Why London’s ULEZ Emissions Charge Became a Political Football

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When the UK’s governing Conservative Party managed against the odds to hold onto former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s parliamentary seat in a special election this month, one issue stood out: the plan by London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, to expand punitive pollution charges on drivers to the capital’s outer boroughs. The expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, is due to take effect in late August, after a ULEZ court decision on Friday found the plan lawful. But its successful weaponization by the Conservatives in the Uxbridge vote highlights the challenge of fixing environmental problems during a cost-of-living crisis. 

The ULEZ is an area of the capital that drivers of high-polluting vehicles have to pay a charge to drive in. The idea — designed to reduce air pollution as well as congestion — was initially proposed by Johnson himself in 2015 when he served as mayor. But it was implemented by Khan in 2019 in inner London and later expanded to border the capital’s North Circular and South Circular roads in 2021. It currently covers about a quarter of London’s urban area, from Tottenham in the north to Brixton in the south. Khan plans to expand it to the outer boroughs on Aug. 29.

Users of vehicles that don’t meet specified standards on emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter have to pay £12.50 ($16) per day to drive in the zone and face fines of up to £180 if they don’t. The system is policed by cameras around London that scan registration plates to check whether vehicles need to pay the charge. Most gasoline-powered cars manufactured since 2006 are compliant, as are most diesel cars made since September 2016. The zone operates 24 hours a day, every day except Christmas. 

Emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOX, in the current area covered by ULEZ have been cut by 26% since 2019, according to a progress report published in February. Nitrogen dioxide levels were 46% lower in central London than they would have been without the policy, while output of particulate matter known as PM2.5s dropped by 19%. “I’ve been measuring air pollution in London for 30 years and it is hard to think of another urban-scale policy that has been as effective as the central and inner London ULEZ,” said Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at Imperial College London. 

4. So why is it controversial?

The main controversy is around Khan’s plan to enlarge the ULEZ zone to the entirety of greater London. It means the area will also cover London’s leafier boroughs and villages beyond the central urban sprawl, where more residents use cars and public transport is scarcer. The London mayor says the move is needed to tackle toxic air. His critics say it’s wrong to impose extra charges on motorists during a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis. While the climate and the environment are among the top five issues for voters, “people want support and help to go green, not feel they’re being forced into it before they’re financially able,” said Jack Richardson of think tank UK Onward. 

5. Why has it become a political issue?

The ULEZ expansion became a flash point in the July by-election to replace Johnson in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, an area that is set to be covered by the new extended zone, with many voters viewing the vote as a referendum on Khan’s plans. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives seized on the issue, with the local Tory candidate presenting himself as the “Stop ULEZ” option, even though the matter is within the remit of London’s City Hall and not the UK parliament in Westminster. Even the Labour candidate in the by-election said it wasn’t the right time to expand ULEZ, marking a split with Khan. In the vote, the Tories unexpectedly held Johnson’s old seat, prompting even more calls to rethink UK climate policies.

6. Will the ULEZ enlargement be scrapped?

Khan is facing pressure from Labour MPs to row back the enlargement for fear it may cause further political damage to their party. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who initially said that Khan has a legal obligation to take measures to tackle air pollution, on July 26 told BBC Radio that the mayor should “reflect” on the ULEZ expansion due to the “impact it’s having on people.” While the next UK election isn’t due until January 2025, Khan is up for reelection in May. By then the policy should have been in place for months and many Londoners who feared it might affect them will have realized their vehicles aren’t hit by the charge. Transport for London said nine out of 10 cars currently driving in outer London already meet the ULEZ emission standards. Moreover, Khan has put in place a £110 million scrappage program to help poorer people replace their old vehicles with newer ones.

• A Bloomberg UK Politics podcast on how local tension over the ULEZ affected the election outcome.

• A QuickTake explainer on congestion pricing and why New York is the latest convert.

• More on the potential legal roadblock to the ULEZ expansion.

• TFL’s ULEZ web page.

–With assistance from Ellie Harmsworth and Paul Geitner.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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