Coming soon: the £24 charge for driving into central London

This April will see the start of what the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, proclaims will be the toughest emissions standards for vehicles in any world city. Will it be a historic turning point in the battle against filthy air in our cities – or will it prompt “yellow vest” style protests from furious drivers?

Many motorists are unaware of how strict – and expensive – the new rules are for the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ), which starts on 8 April this year. Diesel cars manufactured before 2015 are likely to fall foul of the rules, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars. They will be charged £12.50 to come into central London at any time, on top of the £11.50 congestion charge, which operates from Monday to Friday 7am to 6pm.

Then from October 2021 the zone will be hugely expanded, with mums and dads on the school run potentially affected, as 3.6 million London residents are brought into the scheme. Any cars failing to meet the standards by then will have to pay £12.50 a day if they are driven anywhere in an area bounded by the city’s north and south circular roads.

ULEZ map

Precisely how many drivers will be hit with the charge are unknown, as many are likely to sell older vehicles before 2021. Transport for London says there are about 1.15m vehicles currently registered in the expanded ULEZ.

It says: “When the zone expands to the north and south circular in 2021 we estimate that 80% of car kilometres driven within the zone, on an average day, would be by cars that already meet the ULEZ standard.” It adds that 90% of motorcycles are likely to be compliant by 2021.

But that still leaves at least 100,000 cars or more paying the charge – which critics are calling a new “poll tax” on Londoners that they claim will rake in as much as £750m to £1.5bn from hard-pressed motorists. But TfL says the expected impact will be much less – it projects that in 2019-20, the first year of the ULEZ, revenue will be £174m and costs £47m, producing a surplus of £127m.

In 2021, when the greatly expanded zone comes into force, TfL is projecting annual revenue to jump to £222m, but costs will also rise as a new generation of enforcement cameras are installed. It estimates costs in 2021-22 will be £125m, so the surplus will fall to £97m.

The battle to bring healthy air to city residents is not just in London. In 2020 Birmingham is planning to introduce pollution charges on cars driving within the city’s ring road, with a £6 to £10 fee mooted. In Leeds there are radical plans to charge the most polluting vehicles up to £50 a day to enter a new clean air zone from January 2020. Meanwhile, Bath has plans to charge many motorists £9 a day to drive into its Georgian streets, but the proposals have provoked anger and resentment.

The idea behind London’s ULEZ is a determination to clean up the city’s filthy air – widely regarded as the dirtiest of any major city in Europe. At least 360 primary schools in the capital are in areas exceeding safe legal pollution levels, half of which comes from cars, lorries and buses.

TfL expects that after just the first year of the ULEZ, harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in central London will reduce by 45%, and 40% in the surrounding areas. It says: “The expansion of the ULEZ to the north and south circulars will deliver a further 20% reduction across London. This is the next step in the mayor of London’s ultimate goal of creating a zero emissions from road transport by 2050.”



Black cabs – even older models – will escape the new emissions charge. Photograph: Peter Brooker/Rex/Shutterstock

But expansion of the zone to cover far greater parts of London, and the speed of its implementation, has provoked a fierce backlash from some. An analysis of submissions to the consultation document found that 56% either supported or strongly supported the expansion of the ULEZ, but 40% were opposed or strongly opposed.

Thousands signed an open letter from the Healthy Air campaign, which said: “I strongly welcome the mayor’s commitment to tackling London’s illegal and harmful levels of air pollution. Road transport is a major source of air pollution and we need urgent action to tackle this.”

Friends of the Earth went further, calling for a bigger ULEZ, and sooner. It said: “The ULEZ must come into force much sooner than planned – by the end of 2018 at the latest. Londoners shouldn’t have to wait until 2021 for cleaner air. The zone must cover the whole of London to make a difference, extending beyond the north and south circular roads and including all of outer London too.”

But there are numerous opponents, such as the Alliance of British Drivers and motorbike groups – and even the Musician’s Union. The Motorcycle Action Group said: “Will the mayor compensate the thousands of low-paid workers using small, older motorbikes because it’s all they can afford, and what scheme will he be setting up to pay the difference in cost between cheap, older bikes and expensive public transport?”

How will motorists in London react? Many will only be waking up to the charges just weeks before they come into force.

Guardian journalist Graham Snowdon, who lives in Herne Hill, south London, and was driving a 2006 Ford Focus 1.8 diesel, says that he has been forced to buy a new car as a result of the ULEZ changes. “I drive into what’s currently the congestion charge zone once a week to play football. But it’s in the evening, and I don’t have to pay. The first I knew about ULEZ was an email I got from TfL. I knew it was expanding, but I didn’t know what it entailed. It was going to cost me £12.50 a week from this April – and then £12.50 every day from 2021, so I had to get rid of the car.

“But I suppose that I’m not that annoyed; NOx emissions are really dangerous, and it’s good in a way that I’ve been forced to do this. The Ford Focus could probably have done another 50,000 miles or so. Instead, I’ve paid £8,000 for a second-hand 2014 Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost, and the bonus is that my car tax will now only be £30 a year. I thought I better buy a new car now, ahead of April. When other people wake up to this, I think it’s going to have quite an impact on the second-hand car market.”

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