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London leads the way on cleaner air

Former campaigner's picture

With Londoners exposed to some of the highest levels of lethal air pollution, and two million living in areas which exceed legal limits for air quality, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which comes into force today, is not just a welcome move, it’s a life saving one.


Annually tens of thousands of UK deaths are attributable to air pollution and children exposed to air pollution are at risk of life-limiting health problems. Road traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx emissions at the roadside, and the largest source of emissions is diesel vehicles. Up to 95 per cent of diesel vehicles on the road are currently breaking air pollution limits so cutting the numbers of these, and other polluting vehicles, is essential for cleaner air.

Paying to use a car in central London is not new: the congestion charge dates back to 2003, and the first emissions-based charges came in a decade later.  In 2017, the T-Charge was introduced, with an additional £10 on the most polluting vehicles, and now London has the ULEZ. It’s a well-established approach, based on the principle that the polluter pays, and that the revenue is reinvested in clean modern public transport.

Opponents have argued that such charges are unfair on lower income households, but is that really the case?

In cities, poorer and minority group households generally have lower car ownership, less access to a car, lower car usage levels and greater usage of buses than more affluent households. 

In London, car ownership is significantly lower than the national average, and two thirds of journeys are by walking, cycling or public transportNearly half (46 per cent ) of London households have no car, and those Londoners who do have a car are more likely to live outside the ULEZ area.

The poorest households are least likely to have cars; the majority of households at or below London Living Wage income having no car. Car ownership is higher amongst men than women (46 per cent compared to 34 per cent ), with this gap being even greater in lower income households.

In fact, the most common type of transport used by Londoners on lower incomes is walking (94 per cent walk at least once a week) and 70 per cent of Londoners with household income of less than £20,000 use the bus at least once a week. Pensioners, people with disabilities, young people and other groups have free or discounted access to public transport, removing their need for car dependency.

Only a third of black and ethnic minority Londoners drive a car at least once a week compared to 43 per cent of white Londoners, and they are less likely than white Londoners to live in a household that owns or has access to a car.

In fact, people living in poorer neighbourhoods suffer most from air pollution so have most to gain from action to tackle it. TfL figures show that the most deprived Londoners are on average exposed to nearly a quarter more nitrogen dioxide pollution than the least deprived. Action on air quality, including the ULEZ, is expected to shrink the gap in pollution levels between London’s most and least deprived areas by around 70 per cent by 2030.

Meanwhile there’s help for London businesses with a scrappage scheme for the most polluting vans, and nationally there are new grants to help firms buy electric cargo bikes, something we’ve long campaigned for.

It’s not just London that’s taking action. Cities across the UK are looking at the best option to fight air pollution in their area.

  • Nottingham’s Workplace Parking Levy has seen congestion and pollution fall, and the local economy thrive, with the levy’s proceeds invested in delivering high quality public transport, including electric buses and trams.
  • Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone is set to begin in January 2020, with charges for private cars, taxis and vans as well as larger lorries, buses and coaches entering the city. Their innovative plans include mobility vouchers for motorists giving up their cars.
  • Greater Manchester’s proposals will charge larger vehicles which don’t meet emissions standards across the whole city region from 2021.

Tackling traffic pollution through financial measures is not a political whim. Central and local government has a legal requirement to act.

Charging zones give everyone a choice. No one is prevented from driving into town, the charge simply encourages motorists to think twice before doing so and helps fund healthier transport options for all.