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June 1, 2023

What is an ultra-low emission zone (or a ULEZ to many)?

ULEZ now adorns street signs not just in the UK capital but in cities around the nation.

By Silvia Pellegrino

ULEZ, or Ultra Low Emission Zones, are designated areas within the UK that impose limitations on car emissions. Their main aim is to reduce pollution in those regions and promote cleaner air.

Vehicles driving through ULEZ areas could be due to pay a fee or tax, depending on their emission levels and other factors.

Signs indicating Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) on a street in London.
ULEZ was introduced in 2019 to help improve air quality in the capital. Image: Alena Veasey/Shutterstock

London drivers aren’t just subject to ULEZ charges, however. The LEZ tax, also called the Low Emission Zone tax, was first established to motivate drivers to buy cleaner vehicles rather than older heavy diesel cars. This kind of tax is mostly used in big cities like London. It is different, however, from the Congestion Charge, which still covers London but only the central area, and it has some exclusion periods.

Numerous cities in the UK have enacted a ULEZ.

How does London’s ULEZ work?

The London ULEZ initiative aims to clean the air in the capital. It is operative 24 hours a day, seven days a week, excluding Christmas Day.

In London, any vehicle that weighs more than 3.5 tonnes – except lorries and specialist heavy vehicles, buses, and coaches, which are exempt – is required to pay a £12.50 daily charge in order to travel inside the designated zones, according to the zone’s emission criteria.

Each vehicle has to meet certain conditions, such as the Euro 4 emission requirements (if the car is registered from 1 January 2006) for gasoline automobiles and Euro 6 emission standards (if the car is registered from 1 September 2015) for diesel vehicles. Vans must follow the same rules as cars, however, motorcycles and mopeds must follow Euro 3 emission standards (if the vehicle is registered from 1 January 2001).

The ULEZ was originally put into effect in April 2019 to discourage owners of highly polluting vehicles from using the roads in central London. Its objective was to reduce pollution and help purify the city’s dirty air and it, initially, appears to be working. A 2020 study found that the daily fee contributed to a 44% reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide levels.

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Where in London is the ULEZ?

Everywhere inside the North (A406) and South Circular (A205) roads is marked as a ULEZ. If a vehicle, which does not meet the ULEZ emission requirements, only very briefly enters the zone, the fee will still be charged. People who reside in the designated areas are still required to pay.

In November 2022, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan declared that the Ultra Low Emission Zone would be extended throughout the summer of 2023, starting on 29 August. No longer limited to the area between London’s North and South Circular roads, the expansion will mean drivers of vehicles that do not meet the basic emission standards will be charged the ordinary daily fee for entering the Greater London Authority limits. This expansion will make the ULEZ zone 18 times bigger and cover all of London’s boroughs.

How do you pay for the ULEZ?

If a vehicle enters the ULEZ, payment is due by midnight on the third day after the trip.

The individual risks obtaining a penalty charge notice (PCN) if the charge is not paid.

The main ways to pay the ULEZ fee are online; using the TfL Pay to Drive in London app; calling the TfL service, or by setting up Auto Pay, which will charge you each month for any Congestion Charge and ULEZ payments that are overdue. 

When is the London ULEZ expansion?

As of 29 August 2023, the London ULEZ will be expanding. Where previously it only covered inner London, its zone’s coverage will increase to include all London boroughs. Areas as far as Enfield, Hillingdon, Croydon and Havering will now be subject to the ULEZ fares.

TFL has claimed that the ULEZ expansion is a necessary measure to improve air quality in London because “the greatest number of deaths related to air pollution occur in outer London areas”.

What is the ULEZ scrappage scheme?

In order to help the poorest Londoners comply with the ULEZ, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a £110 million scrappage scheme for vehicles that do not fit the new emissions standards.

Applicants to the scheme can claim £2,000 to scrap or retrofit a car, £1,000 for a motorbike or £5,000 for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Sole traders and owners of microbusinesses (of up to 10 people) can also receive a payment of £5,000-9,500 for a van or minibus.

Currently, the scheme is limited to people on low incomes or in receipt of certain benefits, but from the end of July, the scheme will be extended to include:

  • Recipients of child benefits
  • Businesses with up to 50 employees
  • Charities (to scrap or retrofit three vehicles rather than one)
  • Care workers – though the details have not yet been made clear

Which UK cities have a ULEZ?

During 2021, the cities of Bath, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds and Portsmouth announced clean-air zones. In 2022, more cities introduced their own ULEZs:

  • Oxford – Oxford established Britain’s first zero-emission zone (ZEZ) and began a pilot zone in the summer of 2021. This means that all automobiles used in the area, unless they are electric, will have to pay a daily price based on their emissions. The cost can range up to £10 a day for vehicles that do not meet emission standards.
  • Manchester – the city implemented a Clean Air Plan, in which only the most polluting cars that exceed emission limits are charged to drive in the Zone. This includes all vehicles apart from private cars, motorbikes and mopeds. 
  • Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee – Scottish LEZs were introduced in May 2022, with Aberdeen and Edinburgh expected to start enforcement on 1 June 2024, Glasgow on 1 June 2023 and Dundee on 30 May 2024.
  • Bristol – the city established a Clean Air Zone in the summer of 2022. The charges are applied to vehicles such as private petrol and diesel cars, and taxis. There are also some exemptions, such as fully electric vehicles.
  • Bradford – launched in the summer of 2022, Bradford’s Clean Air Zone only applies to HGVs, LGVs, buses, coaches and private hire vehicles.
  • Newcastle – starting in July 2022, Newcastle introduced a Clean Air Zone too, although it doesn’t affect car drivers as of yet, only taxis, vans, buses, coaches and HGVs. 
  • Sheffield – starting to charge from 27 February 2023, Sheffield’s clean air zone will only apply to the most polluting heavy goods vehicles, light goods vehicles, vans, buses, coaches and taxis. Private cars and motorbikes will not be affected.

[Read more: London air pollution: Expanding the ULEZ is good but it won’t work by itself]

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