Ghent will push forward with plans to extend a ban on polluting vehicles beyond the city centre, despite warnings that it risked aggravating inequality between residents.
City officials said that the extension of the Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) was “not up for discussion” and that it would be implemented within the next four years.
The current LEZ, which entered into force on 1 January, bans the most polluting vehicles from the city centre contained within the R40 ring road, with drivers found in violation of the ban risking a fine of up to €150.
Since its implementation was announced, the LEZ has remained a divisive issue among local officials and it has also faced opposition from city residents.
A representative for the labour PDVA party said that blindly pushing ahead with a LEZ expansion would negatively impact Ghent’s low-income residents, warning that a stricter ban risked creating a de-facto “high-income zone.”
“My mailbox is full of complaints about the LEZ. The LEZ is not a solution, it is a tax on small incomes, because big earners do not drive around with an old diesel,” the labour party’s Tom De Meester said, HLN reports. “We must be careful to not turn Ghent into a high-income zone.”
De Meester also called out the city’s lax approach to enforcing the ban, noting that hundreds of thousands of euros had already been raised as the city granted exemptions to allow polluting vehicles inside the LEZ even after its implementation.
Despite the opposition, the city council approved the expansion of the LEZ as well as an evaluation into its impact, whose contents were left undecided but could include impacts on air quality, mobility alternatives and social accompanying measures.
“The study will determine the way in which we expand the LEZ, but we will extend the LEZ in this legislature because all Ghent residents have the right to healthy air,” the green party’s environment alderwoman, Tine Heyse, said, adding that the city would “not reduce our environmental ambitions.”
Another green party representative said that even after the evaluation, the expansion of the LEZ would “not be put up for discussion.”
The decision to go ahead with the expansion also comes as mobility observers warn that Belgian cities should be wary of rolling out new LEZ or expanding existing ones without a comprehensive strategy.
“As long as the functioning and impacts are not clear, and as long as there are no viable [transport] alternatives, a LEZ is more akin to an anti-vehicle policy than environmental policy,” Touring spokesperson Lorenzo Stefani said in a phone interview.