Several cities around the UK have introduced an ultra low emissions zone, or ULEZ, as a way to deal with rising levels of pollution in city centres. London’s zone is by far the largest, but there are other similar zones which have already been introduced, or which have been proposed, for Glasgow, Bath, Birmingham, Manchester, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Sheffield.
Our guide below will tell you everything you need to know about London’s ULEZ. Other areas are following broadly similar rules and standards but the detail may vary between zones. For example, the Glasgow low emission zone which is due to begin operation in summer 2023 bans all vehicles which don’t meet the standards from entering the zone, without giving the option of paying a daily charge. Check carefully the differences between the London ULEZ and the system which will be operating in your area.
London introduced its ultra low emission zone, or ULEZ, in 2019, becoming the first world city to do so. In 2021, the zone was expanded to take in a much larger area of the city, and certain exemptions which had previously applied to residents living withing the zone were abolished. The current mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has proposed even more restrictions and an expansion of the ULEZ to cover all of Greater London by summer 2022.
The London ULEZ means that any driver whose vehicle doesn’t meet specific emissions standards has to pay to enter the zone. In London, any car or van which doesn’t meet the emissions standards has to pay £12.50 per day to enter the ULEZ area. Lorries, buses and coaches which do not meet emissions levels have to pay £100 per day. The ULEZ charge is completely separate from the congestion charge of £15. Many motorists wishing to drive through central London are therefore facing costs of £27.50 per day. The London Assembly’s own figures estimate that around 60,000 vehicles every day would be affected by the charged.
The idea behind a ULEZ is to make it more financially attractive for people to switch to less-polluting cars, or make the switch to using electric cars. Another aim is to incentivise people to switch away from using their car in London completely, and use public transport instead, or walk or cycle. Reducing the numbers of cars in the city will increase air quality and reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
Scientists looked at the impact of the ULEZ after it had been in operation for four months, and found a decrease of 13,500 in the number of cars being taken into the city every day. The resulting reduction in pollution and nitrogen oxides is estimated at 36%. Air pollution isn’t just a global warming issues, it’s a health issue too. Respected scientific bodies such as the World Health Organisation and Royal College of Physicians have estimated that across the UK, air pollution caused by traffic is a factor in the deaths of around 40,000 people every year. The most notable case which gained substantial media attention was the case of nine-year-old Londoner Ella Kissi-Debrah. The coroner ruled that in her case, high levels of air pollution caused by traffic made a “material contribution” to her death. A study run by Imperial College in London also found that in 2019, around 4,000 deaths in London could be attributed to air pollution in some degree. They also estimated that imposing stricter emissions levels could increase the life expectancy of London’s primary school children by six months.
The cars affected by the ULEZ are primarily older diesel and petrol models. Petrol cars which were built after 2006 and comply with the Euro 4 Emissions standards comply with the standards needed to enter the ULEZ.
Diesel cars and vans however have to conform to the much stricter Euro 6 Emissions standards, which were introduced in 2015. So if you are driving a diesel car made in 2015 or before, or a petrol car made in 2006 or before, your car may not be exempt. If you travel into the city regularly, it’s something to think about when buying a new car.
Some manufacturers were making cleaner, less polluting cars before they were legally required to do so. It’s all fairly confusing if you are not a car expert, so the best way of checking the status of your car is using Transport for London’s ULEZ checker website. Enter your car’s registration number and tick the box to state whether it was first registered in the UK or overseas. The system will check the DVLA database and ask you to confirm the make, model and colour of your vehicle. It’s very similar to the format for checking your MOT. The next page will then tell you what charges you can expect when driving into central London – just the Congestion Charge, or the Congestion Charge plus the Low Emissions Charge. If you’re not local to London and only going into the city infrequently, get into the habit of checking each time you travel, just in case the regulations have changed without you realising.
Transport for London have been clear that the whole point of the ULEZ is to discourage drivers of older or more polluting vehicles from taking their cars into the city, and try to get them onto public transport instead. However, there are some other exemptions which might apply in specific circumstances. The main one of these is the “historic vehicle” class, which applies to any car which was registered more than 40 years ago. If your car is already registered as exempt from road tax with the DVLA, then you don’t have to re-register with Transport for London for an exemption from the emissions charges. The 40-year rule brings the year of registration of exempt cars forward every year. So for example, in 2022, any owner of a car built and registered in 1982 or before can apply for exemption from road tax and emissions charges as a classic vehicle. In 2023, it will be cars made in 1983 or before, and so on.
