London vehicle pollution toll zone expands despite controversy

A view shows morning rush hour traffic, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in central London, Britain July 6, 2020A view shows morning rush hour traffic, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in central London, Britain July 6, 2020AFP file photo

London's Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is set to be expanded on Tuesday, with proponents promising cleaner air throughout the British capital but opponents decrying the financial burden during a cost-of-living crisis.

The city's mayor Sadiq Khan is pressing ahead with the road charging scheme's politically charged extension across Greater London despite a fierce backlash from many living in and around the newly encompassed areas.

The contentious move also has national political implications, after it was blamed for costing his main opposition Labour party victory in a by-election last month in former prime minister Boris Johnson's old parliamentary seat.

Khan had reportedly come under pressure from Labour leader Keir Starmer to stall or U-turn on the plans but refused.

A High Court challenge brought by several outer London local authorities also failed to stop its expansion.

"We can't kick the can down the road when it comes to addressing a public health emergency or tackling the climate emergency," the mayor said earlier this month as controversy around the expansion continued to dog him.

Air quality

London's ULEZ mirrors similar low-emission zones to improve air quality in more than 200 cities in 10 countries across Europe.

First introduced in the inner city in 2019 and separate from the two-decades-old congestion charge, it requires drivers of the most polluting vehicles to pay £12.50 ($16) on days they are on the road.

They face fines of up to £180 for each day they fail to pay.

Khan has defended the expansion as needed to help improve London's "toxic" air pollution -- including in outlying areas -- which he notes causes thousands of annual deaths and life-changing illnesses.

He himself developed adult-onset asthma a decade ago and blames it on decades of breathing the capital's poor air.

In a legal first in 2021, a coroner ruled that poor air quality from vehicle emissions made a "material contribution" to the death of a nine-year-old London girl who suffered a severe asthma attack.

Non-compliant vehicles

Petrol cars registered pre-2006 and diesel vehicles first registered before September 2015 are unlikely to meet the minimum emissions standards required.

Transport for London (TfL) -- a local government body -- estimates that fewer than 200,000 such vehicles currently enter the new zone, based on existing ULEZ camera analysis.

But the RAC motoring group used a freedom of information request to discover that more than 850,000 ineligible vehicles are registered within London alone.

Khan argues that many of those are not actually driven in the capital.

Opponents are unconvinced by the mayor's broader pitch, with some viewing the scheme's extension as simply intended to raise revenue as TfL faces post-pandemic budget shortfalls.

Many are also upset at the cost of replacing non-compliant vehicles.
It comes as Britain grapples with decades-high inflation, spiralling bills and anaemic economic growth, which have left many people struggling to pay for their daily essentials.

Khan earlier this month increased financial support for such vehicle owners, making various grants worth thousands of pounds to scrap non-compliant cars and trucks available to every Londoner.

Khan on Sunday expressed frustration at the lack of government support for the scheme and the accompanying scrappage reimbursement, unlike for those in other cities in England.

"I am disappointed that they seem to be weaponising air pollution and climate change," he told the PA news agency.