9;

  • Market Street - 42.2;

  • Blackett Street, near Old Eldon Square - 40.9;

  • St Marys Place, John Dobson Street - 40.3.

The only pollution monitor to show a rise in NO2 levels last year was one located next to the A1 at Denton Burn, where there had been fears of rising emissions due to traffic being displaced away from the CAZ to the outer west. However, this was only a slight jump from 25.9 to 26.5 μg/m3.

In 2019, there were 48 spots around Newcastle where the 40 μg/m3 limit was exceeded. Most of the council's sensors are located in or around the city centre.

Traffic on the Coast Road just after the Corner House junction in Heaton
Traffic on the Coast Road just after the Corner House junction in Heaton -Credit:Craig Connor/ChronicleLive

A monitor placed by the Spire building close to the Tyne Bridge showed a reading of 35.2 in 2023, down from 63.2 in 2019, though it remains to be seen how that will be affected by the renovation works and lane closures which have begun on the famous crossing since.

Campaign group SPACE for Gosforth said that its analysis showed that citywide pollution levels had dropped by 16%. A spokesperson for the group added: “Visitors, workers and residents in Newcastle city centre can now breathe a bit more easily, while predictions that the city would be turned into a ‘ghost town’ [as a result of the CAZ] have been proved to be nonsense. Pollution on Gosforth High Street, which has been within legal limits since it became one lane in each direction, was the lowest we’ve seen other than in 2020.

“Pollution also reduced on The Coast Road, including on Jesmond Road on the boundary of the now removed Jesmond LTN. Overall this, and similar outcomes at other cities around the UK, are a great advert for councils that are willing to listen to the evidence, make the case and take bold decisions to protect their residents from dangerous air pollution and other harms. We hope the council will continue to prioritise reducing air pollution to meet the more recently updated World Health Organisation limits [of an annual NO2 average of 10 μg/m3].”

A council report detailing the findings said there was a “considerate drop in the NO2 concentrations” in 2023 and that the city’s main source of emissions remains road traffic, though there remains “uncertainty” about the effectiveness of the CAZ. Newcastle City Council said: “The latest pollution data for 2023 does suggest that overall, our air quality is improving in most areas of the city. We’re pleased to see that nitrogen dioxide levels on the Tyne Bridge and A167 are falling.

“This could be due to a number of factors, including the introduction of the Clean Air Zone and an increase in the number of cleaner, less polluting vehicles using our roads. There are still some locations, including on Stephenson Road, in Heaton, where nitrogen dioxide levels remain above the national air quality limit.

"However, it’s important to note that this is a measurement of NO2 levels at the roadside and that nitrogen dioxide levels in nearby residential streets are not in excess of the limit. While we need to continue our efforts to address ongoing areas of concern, we do welcome the improvements we are starting to see.”

Manor Park ward councillor Greg Stone welcomed the fall in pollution near the Corner House, having previously raised concerns about “significant health risks” for locals, but added that he was “not convinced there is a clear council strategy for air quality on the Coast Road corridor”. The Liberal Democrat added: “The council’s assertion that it does not see a need to designate further air quality management areas in the city risks being seen as complacent given that large parts of the city are not currently covered by any of the existing air quality monitoring sensors.”