The Battle For Clean Air And The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ)

Apr 30, 2023 | News

The battle for clean air is continuing to divide people’s opinions. The implementation of the Ultra Low Emissions Zones (ULEZ) was aimed at reducing air pollution in areas where it has adversely affected air quality.

What ULEZ means for locals is that vehicles within designated zones are required to meet strict standards of emissions. Any vehicle that does not meet the emissions standard set is required to pay a daily charge to enter the ultra low emissions zone.

ULEZ was introduced in London in 2019, and since its rollout it has been implemented in other cities including Bristol, Birmingham, and Bath. The aim of ULEZ was to encourage people to upgrade their vehicles and reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road that cause the most pollution.

However, businesses and residents have expressed concerns about the financial impact of the daily charges and vehicle upgrade costs. ULEZ has faced a great deal of criticism since its implementation for being inaccessible, expensive, and inconvenient.

Later this year a legal challenge to ULEZ will be heard in the High Court after four London boroughs were given permission to challenge the policy.

Expansion of Ultra Low Emissions Zones – Questioning the Data

The legal challenge comes after the Mayor of London announced that he intends to expand ULEZ so that it covers the whole of London.

Critics of the expansion believe expanding ULEZ could adversely locals and have questioned its legality. There has also been some scepticism of the data relating to air quality that Transport for London (TFL) has produced with calls for the data to be re-examined.

According to TFL data, road transport is responsible for:

  • 31% of particulate matter
  • 44% of nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx), and
  • 28% of CO2 emissions

TFL believe that their data shows that the ULEZ expansion can result in a 5.4% reduction in NOx.

However, this has been challenged by City Hall Conservatives who refer to an independent assessment that states that the ULEZ expansion will only result in a ‘minor’ 1.3% reduction of NO2 pollution exposure.

Why Is ULEZ So Unpopular?

There are various reasons why people dislike ULEZ. One of the main reasons is the cost and inconvenience it has caused. ULEZ penalises lower-income families and potentially the most vulnerable in our society by targeting those households who cannot afford to replace their older vehicles.

AutoTrader has compiled data that shows that the median cost of a compliant ULEZ vehicle has risen since 2021 from approximately £12,900 to £18,300. The increase in cost together with the shortage of second-hand cars means that it will be harder for Londoners to replace their vehicles.

Upgrading vehicles is not an affordable option for many, especially during the cost of living crisis the UK is engulfed in. In addition to this, many people are being forced to alter their routes or consider alternative modes of transport to avoid the ULEZ charges. This can have a significant impact on those who require transport for work.
Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, has stated that the ULEZ charge disproportionately affects carers who will no longer be able to afford to work as transport is a key element of their role.

Data from the RAC (obtained from the DVLA database) has found that approximately 700,000 cars are not deemed to be ULEZ compliant. This has further fuelled arguments that the policy is expensive and will have a huge financial impact on residents and local businesses.

Whilst ULEZ is an important policy when it comes to improving public health and reducing air pollution, policymakers need to address the concerns that have been raised.

ULEZ as a policy needs to be equitable and accessible without disproportionately targeting the most vulnerable sections of society.

Alternative Data Driven Interventions To Reduce Air Pollution

There are alternative interventions that have been proven to improve air quality that are impactful and less divisive than ULEZ:

  • Green infrastructure: the government can invest in green infrastructure in London such as additional tree planting, green walls, more green spaces in urban areas.
  • Incentivising accessible changes: these could include assisting businesses with making sure they have cleaner supply chain vehicles and offering financial support with clean air interventions.
  • Targeting the root causes of real time air pollution: ensuring air quality is accurately monitored at key sites and locations enables business and site owners to directly tackle the cause. EMSOL’s approach with targeted real time air quality monitoring and camera technology provides critical insight and data relating to the who and what is causing pollution. Mapping and tracking air pollution levels will enable organisations to plan effective mitigation interventions and evidence improvements. The NHS case study is an amazing example where procurement and use this data to control supply chain emissions.
  • Working collaboratively with businesses across the region to examine policies that work in practical and financial terms.

The head of strategy for the Clean Cities Campaign, Oliver Lord, believes that the government and Sadiq Khan should work on a plan that supports Londoners rather than alienate them.

Many campaigners have become despondent with the political battleground that ULEZ has become in the last few years.

Sadiq Khan has not helped calm tensions by comparing those who are protesting against ULEZ to far right protestors and Covid deniers. Martin Lewis, the consumer finance expert, has also waded into the discussions surrounding ULEZ by reminding Sadiq Khan that the timing of the expansion of ULEZ is ‘pretty tough’ in the current economic market.

What is clear is that public opinion on clean air interventions is strong. In Manchester, protests and complaints led to the stalling of the proposed Clean Air Zone.

In February, the Telegraph reported that Downing Street could block the ULEZ expansion following requests from London MPs to the Secretary of State to examine the Mayor’s ULEZ strategy and possible conflicts with the national transport strategy.

ULEZ – The Legal Battle

The unpopularity of ULEZ has led to a looming legal battle consisting of a coalition of four Conservative led London councils and Surrey who have joined forced to ask for a judicial review of ULEZ. Their aim is to halt the expansion of ULEZ.

There is no doubt that ULEZ will massively impact key workers and tradespeople. If the ULEZ expansion is stopped then the government and the Mayor of London will have to consider alternative measures to reduce air pollution.

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