Drivers may still face charges for using roads in Epping Forest, but Conservative district councillors have insisted it would only be as a last resort.

At an extraordinary meeting called by a bipartisan group of councillors, held last night (Monday, February 8), Epping Forest District Council debated its Interim Air Pollution Mitigation Strategy.

A last-minute amendment called by planning portfolio holder Cllr Nigel Bedford saw councillors vote to form a cross-party advisory group to “to support the portfolio holder in the delivery of the Interim Air Pollution Mitigation Strategy.”

As part of the pollution strategy, the council had explored potentially introducing a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) charge for drivers on roads in and around the forest by 2025.

However, there are no concrete plans to do so and Conservative councillors have insisted they will do all they can to avoid a CAZ and reduce air pollution by other means.

The advisory group, which Cllr Bedford claimed would be set up within a month, will work to “identify initiatives which could improve air quality and remove the need to introduce a Clean Air Zone”.

It would also provide “democratic oversight” of any potential CAZ scheme.

Cllr Bedford added: "No design work for a CAZ, or charging fee level, has been agreed. Like most members here, I would strongly like to avoid the need for a CAZ and believe we must all come together to try an achieve this. We must find new initiatives which reduce pollution in the forest.”

The Shelley Ward Tory councillor warned failure to reduce emissions may end in the Planning Inspector rejecting the council’s Local Plan – currently up for approval – resulting in the district development targets almost doubling to about 21,000 homes.

Currently, the council faces a backlog of proposed developments which it cannot approve until meets certain environmental criteria set by Natural England to protect Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) – of which Epping Forest was deemed in 2005.

Loughton Residents Association councillor, Cllr Chris Pond, argued a CAZ would not protect Epping Forest and instead called for the council to move developments in the south of the district away from the forest.

Cllr Holly Whitbread told councillors she was opposed to a CAZ, but insisted the council had to take steps to address pollution or face the Government stripping it of its planning powers.

The Conservative housing portfolio holder said: “I support the amendment but do not support the CAZ… It is something I do not want and want to avoid and I hope to be one of the many voices advocating that we do everything we can to avoid this.

She continued: “I want to enable appropriate and sustainable development. Unlike some members of the opposition I am a realist not an idealist. Without a strategy we open ourselves up to potentially uncontrolled development, larger quantities of development. We could even have a CAZ imposed upon us.”

Green Party councillor Simon Heap, who voted against the amendment, said the advisory group would not achieve “anything constructive or helpful”.

“It just kicks the can down the road”, he said. “It doesn’t move development away from the SAC, it doesn’t address the impact of the M25.

“We have to think about what can do now to help the forest, because the forest is in a bad state. What we can do is move building away from the SAC right now. And that will save the forest.”

There had been widespread public opposition to the introduction of a CAZ. The Say No To Clean Air Zone Facebook group has amassed more than 3,500 followers.

Leader of the council, Cllr Chris Whitbread addressed those members to try and assure them the council was working to avoid a CAZ.

He said: “A CAZ is not yet set out as the only solution. We have not discussed how it will be designed, what vehicles will be included, and we certainly have not discussed or agreed any charging strategy. It won’t be required until 2025, if at all, if I have my way.

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