The historic exemption doesn’t apply to commercial vehicles such as coaches or food trucks. However, any vehicle built and registered before 1973 can apply for a ULEZ exemption. There are also exemptions for specialist vehicles which are used by the military or for agricultural purposes – although how many tractors you can expect to see driving along Piccadilly is probably fairly small.
Taxis are the other main group of vehicles which are exempt from ULEZ charges. There were already fairly strict rules about the sorts of vehicles which can get a licence to operate as a taxi in London. The vehicle must be under 15 years old, and any new vehicle which registers as a taxi has to meet the strictest emissions levels. Back in 2017 the iconic London black cab was completely redesigned with a new plug-in, all-electric taxi coming onto the market to replace the more traditional diesel engine.
People who live within the boundaries of the low emissions zone were originally exempt from charges, but this changed in October 2021. Residents who live in the zone now pay the same price for using their car as anyone else, although the charge only applies when moving around the zone by car and does not apply on days where the car remains parked up for the day.
The obvious solution to many owners is retro-fitting something to their cars which will bring them up to the standards needed to get into the ULEZ without paying. This is theoretically possible, but the cost costs of completely changing the engine and exhaust system, and then having the car tested and re-classified by the DVSA are so high as to be cost prohibitive. The best option, if you can’t afford to trade the car in and get one which does meet the minimum standards, is to look at other options such as using public transport, cycling, or taking a taxi.
Before October 2021 the ULEZ covered the same area as the London Congestion charging zone, which was central London only. In 2021, this area was extended dramatically to cover everything within the North and South Circular roads. These roads themselves aren’t within the zone so you can use them to go round the city centre, but everything within the area lies within the ULEZ.
The London mayor’s office and Transport for London has expressed plans to extend the ULEZ still further to cover a much larger area of London in August 2023. This area would match the area which at present is part of the low emission zone, which stretches, in places, as far as the M25. Regions of Greater London such as Romford, Enfield or Kingston upon Thames would be in the proposed extension of the ULEZ. The proposed expansion would also cover some of the area’s most popular visitor attractions such as Hampton Court or Chessington, and concerns have been raised that large numbers of visitors from outside the capital or south-east could be caught by fines simply because they were unaware of the London restrictions.
Transport for London has been undertaking a public consultation on the ideas about expanding the emissions zones, and the results of the consultation are expected by the end of 2022. Any decision about whether to expand the ULEZ, and the area which any expansion might cover, is expected in the early part of 2023.
The ULEZ is in force 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a source of confusion for many drivers who are familiar with the Congestion Charging Zone, which is only in operation between 7am and 10pm. So if you drive into central London at 3am, you will still have to pay the ULEZ even though the Congestion Charge does not apply at that time. There is no charge for the ULEZ or the Congestion Charge on Christmas Day. The charging period is midnight to midnight. So if you drive a car which qualifies for the charge into London at a few minutes to midnight and out again a few minutes past midnight, you will have to pay two days’ worth of charges.
If you are driving into London regularly, you can set up Autopay which captures the number of times you drive into London over the course of the month, then sends you a bill. If you are only in London infrequently, then you have up to three days after your journey to log into the TfL website and pay the charges. If you don’t do this, or try to avoid the ULEZ charges, then you will receive a £160 penalty notice through the post. If you pay this within 14 days, then the penalty charge is reduced to £80.
The Covid-19 pandemic slashed the number of vehicles travelling into London every day, and in autumn 2020 there was lots of discussion about increasing the area covered by the Congestion Charge in order to try to recover some of the money lost in congestion charges over the pandemic lockdowns. The idea was to expand the congestion charging zone to the area within the North and South Circular roads, requiring anyone living or travelling into that zone to pay £15 per day. This was not a popular idea with Londoners, and the mayor managed to stop the proposal from going ahead immediately. However, the Mayor’s Office had to agree with central government that they would commit to raising extra money for their budget in the future, and are looking at other ways of increasing charges. It is therefore likely that the increased £15 congestion charge, and the extra hours of operation of the charge are likely to be permanent, rather than only temporary as initially intended.