Boris Johnson’s plan to improve the capital’s air quality by making central London an ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) has now gone out to consultation. It will require all motor vehicles driven within the zone to spew little if any bad stuff from their exhausts by 2020, four years after Johnson’s ultra low achievement mayoralty (ULAM) is due to end. Toxic tailpipe fumes are by far the biggest cause of people-killing air pollution in London, so will the ULEZ provide the ULAM with a posthumous upgrade?
The mayor says the ULEZ, which will cover the same area as the congestion charge zone, will be the first in the world and is essential for safeguarding Londoners’ well-being. He’s seemed less keen to mention the need to at last bring London into line with European Union limits on airborne pollution that harms human health and so avoid the UK government being hit with a fat fine. Thanks to London, the threat of this has been hanging over the nation for five years.
Private vehicles whose emissions don’t meet the Euro standard the ULEZ requires will be punished with a daily charge. Transport for London (TfL) is proposing that non-compliant lorries and coaches would have to pay £100 and cars, vans, minibuses and motorcycles, £12.50. This would be on top of the congestion charge, meaning below-scratch HGVs could have to shell out over £120 a day to drive in central London and cars £24 (and more if the congestion charge is increased before the ULEZ comes into effect). Public transport and private hire vehicles too will be required to come up to the ULEZ mark, with London’s famous black cabs already told they must be capable of producing zero emissions from January 2018 if they’re to be allowed to operate in the centre and other bad air areas.
Any complaints? The basic principle is sound. The ULEZ is a targetted intensification of the often-forgotten low emission zone (LEZ), which has spanned most of Greater London since Ken Livingstone introduced it to regulate dirty HGVs in February 2008, three months before Johnson removed him from City Hall. Johnson quarreled with Livingstone’s anti-congestion policies but not with the LEZ, describing its “polluter pays” model as “fair”. However, he slowed the wider implementation of the LEZ, postponing its application to vans until January 2012 on the grounds that it would hurt recession-hit small businesses.
Johnson’s air quality policies have sometimes had a characteristically improvised feel. He came to power promising to liberate London cabbies from Red Ken tape in the form of twice yearly MoTs, only to U-turn two years after honouring the pledge. Derision met the failure of attempts to “glue” tiny soot particles to the ground. The Clean Air in London campaign thinks Johnson tends to talk the problem down.
In July, the mayor’s environment adviser Matthew Pencharz defended Johnson’s record against some of his wilder critics, pointing out that elderly buses have been retired and greener ones introduced, that the age of black cabs is to be further capped at ten years and that overall harmful emissions have been falling. Indeed, London currently passes the EU particulates test. The ULEZ, it is hoped, will bring it into line on nitrogen dioxide too. Cleaner engine technologies are on the rise. But could and should the mayor be doing more?
The London Assembly Greens, unsurprisingly, think the ULEZ is too little, too late. Jenny Jones has called for boroughs outside the congestion charge zone to be allowed to opt in to the scheme. Her party’s City Hall office adds that owners of non-compliant vehicles who live inside the congestion charge zone will have a three year “sunset period” after the ULEZ is introduced, giving them nearly a decade before they have to get their motors into line. And the Greens have doubts about the accuracy of emissions measurement, pointing out that the hybrid New Routemaster bus is proving less clean in service than it did as a prototype. For the Lib Dems, Stephen Knight wants an outright ban on ULEZ infringers, which seems to imply that financial deterence should be replaced by an enforcement ring of steel.
There is a further dimension to all this. As TfL gears up to provide new Thames crossings for motorists to the east of Tower Bridge – an ambition that potential future Labour mayors seem unlikely to oppose – I’m told its air quality projections are to be reviewed to take account of the extra vehicles these are expected to bring on to London’s roads. The ULEZ has its virtues, but the capital’s halting progress on bad air could yet shift into reverse.