The point of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is to ensure the most toxic, polluting vehicles are removed from the city’s roads. There’s been renewed political interest in it since the Mayor Sadiq Khan announced its London-wide expansion. But along with that has come rising opposition across the political spectrum.
The recent tenth anniversary of Ella Kissi Debra’s death demonstrates the need for the ULEZ. Hers was the first death globally where air pollution was officially given as the cause on her death certificate. Nine year old Ella lived in Lewisham, London, near an area that even now, ten years later, constantly exceeds the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. The recent BreatheForElla event to mark the anniversary, restated the gravity of the problem. Despite her tragic death, air pollution in London and across the UK persists. It’s been a long time coming, but ‘Ella’s Law’ (the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill) aims to address it. The private members bill recently returned to parliament for its second reading in the House of Commons. If passed, it will establish the right of people in England and Wales to breathe clean air, and it will require the government to achieve and maintain that.
Exposure to traffic related air pollution, such as PM2.5 particulate pollution and NO2 can have devastating impacts on human health, including causing premature births, stunting children’s lungs, asthma, heart disease and strokes. And a growing body of evidence suggests it increases the risk of dementia.
Expanding the zone could save the NHS £5 billion by 2050
In London alone, air pollution causes around 4,000 premature deaths each year, with some outer boroughs suffering the city’s highest deaths. Around 600,000 Londoners live with a lung condition, and over half of those live in outer London. This health burden is not shared evenly across the city. Evidence shows those living in the poorest areas are seven times more likely to die from a lung condition than those in the wealthiest areas. It’s expected the ULEZ expansion will save the NHS approximately £5 billion by 2050, avoiding 300,000 new cases of air quality related disease and reducing hospital admissions.
This is not only a public health concern but an environmental one. Traffic pollutants contribute to poorer local environments and global climate change. Transport is the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector in the UK, with half of these coming from road transport. The Greater London Authority estimates the ULEZ expansion will save 27,000 tonnes of CO2.
The ULEZ involves incentives and penalties. In August 2023 it will apply to an additional five million Londoners. It will operate all day every day, charging non-compliant vehicles £12.50 daily for entering the zone. Compliance in outer London is already at around 85 per cent, meaning most drivers won’t be affected at all. For those driving older polluting vehicles, the expansion is accompanied by a £110 million means tested scrappage scheme, allowing eligible residents and businesses to scrap or adapt their non-compliant vehicles. They can use the cash offered to buy annual bus and tram passes or newer vehicles. And, alongside this there will be the biggest expansion of the bus network in outer London to date.
Recent research by Possible has identified a correlation between those London boroughs opposing the ULEZ expansion and those which have implemented fewer electric vehicle chargepoints, protected cycle lanes and bus priority lanes.
Push back has come from all angles, including Boris Johnson (former London mayor and professed ‘green’ PM); five Tory councils have launched a legal challenge against it; the union Unite, which claims the scheme is ‘anti-worker’; and Labour MPs from outer London boroughs have declared their scepticism of the scheme.
Arguments for ULEZ expansion are stronger than those against it
One claim is that it’s just a money making scheme. But Transport for London (TfL) are legally obliged to reinvest all the revenue raised from the ULEZ back into London’s transport system. Compliance is high with more than four out of five drivers in outer London already driving compliant vehicles, and as compliance goes up (the purpose of the scheme) the income will go down.
Another argument is that it’ll hit the poorest hardest during a cost of living crisis. But only five per cent of the lowest income Londoners own a car. And it’s this section of the population that is more likely to suffer from the toxic air pollution the scheme is trying to address. The scrappage scheme – the biggest ever – is designed to help low income and disabled Londoners, charities and sole traders move to low emission vehicles. This argument against the ULEZ also doesn’t stand up well because it’s clear that it’s what most people want: YouGov polling shows twice as many Londoners support the expansion than oppose it.
To those that say the ULEZ isn’t necessary in outer London boroughs, it’s worth highlighting that the largest number of air pollution related premature deaths occur in those boroughs. Extending the ULEZ to cover these areas will cut exposure to toxic air for five million more Londoners, specifically improving the lives of residents in the outer boroughs.
Some say we should just wait for electric vehicles to solve air pollution. But, although the electric vehicle transition is well underway, particularly in London, it will still take over a decade for every new car to be electric, and polluting vehicles will stay on our roads, damaging public health and the environment, unless there are measures to remove them. Also, while electric vehicles are zero emission at the tailpipe they are still a source of particulate air pollution from brake and tyre wear.
Recent research from the Greater London Authority and TfL demonstrates that the ULEZ has been an undeniable success in reducing pollution from traffic by nearly half. There are now around 74,000 fewer vehicles driving in the zone each day, which is a fall of 60 per cent.
When the congestion charge and ULEZ were introduced there was opposition, so resistance isn’t new. But politically, this is the right decision, for public health, environmental and economic reasons. The UK and London have a longstanding history of air pollution, see the famous Great Smog of London in 1952. Unfortunately, the negative health and environmental impacts we are suffering from now are all too familiar. It’s time to tackle this once and for all.