ULEZ expansion: everything you need to know
The Ultra Low Emission Zone is expanding across Greater London from August 29. Here's what the changes mean for you...
If you live or work in Greater London, it is now far more expensive to drive an older car. The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) has expanded to cover almost all of the area inside the M25 motorway, encompassing around 600 square miles of territory and all 32 London boroughs.
Owners of cars that don’t meet the required emissions standards – broadly speaking, most diesels registered before September 2015 and petrols sold before January 2006 – now have to pay £12.50 a day to drive in the zone.
The widening of the scheme has been heavily criticised by motorists, businesses and some local authorities, because it will put an extra financial burden on those who can’t afford it.
To mitigate the financial impact on people and businesses a scrappage scheme providing up to £2000 to the cost of a replacement ULEZ car was announced at the start of 2023. Initially, the scheme was only available to families receiving child benefit payments, but it has since been extended to all Londoners.
What is the ULEZ and LEZ?
The ULEZ represents the next step after the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was introduced across Greater London in 2008, penalising higher-polluting vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes. The Government introduced the ULEZ in April 2019 in the wake of a 2017 court case brought by environmental lawyer group ClientEarth concerning poor air quality in British cities.
Expanded ULEZ map: where does ULEZ cover?
Initially, the ULEZ covered only the City of London and part of the central city – the same area as the Congestion Charge zone. It was expanded in October 2021 to include everything inside the North Circular and South Circular roads. At 236 square miles, London is home to 3.8 million people and its ULEZ is the largest zone of its kind in Europe.
ULEZ expansion in 2023
Since its expansion on 29 August 2023, the ULEZ now covers the majority of land within the M25 (including Heathrow Airport). It stretches as far north as Enfield, east to Rainham, west to Uxbridge and south to Croydon, but some areas, such as Chigwell, Epsom and Watford, won’t be affected.
London isn’t the only British city to levy a fee to deter more polluting vehicles from using its roads. Eleven other clean air zones are already in operation around England and Scotland, with at least two more in the pipeline.
Because road transport is the biggest source of air pollution, the long-term aim of the Government is to minimise the number of polluting vehicles in towns and cities to improve the health of those living and working in them.
How much does driving into the ULEZ cost?
Since 2008, large diesel vehicles that don’t meet Euro 6 emissions standards have been charged a daily fee of £100 to enter the original LEZ.
Now, a daily fee of £12.50 is levied on all diesel cars that don’t meet Euro 6 exhaust emissions standards and petrols that don’t comply with Euro 4. As a guide, most diesel cars registered before September 2015 will have to pay the fee, along with petrols sold before January 2006.
However, there are some exceptions. If you’re unsure about whether your vehicle complies with the rules, you can use the dedicated TfL vehicle checker.
Payment can be made up to 90 days in advance, or up to midnight on the third day after you’ve driven in the zone. There are three payment options: pay online via tfl.gov.uk, use the TfL Pay to Drive in London app, or set up an Auto Pay account via TfL.
The ULEZ operates for 24 hours a day, every day of the year except Christmas Day, unlike the Congestion Charge zone, which doesn’t impose restrictions at night. The ULEZ fee applies in addition to the £15 Congestion Charge, so if you have an older car and want to drive it into Westminster during the day, you’ll have to pay a total of £27.50.
What is poor air quality doing to our health?
The World Health Organization estimates that poor air quality leads to more than four million premature deaths worldwide each year, and in the UK that figure is around 36,000. The air in many UK cities regularly exceeds the legal limits for harmful gases, such as NOx (nitrogen oxide), which can aggravate breathing and lung problems, such as asthma, and can cause chronic lung disease and cancer after long-term exposure.
According to Transport for London (TfL), expanding the ULEZ across the capital is vital in tackling the triple challenges of air pollution, climate change and congestion. TfL’s director of transport strategy and policy, Christina Calderato, said: “Thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of toxic pollution, and it causes children to grow up with stunted lungs and increases the risk of dementia in older people, meaning we can’t afford to delay this essential expansion.”
Is the ULEZ working?
Since the initial ULEZ expansion, excluding the most recent expansion, the proportion of non-compliant cars entering the zone dropped by 54%, from an average of 124,000 vehicles a day to 67,000. That means around 95% of the vehicles driving in the zone now meet the tighter emissions standards, up from 87% in the weeks before the expansion, and up from 39% in 2017.
