Car park charges based on emissions: are they fair?

A growing number of councils are penalising drivers of petrol and diesel cars who use public car parks. We look at the pros and cons of this CO2-based strategy...

Large and small cars in car park spaces

You’ve probably heard about the regional low emissions and clean air zones that are being introduced to towns and cities around the UK in a bid to reduce air pollution caused by nitrogen oxide (NOx) particulates. And if you live in or near Greater London, you’re likely to know someone who’s been affected by the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Now some local councils around England are introducing a range of new parking fees that have a similar emissions-reducing goal. However, instead of targeting older, more polluting cars (as the ULEZ and regional clean air zones do), the new emissions-based parking tariffs affect all petrol and diesel cars, including the latest, low-particulate models.

Local authorities in England aren't alone in using higher parking fees to deter certain vehicles from entering cities, Paris has recently tripled the cost of parking heavier SUVs in the inner parts of the city.  

In the UK, the first council outside London to introduce emissions-based fees in its public car parks is Bath and North East Somerset. It has increased the hourly rates for cars with CO2 emissions of 132g/km or more on a sliding scale based on the CO2 bands used to calculate road tax. It has also introduced a 50-pence surcharge for diesels. While Bath’s surcharge is small, the higher rates for diesels signal a worrying trend for owners of newer cars – especially if they have similar CO2 emissions to their petrol counterparts.

Where are emissions-based fees charged? 

There are seven hourly rates for electric, petrol and hybrid cars in Bath, and seven different ones for diesels. The cost for an hour’s parking in a non-diesel car with a CO2 output of 0-131g/km is £1.70, while a diesel in the same emissions band is charged £2.20. For a petrol model with emissions of 255g/km or more, the hourly rate is £2, increasing to £2.50 for diesels.

Many councils already base resident parking permit fees on cars’ CO2 outputs and charge more for diesels, so the new approach to public car park tariffs was perhaps inevitable. And Bath is unlikely to be the last to move in that direction. In Hertfordshire, St Albans council has announced plans to introduce similar parking fees, and a spokesperson for parking app provider PayByPhone told us that many other authorities outside of London are looking to do likewise.

Along with RingGo, PayByPhone is one of the main providers of parking apps that are able to identify a car’s road tax band from its numberplate and charge fees accordingly. Drivers have to enter their car’s registration details when paying for parking, and the charge is automatically calculated by the app.

Where is the most expensive place to park a diesel car? 

The situation is worse for diesel drivers in parts of London, where parking charges are far higher and penalise diesels over petrol cars with higher emissions. Croydon, Greenwich, Lewisham, Merton and Newham have already brought in some form of emissions-based car park charging, and the most recent borough to make the change is Lambeth, introducing its own scheme in May 2023.

We’ve calculated the cost of parking a version of the Range Rover Evoque, which we regard as the best diesel car, in a car park in Brixton, compared with a petrol equivalent. A 2.0-litre diesel D165 with emissions of 168g/km pays £7.09 to park in the Pope’s Road car park for an hour, or £56.72 for an eight-hour stay. A 2.0-litre petrol Evoque P200 (which emits 200g/km of CO2) costs £5.12 an hour, or £40.96 for eight hours. So, the lowerCO2 diesel pays £15.76 more for a day ’s parking.

The sliding scale can be confusing for drivers, because it means Lambeth charges a different amount for each of the 13 emissions bands, plus a diesel surcharge for each, so there are now 26 potential rates that can be levied.

Parking charges at Pope’s Road car park, Brixton (Lambeth borough)

CO2 emissions Non-diesel 1hr fee Diesel 1hr fee
0g/km £3.94  
1-50g/km £4.02 £6.03
51-75g/km £4.10 £6.15
76-90g/km £4.18 £6.26
91-100g/km £4.26 £6.36
101-110g/km £4.33 £6.50
111-130g/km £4.41 £6.62
131-150g/km £4.53 £6.80
151-170g/km £4.73 £7.09
171-190g/km £4.93 £7.39
191-225g/km £5.12 £7.68
226-255g/km £5.32 £7.98
More than 255g/km £5.52 £8.27

Is there opposition to emissions-based parking charges? 

Like the latest expansion of London’s ULEZ scheme, which was opposed by many residents (and some boroughs), these new parking charges are contentious. When Lambeth consulted residents prior to their introduction, 59% of people opposed them, but the council went ahead with the change anyway.

At the time, Lambeth councillor Rezina Chowdhury said: “We were the first London borough to declare a climate emergency, and we have set a target to slash our carbon emissions to make Lambeth a net-zero borough by 2030. These changes will make our parking fees structure fairer and ensure that those who pollute the most are charged the most to park.”

Robert Forrester, CEO of dealership groups Bristol Street Motors and Vertu, said the ULEZ and parking fee changes were likely to affect the values of diesels. “At present, the north of England is benefiting from the anti-motorist policies in the south,” he said, “because owners of cars in the expanded ULEZ area are trying to get out of [non-compliant] cars, and there is strong demand for them further north.

“However, if [newer] diesels were penalised across the whole country, there would be a significant impact on their values, because the remaining market for them would be substantially reduced.”

What is happening outside the UK? 

The latest development elsewhere is in Paris, where the cost of parking a heavy combustion-engined SUV has been increased from €6 (£5) for the first hour to €18 (£16) in inner Paris. That's three times higher than the €6 (£5) per hour fee for smaller cars.

And anyone wanting to park for longer will incur an even bigger fee: a six-hour stay for an SUV will cost €225 (£192), compared to €75 (£64) for smaller vehicles.

The higher parking fees apply to petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, weighing 1.6 tonnes or more and electric SUVs weighing two tonnes or more. However, there is an exemption for vehicles owned by residents of the area covered by the new charges, and for drivers with disabilities and commercial vehicles such as taxis. 

The move is part of a long-term plan to make Paris a city for cyclists; 84 kilometres of cycle lanes have been created there since 2020, and there has been a 71% jump in bike usage between the end of the Covid lockdowns and 2023, according to official city figures.

Around 1.3 million Parisians were asked to vote on the new parking enforcement charges, and although the increase was approved by 55% of those who voted, the turnout was just 6%. 

What Car? says...

The premise that the most polluting vehicles pay more than the greenest ones sounds good in principle, but the fact that the new parking charges in England are based on CO2 emissions rather than NOx or other emissions that are harmful to humans means that, in many instances, they are unfairly penalising owners of newer cars that don’t actually put out much pollution.

We understand that councils are duty-bound to reduce harmful air pollution in towns and cities, but it would be fairer if the fees were based on particulate emissions rather than CO2 outputs.

Similarly, the latest fees levied in Paris don't take into account the lower emissions of hybrid and electric SUVs, and penalise them alongside combustion-engined models. 

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