The cost of clean air: who will win the battle over low emissions zones?

Debate has ‘turned toxic’ as legal challenge to expansion of London’s Ulez is heard

ULEZ signs
The London Ulez is due to become three times larger on 29 August
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Five Tory-led councils have argued at the High Court that London mayor Sadiq Khan “lacks the legal powers” to extend the capital’s ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez).

Craig Howell Williams KC, representing the councils, said Khan’s ambition was to create a “master charging scheme” for London, but the mayor’s team insisted the “entirely lawful” plan would improve the city’s air quality.

The issue has sparked an “economy-vs-environment fight”, said Reuters. Here is what we know.

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What did the papers say?

The Ulez scheme requires people who drive in non-compliant or more polluting vehicles to pay a daily charge of £12.50 on days they are driven within the prescribed zone, with a fine of up to £160 if they do not pay within three days.

It currently covers the area between the North and South Circular roads in London but the proposed expansion would make the zone three times its current size, reaching into Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey.

The move has “triggered a fierce debate across the city”, said Reuters, “pitching the mayor and health campaigners” against “those who say they can’t tolerate another economic hit at a time of soaring living costs”.

It is a dispute that “mirrors challenges policymakers around the world are facing”, it added, as the “rapidly closing window to halt a catastrophic rise in global temperatures rubs up against the cost of action”.

But opponents are sceptical over the motivation for such initiatives. There are “mounting fears that clean air schemes are being used for money-making”, said The Telegraph, after councils and Transport for London (TfL) have “raked in more than £720 million” from the project.

“Clearly the cash is rolling in from these schemes”, Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, which will be in the extended zone, told the paper, “and it looks increasingly like they are being used to soak motorists to raise revenue.”

However, The Guardian argued that “low-emission zones like London’s Ulez work”. It pointed out that “evidence from London’s schemes and the hundreds that operate in Europe counter many of the myths around these schemes”, proving that “air pollution does not get worse outside the zone as a result of diverting vehicles”.

Nevertheless, the scheme is “dividing the UK’s most vulnerable people”, said the i news site. “We’re seeing carers who have to use their car in London being pitted against parents” who have “spent consecutive nights in hospital because their kids have got asthma,” Oliver Lord, head of strategy for the Clean Cities Campaign, told the site.

The debate has “turned toxic”, with Khan claiming “Covid deniers, conspiracy theorists and Nazis” have become involved in protests against the scheme.

With less than a year until the next mayoral election, “irate callers are lighting up the switchboards on the capital’s radio phone-ins”, said Reuters. And cameras that are used to enforce Ulez have been “vandalised”.

Controversy is also raging in other cities that have adopted clean air schemes. There are currently nine clean air zones in place in England.

Birmingham’s scheme has resulted in nearly £80 million in charges and fines since it was introduced in June 2021. Bradford has raised £6.7 million since it launched in 2022, and Bath has received £11 million in charges.

The majority of the schemes are in Labour-run council areas, noted The Telegraph, and there has been “strong opposition to the spread of the zones from some Conservative politicians”.

Back in the southeast, Teresa O’Neill, leader of Bexley council, one of the councils taking legal action against Khan, said feelings are running high.

“I’ve been leader now for 15 years… and I don’t think we’ve ever had an issue like this that has actually garnered so much attention,” she said. “People tell you they absolutely hate it.”

What next?

The Ulez is due to expand at the end of August but local authorities are seeking to block the expansion. Howell Williams, representing the Conservative councils opposing the expansion, said Khan planned to create a “master charging scheme” for London.

The barrister told the High Court that claims that nine out of 10 cars already complied with Ulez standards in outer London were based on data from just 106 cameras, and this “key information” was “not available" during the consultation last year.

However, Ben Jaffey KC, representing the mayor and TfL, said TfL had been “clear” that camera coverage was “not comprehensive” and that for “full enforcement” it would install 2,750 more cameras.

A verdict is not expected from Justice Swift for several weeks, but London has a “long history of being out at the front of global public health innovation”, wrote Tom Edwards, transport and environment correspondent, London, for the BBC.

So “if history shows us one thing”, he added, “it’s that when it comes to London’s direction of travel, broadly it is towards a cleaner and less polluted environment”.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.