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Are you ready for the ULEZ expansion?

As a long-term Mancunian expat living in the capital, I’m vividly aware about how the rest of the UK feels about London-centric stories – so I try to avoid them. But I have to break that rule this week because I’ve had a ton of readers contacting me about the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Why should we all care? Well for one, millions of non-Londoners drive to or through the capital every year and a big chunk of them will end up paying the charge if they stray into the ‘zone’. From August this year, the ULEZ expansion means more of us will fall foul of the penalty.

A number of other major cities are contemplating their own versions of ULEZ too – so it’s well worth acquainting yourself with it before it comes to your doorstep.

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What is ULEZ?

The Ultra Low Emission Zone is an area in which some diesel cars, and other vehicles that do not meet certain emissions standards, are  liable for a daily charge.

It was introduced by London mayor Sadiq Khan in April 2019 to clean up the city’s toxic air – ultimately it aims to bring down the number of high-polluting vehicles entering the capital.

Here’s how it works:

  • Originally covering central London, the ULEZ was expanded in October 2021 and now applies to an area roughly inside the North and South Circular (but not those roads themselves).
  • It operates every day of the week, 24 hours a day and every day of the year except Christmas Day.
  • It costs £12.50 a day to drive in the zone if your car is a “polluter”.
  • The ULEZ is not the same as the congestion charge – the fee you pay when you drive into central London. That is an additional £15.
    So an unwary traveller could end up with a £27.50 bill to drive into central London.

You can find a map of the current ULEZ zone on the government website.

How do you pay the ULEZ charge?

Privacy campaigners and conspiracy theorists, brace yourselves. For you are being watched.

If you drive in a ULEZ zone, your vehicle will automatically be picked up by a camera that will scan your number plate and assess it against criteria for what are classified as minimum emissions standards (see below). If you have to pay the charge because your vehicle doesn’t meet these standards, you will be billed. You have until midnight on the third day following the journey to cough up. There are cameras and road signs warning you before you enter the current zones.

If you know your vehicle falls into the ULEZ charging category and that you will be entering the zone, you can pay up to 90 days in advance. There’s also an autopay option.

If you don’t register in advance or pay within the timeframes, you risk being hit with a ‘penalty charge’ – the phrase du jour for ‘fine’. This is a whopping £180 for most vehicles though it’s halved if you pay within 14 days of the notice.

You can, of course, protest. If you still don’t pay, things could go very Orwellian and rise to £270. See what happens next. 

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When does the ULEZ expansion 2023 come in?

Drivers were given more than two years to prepare for the ULEZ roll-out in 2019. However, for the latest expansion – which comes into force on 29 August – drivers have been given just nine months.

As for the new zone…well it has prompted a debate about “What is London?” – with the new ULEZ boundaries stretching beyond even the more generous assessments of what constitutes Greater London. The zone stretches from Biggin Hill in the southeast to Rickmansworth in the northwest. And from Waltham Abbey and Brentwood in Essex to Epsom in Surrey.

ULEZ extension
A map of the new ULEZ zone from August 2023

What vehicles are ULEZ-compliant?

It’s not always straightforward to know if your vehicle is ULEZ compliant. As a general rule:

  • Petrol-powered cars and vans must meet Euro 4 emission standards, which is generally the case for cars registered with DVLA after 2005.
  • Diesel vehicles must meet Euro 6 standards, and this generally applies to vehicles registered since September 2015.

You can check if your vehicle is ULEZ compliant on the government website. If you are a bus, coach or HGV driver then other standards apply.

‘I have a really old car, does that mean I have to pay the ULEZ charge?’

Not necessarily. Some vehicles achieved compliance with these standards earlier.

Oh, and if you have an older or classic car, you might be able to get an exemption. Here, though, we’re talking more than 40 years old

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Are there ULEZ exemptions?

The latest extension has understandably caused huge frustration among drivers both within and outside of the new zone along with regular commuters into London.

People have contacted me to complain about not just the new radius, but also the complexity of the payment systems, the appeals process for challenging fines, the exemptions and the information for people who live within the new boundaries. I must say, many of these complaints are absolutely justified.

There are exemptions, though these are rather archly described as a ‘grace period’. So if my sister and my disabled niece Evie – who has a mobility vehicle – come to visit me, they can apply for a pass – but only until October 2027. That might seem generous, but afterwards disabled people will have to pay even if they live in the zone. Which is a big chunk of disability or carer benefits.

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Can I make my car ULEZ compliant and how much would it cost?

The short answer is yes, you can make changes to make your vehicle more ULEZ compliant. But is it worth it? Probably not.

The main two options are upgrading the exhaust or changing the engine. Car lovers will be wincing at the mere suggestion of those options, which vary dramatically in cost depending on your vehicle but all fall into the “very expensive” category.

I’ve spoken to a lot of petrol heads who pretty much all tell me that they don’t really see this as a viable option for most people, even if they drive every day in the zone. Unless you are particularly wedded to your car, it’s likely to be more cost-effective to trade in your vehicle for a more compliant one.

And it’s not just the modifications to the car. Your modified vehicle will need to undergo testing and recertification, which is also very pricey.

Will the ULEZ be rolled out in other cities and when?

There are a number of “Clean Air” schemes already in place or due to begin soon around the UK. Most of these zones don’t charge for private cars or motorbikes yet but operate in similar ways to London’s ULEZ, though charging varies. These include:

Hang on, is this just greenwashing?

I live in Brixton in south London on one of the most polluted roads in the UK, so I have a vested interest in cleaning up dirty air. However, I’m currently inside the existing ULEZ and pollution rates are still far in excess of three key World Health Organisation limits.

Air is, of course, not static, but with no noticeable decrease in the toxins swirling around outside my window, it’s hard to know how much difference the ULEZ expansion will make to the quality of the atmosphere in London.

However, a new study by the Greater London Authority (GLA) has found that emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 23% across the whole of London since the scheme was introduced in 2019. And each day, the report says, 74,000 fewer polluting cars are seen in the zone, a cut of 60% since the expansion in October 2021, and over 94% of vehicles using the ULEZ meet its emissions standards. So introducing these penalties for polluting vehicles is having an impact.

Of course, we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis at the moment. So the big question is, why now? Frankly I’d argue that we need to give people more time to prepare and adapt for the introduction of the ULEZ expansion – at least another six months. That would move us to a point where inflation has (hopefully) dropped to the 3% or less mark and energy prices have also fallen.

Can I appeal or make a complaint about a ULEZ charge?

You can complain to Tfl if you are unhappy with any aspect of the billing or service. It’s a three-stage process and there is the Local Government Ombudsman at the end of it.

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