GB Q&A: Less cars and zero carbon in Oxford

Government Business talks to Councillor Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council deputy leader and cabinet member for Green Transport and Zero Carbon Oxford, about Britain’s first Zero Emission Zone and reducing road transport

GB: Oxford launched Britain’s first Zero Emission Zone in February. What affect did the announcement of the scheme have on local businesses and residents last year? And what impact do you think the ‘go live’ will have this year?

The Zero Emission Zone was first announced in 2018 and has been developed over the past five years in partnership with businesses and residents within the zone. When necessary, we have updated the proposals timelines in response to what is best for businesses. This is one reasons why we introduced a part-time Zero Emission Zone from 7am to 7pm, and have applied a charge for non-compliant vehicles rather than banning them completely.

As part of the pilot scheme, vehicles registered to an individual  business in the zone are eligible for a 90 per cent discount for a maximum of 10 vehicles until 2025. Registration to apply for the scheme opened in December in order to allow businesses at least six weeks to register their vehicles. In addition to ensuring that the charging schedule was reasonable and proportional for business affected, we have  provided businesses with advice and support on how to transition to zero emission vehicles assisted by the Energy Saving Trust, ahead of the zone’s implementation. We are continuing with this support for the pilot and as we prepare for the wider scheme roll out.

Oxford is not alone in introducing an emission based scheme – Birmingham, Bath, and Portsmouth have all introduced Clean Air Zones, and London has expanded its Low Emission Zone.  Businesses across the country are adapting to similar schemes and changing their practices to help clean up our air.

We have seen several companies moving to electric in Oxford ahead of the Zero Emission Zone launch, this includes our own wholly owned company, ODS which has purchased several electric vehicles including an electric refuse collection truck. With the start of the pilot zone, we hope to see all deliveries made within the zone using a zero emission delivery. There are a number of zero emission delivery companies already operating in Oxford and we hope that this market will develop to accommodate deliveries within the zone.  

GB: Having first declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, the council recently revealed it was pursuing a strengthened definition of Net Zero. How will this improve efforts to reach zero carbon across operations by 2030?

We adopted a strengthened definition of Net Zero following advice from our Scientific Advisor, Professor Nick Eyre and the emerging consensus is that Net Zero can be achieved by working to reduce emissions as far to zero as possible, relying on offsets only as a last resort to deal with any residual emissions.

We always said that we would act in listen to the science and act in line with what the experts are saying, so that our public can have confidence in our plans and join us in decarbonising. The strengthened definition means that we now have a more accurate description of our existing plans, rather than a changing our current level of ambition.

We will be continuing to reduce our emissions by 526tCO2 each year through replacing our gas boilers, decarbonising our fleet vehicles, and looking for opportunities to support local renewable projects.

GB: Oxford is seeking to achieve a 25 per cent reduction in road transport by 2030. Can local action, building on behaviour changes during the pandemic, prove sustainable without renewed government investment?

In order to achieve a zero carbon transport network in the city by 2040, we are wanting to reduce vehicle usage by 30 per cent by 2040, and as part of this journey we want to achieve a 25 per cent reduction by 2030. In order to achieve this we need to cycling, walking, home-working, car sharing and car clubbing across the city.

The pandemic saw a sudden shift in how we move, and here it Oxford was no different.  During the first lockdown, we saw a 60 per cent reduction in NO2 levels in Oxford due to the significant reduction in fossil fuel traffic – this is the lowest level recorded in the city since we first starting monitoring air quality in 1996. Alongside this, data from Oxfordshire County Council found that between 23 March to 31 December 2020, traffic levels reduced by 35 per cent in Oxford’s city centre.

Coming out of the pandemic we’ve been working to build back better to help encourage and support this transition. In order to do this, we need a strong public transport network, as well as support for cyclists and pedestrians.  We are working with the County Council to create a sustainable and reliable transport system which includes a city wide workplace parking levy, traffic filters and a wider zero emission zone, together with improved public transport and cycle routes.

Buses are vital for us to achieve this goal, and we have seen in recent months the need to support our buses which are still recovering from the pandemic. In order to achieve this, the government needs to make long-term commitments to funding and protect our local communities, our economy and our jobs, which depend on bus travel. One, full, double-decker bus can take up to 75 cars off the road, which means fewer private cars, less congestion, quicker and more reliable journeys, and a low carbon transport network.

GB: What is the Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership?

The Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership is a group of major businesses and organisations that support the ambition of achieving net zero carbon emissions as a city by 2040.

The partnership replaces the Low Carbon Oxford partnership which was established a decade ago and shifts the focus more strongly towards organisations working collaboratively to achieve net zero by 2040.

The work of the partnership is informed by the Zero Carbon Oxford roadmap, which was published in July 2021, and develops a comprehensive action plan covering all of the city’s major sources of emissions – most prominently transport and buildings.

Over the past few months the Steering Group has been working on several Sprint Groups looking at key areas where rapid progress is necessary including building retrofit and active travel. In November the partnership wrote the government, welcoming the start of the COP26 summit and highlighting the need for concentrated action from government. In February in partnership met in person for the first time since its creation, and it was wonderful moment to have everyone together. I am excited to see how it will progress over the coming months and years.  

You can find out more about the Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership at

GB: Aiming for an average yearly cut in its carbon emissions of 10 per cent, every year until 2030, how important is a rapid switch to decarbonising power for heating systems across Oxford’s buildings?

In order to reach our target of becoming a net Zero Carbon Council by 2030 we know that we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 10 per cent each year. Reducing emissions from our heating systems is key to achieving this, and one of our largest areas of action is our leisure centres.

We are close to completing a large project which is aiming to significantly reduce carbon emissions at our Council owned leisure centres. Our leisure centres currently account for 40 per cent of our carbon emissions of our emissions. We are looking to replace our gas boilers with heat pumps that transfer heat from the air or water. Once complete the work will cut our overall carbon emissions as a council by around 21 per cent, which is vital as we work towards a zero carbon council, and a zero carbon Oxford.

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