The Ulez countdown: Londoners have a year to ditch old polluting cars

The streets of London are set to become cleaner. And drivers who have cars that do not comply with new rules have just 12 months to ditch their old polluting vehicles – or face very hefty bills.

Hundreds of thousands of Londoners – and many more who regularly drive into the capital – have a year to get rid of vehicles that do not adhere to new emissions standards to be rolled out across the capital or face paying £12.50 a day every time they get behind the wheel.

On 25 October 2021, London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) is being expanded from its current limit – within the congestion charge zone in central London – to include most of the capital.

This will mean that the original area will be 18 times bigger and include all the streets inside the North and South Circular Roads.

It’s been described as one of the most radical anti-pollution policies in the world. Millions of people will find themselves in the low-emissions area, and many will find that their existing car simply isn’t worth keeping.

Anyone driving a petrol car that does not meet Euro 4 standards – typically any car sold before 2006 – will have to pay the daily charge.

But the bigger shock is that diesel cars that do not hit the Euro 6 standard – which is most cars bought before September 2015 – will also not comply. In both cases, owners will have to pay the £12.50 a day, even if they drive just a mile down the road.

The move, which environmental groups say is years overdue and should lead to a dramatic improvement to London’s air quality, will leave the owners of some six-year-old cars, which could have just 24,000 miles on the clock, having to sell at a significant loss.

The AA has warned that up to 350,000 London motorists will be affected, with a further 160,000 hit if and when similar schemes in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh and Glasgow get the go ahead.

Van drivers, riders of pre-2007 motorbikes, modern classic car owners (post-1980) and a host of scout and other community groups that use minibuses, are set to fall foul of the new rules, which have been the subject of countless legal challenges.

The expanded Ulez will apply 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Classic cars aged 40 years and over are exempt, as are disabled drivers until October 2025. However, the owners of older motorhomes will have to pay £100 a day to drive in the zone.

Transport for London, which oversees the capital’s transport infrastructure, says the expanded Ulez will reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by around 30% across the city. It expects 80% of cars will be compliant by the time the scheme is introduced, meaning 20% will face the charge.

In August, TfL announced it was installing another 750 number plate recognition cameras in the expanded area to enforce the rules. Fail to register and pay, and you face a £160 fine for every day you drive in the zone.

Thousands of deaths each year in London have been attributed to air pollution. Last month a large study by the Office for National Statistics found that long-term exposure to air pollution may now increase the risk of death from Covid-19 by up to 6%.

Alex Williams, TfL’s director of city planning, says: “Thanks to the central London Ulez, we’ve already seen significant improvements in air quality. Four out of every five cars driving in inner London already meet the standard. However, we need to go further, and expanding the zone will play a key role in discouraging people from driving more polluting vehicles.”

However, Edmund King, president of the AA, warned last week that the expansion of the scheme had the potential to be socially divisive. He has called for it to be delayed to allow poorer households, which would be disproportionally affected, more time to acquire a suitable vehicle.

“Those who will be hit hardest are those that can least afford it,” he says. “For example, a family of five living within the North or South Circular may have bought a diesel people-carrier in 2014 in good faith. They are likely to lose a vehicle essential for shopping and family trips, even though they do the lowest mileage of drivers in the UK. While the scrappage scheme (see below) is to be welcomed, it is pretty restrictive as it doesn’t cover car owners on lower incomes, many of whom rely on their car to do the two or three jobs a week they need to make ends meet.”

Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns manager at the environmental charity ClientEarth, which has taken the government to court over air quality breaches, says the Ulez has made great strides.

“London still has a long way to go to meet legal limits of air pollution – limits that should have been met 10 years ago,” she says. “That’s why the Ulez should be expanded to help protect the whole of Greater London – children from Bromley to Barnet have the right to breathe clean air.”

Practical steps to take
• If you fear your vehicle may fall foul of the scheme, you first need to visit the “Check your vehicle” page on the TfL website. Some cars bought before the dates quoted above may comply with regulations, and vice versa.

• TfL has introduced a scrappage scheme to help those on low incomes replace their car. Motorists who receive one of a number of benefits – including universal credit, child tax credit, pension credit and working tax credit – can apply for a grant of £2,000 to replace a car that doesn’t meet the emissions criteria with one that does. Motorcyclists will receive £1,000. To qualify, you have to live in one of the 32 London boroughs. TfL also runs a separate scrappage scheme to support micro-businesses, sole traders and charities replace vans and minibuses that won’t meet the tougher standards.

• For everyone else, it’s a case of either giving up the car or buying a newer model that complies. Small petrol cars that do meet the standard cost from around £1,000 secondhand, although you will be buying an unknown quantity. A used Citroën C1 from a dealer will start at around £5,000.

• A secondhand family hatchback will probably cost from around £2,000. But do make sure you check that any replacement car meets the new criteria. If you are planning to trade in a diesel car, you may find you get a much better price from a dealer outside the capital.