The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is being expanded to cover the entire Greater London area on 29 August 2023. The move has been met with strong criticism from Londoners, home county residents and others commuting into the capital.
But recent news suggests that Westminster could use powers to block the changes. We provide some background on ULEZ below and explain what this development could mean for the expansion of the scheme.
What is the ULEZ?
ULEZ is a London emission charging scheme that was introduced by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan in 2019. It is administered by Transport for London (TfL) – a local government transport agency.
You can check if your vehicle is ULEZ compliant by running a free Total Car Check
ULEZ is designed to reduce harmful emissions in London and improve air quality. It is one of several emission reducing charging schemes covering cities across the UK.
The scheme levies a charge of £12.50 a day and up to £180 penalty charge for any non-compliant vehicle that enters the ULEZ.
To avoid the ULEZ charge vehicles must meet ULEZ emission standards. Most commercial vehicles weighing over 3.5 tonnes, buses, coaches and mini-buses are exempt from the scheme. They are covered by a separate London Emission Zone (LEZ) scheme.
ULEZ operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, except on Christmas Day (25 December).
ULEZ runs in addition to the London Congestion Charge which covers Central London only. So if you have a vehicle which is not ULEZ compliant then driving into Central London could lead to you paying charges under both schemes.
ULEZ currently covers the area encircled by the North and South Circular roads in London.
How is ULEZ being expanded?
The ULEZ area will grow to cover the entirety of Greater London from 29 August 2023. The expansion will mean that the ULEZ charging area will come out as far as the M25 in places. A map of the expanded ULEZ area is available on the TfL website here. The expansion was approved and announced by the Mayor in November 2022.
Criticism of the expansion
The Mayor has pushed ahead with the expansion during the cost of living crisis. This has angered an increasing number of Londoners who feel they are being priced out of the city. Affected residents have only been given 9 months to find a new ULEZ compliant vehicle, so must suffer the daily charge.
The new ULEZ will affect those living in the outer boroughs of London as well as inner London residents. Many don’t consider themselves to live or travel in London and yet will be liable to pay the ULEZ charge.
Several outer London boroughs have much lower levels of air pollution compared to the rest of the capital. Councils in these areas and residents therefore question why ULEZ is needed in these areas.
The outer ULEZ boundary in some cases crosses into territory that councils believe is not under the jurisdiction of the Greater London Authority (GLA). The scheme will therefore impact on non-London residents.
Impact on non-Londoners
New data from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) suggests that 1.5 million people living outside of London could be affected by the expanded ULEZ. The DVLA have also calculated that 30% of all vehicles in the UK are not ULEZ compliant. These drivers would be liable to pay the daily charge if they entered into London.
What is Government’s views on ULEZ expansion?
Whitehall officials in Westminster are looking into whether Sadiq Khan has exceeded his powers as London Mayor by expanding the ULEZ. These are determined by the GLA Act. Within this legislation the Government has powers to veto new proposals if they are not consistent with national policies and impact on areas outside of Greater London.
Five local government authorities also believe the expansion is unlawful. Bromley, Bexley, Harrow and Hillingdon London Borough Councils and Surrey County Council issued a recent joint statement announcing legal action over the plans.
Many residents in these areas have asked their MPs and councillors to take action over the costs they will incur for driving in the new ULEZ which they don’t consider to be London.
The councils claim that the expansion of the scheme will have negligible benefits to the air quality of London while causing economic and social harm to residents. There has also been criticism from councils about the way TfL consulted with residents on the expansion plans. They claim that many votes against the proposals were excluded.
What is the London Mayor’s views on ULEZ expansion?
Sadiq Khan claims that the expansion is needed to help save lives by improving air quality in and around London. Far from conflicting with the Westminster Government, he argues that the scheme is aligned to its net zero strategy to reduce carbon emissions. He states that London and other cities have been given a remit by Westminster to tackle air pollution. The Mayor’s Office claims that since ULEZ was introduced in 2019 the scheme has already contributed to air pollution falling five times faster than the rest of the UK and averted over 1 million hospital admissions.
The Mayor has also pointed to the £110 million scrappage scheme his office has set up. This provides up to £2,000 for scrapping a car and £1,000 for a motorcycle that is not ULEZ compliant. Up to £5,000 is being provided for scrapping or retrofitting wheelchair adapted vehicles. London-based sole traders, micro-businesses (10 or fewer employees) and registered charities will also be able to apply to scrap or retrofit a van or minibus. But for private vehicle owners the scheme is only open to Londoners on low-incomes or receiving disability benefits.
Could the ULEZ expansion be stopped?
It is unlikely that the expansion will be stopped. But there is a possibility it could be delayed, or the new ULEZ area may be redefined.
Sadiq Khan’s timing is poor, but the new ULEZ does meet longer term Government objectives to lower carbon emissions. Although the legal powers of the Mayor could be challenged, the policy itself is one which is aligned to broader Government strategy. Westminster has also helped fund several Clean Air Zones in other cities across England which have implemented similar ULEZ like charging schemes. It may for this reason prove politically difficult for Government to step in and block the expansion. Especially by using legal powers that have never before been used.
But the action taken by Local Authorities in and around London will force the High Court to assess whether the Mayor has exceeded his powers. They hope that a high profile judicial review could lead to change before August 2023.
If change doesn’t happen then continuing political pressure and negative media coverage about the scheme may contribute to a newly elected Mayor in 2024. A new Mayor will then have the option of redefining ULEZ.
If any changes are made in 2024 or after then it may already be too late for those affected. By this point the political and economic climate could be different and residents will already have had to buy new vehicles to ensure ULEZ compliance.