As a general rule, I try to avoid writing about things that affect specific parts of the UK – particularly London. I’m a long-term Mancunian expat living in the capital, so I’m vividly aware how the rest of the UK feels about London-centric stories. But I have to break that rule this week because I’ve had a ton of readers contacting me about the Ultra Low Emissions 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 if they stray in to the zone (it’s near impossible to avoid the ULEZ expansion zone). For another, there are loads of other cities introducing their own ELEZs – or already have them in place. So even if you are London-dodger, chances are you might be facing a zone near you soon.

A quick guide to the ULEZ

The ULEZ is designed to cut pollution from traffic in London. This is a big deal as concerns about the impact of air pollution have been growing for years and notoriously, lead to the death of a 9-year-old child. Here’s how the Times reported the situation back on February.

Here’s how it works:

  • The ULEZ currently covers an area roughly inside of the North and South Circular (but not those roads).
  • It operates every day of the week, 24 hours a day.
  • It costs £12.50 a day to drive in to the zone if your car is a ‘polluter’.
  • This is a different charge to the congestion charge – the fee you pay when you drive in to central London. That’s an additional £15 (varies depending on the vehicle).
  • So an unwary traveller could end up with a £27.50 bill to drive in to central London.

You can find a ULEZ map of the current zone here, along with a postcode search if you aren’t sure if you’re straying in to ‘the pay zone’

How do you pay it?

Privacy campaigners and conspiracy theorists, prepare yourselves. For you are being watched… If you drive in to the zone you will be identified from your plates and your vehicle will be automatically assessed to see if it meets the charging criteria, after which 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 in to the ULEZ category, then you can pay up to 90 days in advance. Transport for London (TfL) are in charge of the various bills drivers face when you drive in or around London. There’s also an autopay option.

If you don’t register in advance or pay within the timeframes, you risk being tracked down and hit with a ‘penalty charge’ – the phrase de 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. But if you don’t pay within a further 28 days, the fee hits £270. If you still don’t pay, things go very Orwellian. Here’s what happens next.

When does the ULEZ expansion 2023 come in?

The original ULEZ gave people 2.5 years to prepare for the introduction of the scheme. The expansion of the ULEZ has given people just nine months, with the ULEZ expansion Zone coming in to force on 29 August 2023.

As for the new zone… well it’s prompted a debate about ‘what is London’ – with the new ULEZ boundaries stretching beyond even the more generous assessments of what Greater London is. The zone reaches from Biggin Hill in the South East to Rickmansworth in the North West. And from Waltham Abbey and Brentwood in Essex to Epsom in Surry.

Brace yourselves, here’s the 2023 ULEZ Expansion Zone map

This has caused huge consternation from drivers both within and outside of the new zone along with regular commuters to London. People have contacted me to complain about complex payment systems, appealing fines, exemptions and information for people who live within the new boundaries. I must say, while there’s a lot of information out there, you have to know what you’re looking for and 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 till 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.

It won’t come as a surprise to learn then, that a YouGov survey found that 1 in 3 people were planning on changing their travel plans to avoid the ULEZ charge and just over half (51%) felt that they current zone should not be expanded. In fact, TFL’s own research shows that far more people in outer London jump in their cars that those in the current or congestion zones. That’s lead to allegations of profiteering over anti-pollution concerns.

Will it also happen in other cities/where and when? 

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

What is ULEZ compliant and what cars 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 be Euro 4 compliant.
  • Diesel vehicles must be Euro 6 compliant

These are rather technical categories [if you want to include a guide there’s one in the Parkers guide that insurers use here: https://www.parkers.co.uk/what-is/euro-4/] so it’s simpler to use one of the many free online tools to work out if your vehicle is affected. If you are a bus, coach or HGV driver then other standards apply.

The age of your car isn’t necessarily going to be a deciding factor as 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. We’re talking more than 40 years old though.

Is this just greenwashing?

I live in Brixton on one of the most polluted roads in the UK, so I have a vested interest in reigning in air pollution. 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 of my window, it’s hard to know how significant the ULEZ expansion will make to the quality of the air in London.

However, the Greater London Authority (GLA) found that 13,500 fewer polluting cars drove in to London daily as a result of the existing ULEZ and over three-quarters now met low emission standards. So introducing these penalties for polluting vehicles is making a difference.

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 moves us to a point where inflation has (hopefully) dropped to the 3% or less mark and energy prices have dropped.

Can I make my car ULEZ complaint 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 depending on your vehicle but all fall in to the ‘very expensive’ categories. 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. You’re modified vehicle will need to undergo testing and recertification, which is also very pricy.

How do you complain?

You can, of course, make an ULEZ complaint 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. Here’s how you get started.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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