According to TfL, this has resulted in a substantial drop in the level of NOx measured in roadside air: the average in central London is 44% lower than it would have been without the ULEZ.
However, it hasn’t been as effective as TfL had anticipated. In fact, its latest report states that average roadside NOx emissions in the expanded ULEZ area between the North and South Circular roads remained relatively constant in 2022. This means the average amount of NOx in the air in the extended zone missed TfL’s reduction target by 21%.
What’s being done to help drivers of older cars?
To soften the blow of extending the scheme on those who live and work in Greater London, TfL launched a £110m scrappage scheme in January 2023 for those on certain low-pay and disability benefits. In August, the scheme was extended to all Londoners. A similar scheme in 2019 resulted in 15,000 non-compliant cars being scrapped, and it’s hoped the new scheme will help to remove thousands of older cars from the capital’s streets.
To find out more about the ULEZ scrappage schemes, you can read our full guide for cars or vans.
If you have a non-compliant car, and are thinking of selling it, one option is to let dealers bid for it online at websites such as motorway.co.uk.
ULEZ discounts and exemptions
Several types of vehicles benefit from temporary grace periods, discounts or even full exemption. Here are a few examples:
Vehicles for disabled people
Vehicles that are in specialised disabled vehicle tax classes may be eligible for a grace period that will last until 24 October 2027. Wheelchair-accessible private hire vehicles can also take advantage of this.
Any car registered as a taxi in London is exempt from the charge. The maximum age of a taxi is already restricted, and all new taxis must be zero-emissions capable.
Private cars that are more than 40 years old can be put into the historic vehicle tax class, which grants them ULEZ exemption. Additionally, all vehicles built before 1 January 1973 are fully ULEZ exempt, regardless of their use.
Minibuses used for community transport
Not-for-profit organisations can apply for a temporary 100% ULEZ charge discount, which will remain in place until 26 October 2025.
Certain other vehicle types may be exempt from the ULEZ charge, depending on specific circumstances. These include agricultural vehicles, military vehicles, excavators, mobile cranes and showman's vehicles.
Views on the ULEZ expansion
The latest ULEZ expansion is controversial and opposed by many. Critics say it’s simply a cash-raising exercise that’s badly timed alongside the rising cost of living, and that it is unlikely to bring significant improvements in air quality.
According to RAC research, TfL has collected £93.6m in fees since the first expansion of the ULEZ to within the North Circular and South Circular roads, and the next widening is going to be much bigger, so it will make even more money for the London authority.
“While we support the principle of the ULEZ to improve air quality, we are concerned that its expansion is taking place when drivers are already struggling with high fuel costs,” said an RAC spokesperson.
Those reservations are echoed by the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA). Chief executive Sue Robinson said: “The Mayor is forcing the residents of London to make a decision before they are ready. During a period of unprecedented financial struggle and in the midst of a cost of living crisis, families of low income might not be ready to make a transition to a newer vehicle, even with the scrappage scheme.”
Furthermore, many of the local authorities affected by the expansion do not believe their transport systems or residents are ready for the imminent change, and some are vehemently opposed to the introduction of the ULEZ within their boundaries.
Some boroughs have refused to sign a legal document allowing TfL to install some of the 2750 additional enforcement cameras that are needed for the new zone on their roads. However, TfL says it will install around 1800 (two-thirds) of the cameras on traffic lights, and this doesn’t require consent from the local authorities.
Five Conservative-led councils - Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Surrey - launched legal action over the expanded scheme. In April 2023 they were granted permission to challenge the legality of how the ULEZ plans developed in a judicial review, but they lost this case in the High Court on 29 July.
Councillor Colin Smith, leader of Bromley Council said the ruling was a "bitter disappointment" for motorists and traders who would have to "consider ceasing business and laying off staff".
Harrow Council leader, Paul Osborn, said: "It is a sad day for our residents and businesses who are worried about the impact the expansion will have on them when it comes into force."
Councillor Tim Oliver, leader of Surrey Council, said the decision will be respected but was "incredibly disappointing".
"This has always been about protecting Surrey residents, many of whom will now be significantly socially and financially impacted by the mayor's decision as they go about essential, everyday journeys," he said.
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