Diesel car owners are likely to face more restrictions on driving in city centres, under government plans to improve air quality, a media report said. New 'clean air zones' charging or even banning the most polluting vehicles are likely to be needed in six English cities that are projected to fail EU air quality standards by 2020, the Daily Telegraph reported, citing a new strategy paper from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton should all “consider the role of access restrictions for certain types of vehicles”, the department said. The cities should also look at introducing low-emission buses and taxis and consider installing electric car charging points, upgrading cycling infrastructure and introducing or expanding park and ride schemes.

Currently 38 out of 43 geographical ‘zones’ in the UK are failing EU air quality standards due to high levels of nitrogen dioxide – the gas that is emitted by burning fuels, especially diesel, DEFRA said. Nitrogen dioxide causes 23,500 deaths a year, according to its new estimates. Figures also suggest 29,000 people are killed each year by particulates produced by diesel, although Defra sources suggested to the Telegraph there may be some overlap between the numbers.

The UK could face hundreds of millions of pounds in EU fines as a result of its poor air quality and in April the UK supreme court ordered ministers to set out plans to tackle the failings by the end of the year. According to the report, the new Defra paper said, on current projections, 35 out of 43 UK zones will be compliant with EU rules by 2020 – more than had been thought, thanks to improvements in vehicle emissions standards. However, the six cities it identifies, as well as the eastern and South Wales zones, are on track to fail without further improvements.

London is already planning to introduce the UK’s first ultra-low emissions zone from 2020 and roll out more electric and hybrid buses in coming years.