Courts have dismissed legal action brought in the UK by five Conservative-led councils against the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez).

1. What is Ulez?

The Ulez zone charges a fee to vehicles that do not meet certain Euro emissions standards and are therefore deemed to be high pollutants, especially for nitrogen oxides and particulates. The zone currently covers all areas within the North and South Circular Roads. The North Circular (A406) and South Circular (A205) roads are not in the zone. 

© Transport for London

Under the rules, drivers of the worst-rated vehicles pay £12.50 a day if they use their car, even for short trips. If they do not drive their car, they do not pay. Most petrol vehicles manufactured after 2005 and diesel vehicles after 2015 meet high enough standards to avoid the charge.

Ulez applies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year except Christmas Day. It applies to residents and non-residents, including drivers of foreign vehicles. A “scrappage scheme” is in place to help drivers transition to greener transport choices.

Other charges also exist such as the congestion charge; the Low Emission Zone (LEZ); and the Direct Vision Standard (DVS) and HGV Safety Permit for lorries over 12 tonnes gross vehicle weight.

2. Why?

Public Health England classes air pollution as the biggest environmental threat to the UK public’s health. Breathing air pollution over the long term has been linked to life-threatening conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer. Even shorter exposure time can result in breathing difficulties and asthma attacks. The predicted toll on Britain’s NHS (National Health Service) and social care providers has been put at £1.6bn between 2017 and 2025. 

3. The expansion and row

London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, had introduced plans to expand the current zone to the whole of Greater London, including outer boroughs. Despite polling that shows the public generally approve clean air measures, opposition politicians have made Ulez a political football and the row is thought to have played a part in the results of recent by-elections.

© Transport for London

Five Conservative councillors from the outer London boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon, along with Surrey county council, took Khan to court in February to challenge the expansion, arguing that consultations had been insufficient and the scheme was beyond mayoral powers.

In his verdict in late July, Mr Justice Swift approved the legal basis on which Khan made the decision to expand the Ulez and declared he was “satisfied that the mayor’s decision … was within his powers”. The consultation allowed “informed responses” and the scrappage scheme was “lawful”.

4. Confirmation

After the ruling, Khan noted that Ulez has cut nitrogen dioxide air pollution by almost half in central London. He announced the expansion would go ahead as scheduled on 29 August. Scrappage scheme eligibility is to be extended to more Londoners, including child benefit recipients.

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