Last reviewed 18 August 2016

This year (2016), London exceeded the EU’s air pollution limits for the entire year in just eight days. Paul Clarke looks at proposals to clean up the capital city by successive London mayors, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan.

Arguments during the recent referendum debate focused mainly on issues such as economics, trade, sovereignty and immigration. One subject that was rarely discussed was the environment and yet this is an area where European law has significant impact in the UK such as the Habitats Directive, legislation on biodiversity, water and air. With regard to the last of these, the UK’s self image — as the Member State that tends to play by the rules — has taken something of a beating. This year, for example, London exceeded the EU’s air pollution limits for the entire year in just eight days. According to European legislation, levels of hourly nitrogen dioxide (NO2) must not breach the maximum limit for more than 18 hours per year: Putney High Street reached its 19th hour during rush hour on the morning of 8 January. Knightsbridge, Oxford Street, Earls Court and Brixton all followed suit before the end of the month.

In 2015, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was arguing that the UK should not have to pay the £300 million in fines imposed by the European Commission for earlier breaches of nitrogen oxides (NOx) limits (40 of 43 UK zones were found to be breaching 2010 limits for air pollution). According to Mr Johnson, the Commission’s testing standards for diesel cars were largely responsible for the high level of NOx emissions in London. “We’ve been diddled about Euro 4 and 5 testing standards,” he said. “They were meant to provide the reductions in NOx which they just didn’t.”

So what did Mr Johnson propose to do about the levels of pollution that were estimated to be killing some 9500 people in London every year, and, probably more importantly, what action is his successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan, planning to take?

The problem

In 2015, all 50 of Britain’s worst blackspots for dirty air were in the capital. Each had at least double the EU limit for NO2 and even the least polluted locations out of the 50 showed pollution levels of 92 or more, which is nearly two and a half times the maximum allowed under European law. One researcher from King’s College, London, said that, mainly because of buses, Oxford Street was the most polluted thoroughfare in the world. In the year to July 2014, Dr David Carslaw said that NO2 levels on the popular shopping street averaged 135 micrograms (mcg) per cubic metre of air and, on some occasions, had reached 463mcg. The EU’s limit for NO2 is an annual mean of 40mcg.

Most worryingly, 443 schools across the capital are in areas that exceed legal air pollution limits with Southwark, Westminster and Tower Hamlets being the three boroughs with the most number of primary and secondary schools in high-pollution areas. According to the Campaign for Clean Air, 1148 schools in London are within 150m of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles per day.

Just how seriously this matters was identified in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) June 2016 report which identified air pollution as the world’s fourth greatest threat to human health — behind only blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.

The culprits

Why all this is of concern to the transport industry is because, as environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE) has stressed, there is little doubt that road traffic is the main cause of air pollution with diesel vehicles being particularly culpable. FoE wants a new Clean Air Act — along the lines of the original which came into being following the deaths of thousands of Londoners from the Great Smog of 1952 — to include the phasing out of diesel-powered vehicles. Pollution campaigner Jenny Bates explained: “Diesel fumes and air pollution cause lung cancer and, as a result, 40,000 people die early in the UK each year from dirty air and many more lives, including huge numbers of children, are blighted by asthma and lung infections.”

The City of London Corporation has certainly taken the warning seriously and has banned the purchase of diesel vehicles for its departments, in a drive to reduce public exposure to air pollution. The local authority, which has a fleet of over 300 vehicles, also announced plans for a London-wide crackdown on drivers who leave their engines idling. It has created a “City Air App”, which gives low-pollution travel routes to over 15,000 Londoners, introduced a city-wide 20mph zone, and brought in new procurement rules with tight restrictions on harmful emissions from bulldozers and generators.

ULEZ 1 — Boris Johnson’s proposals

Boris Johnson decided that what London needed was an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), an area within which all cars, motorcycles, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will need to meet stringent exhaust emission standards or pay a daily charge to travel. He wanted the ULEZ to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week within the same area as the current Congestion Charging Zone (CCZ).

It should, Mr Johnson said, come into force in September 2020.

There were to be no barriers or toll booths as cameras would read vehicle number plates when they are driven within the zone. If the vehicle (when checked against a Transport for London (TfL) database) does not meet the ULEZ emissions standards and the daily charge (£100 for coaches, HGVs and buses) is not paid, a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) will be issued payable by the registered owner or operator. This penalty is in addition to any Congestion Charge or Low Emission Zone (LEZ) penalties received.

For HGVs, coaches and buses, this will be £1000 (reduced to £500 if paid within 14 days).

Explaining the need for ULEZ, TfL said: “To protect human health, the EU has set legal limits for concentrations of pollutants in outdoor air, including particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and NO2. These apply to London and the UK as a whole. It’s the responsibility of the UK Government, boroughs and the Mayor to take action in order to meet these limits. Failure to do so may result in significant fines being imposed on the UK Government under EU law.”

ULEZ 2 — Sadiq Khan’s proposals

When Sadiq Khan was elected as Mayor of London in May 2016, he soon made it clear that he was less than impressed with his predecessor’s attempts to tackle the problem of air pollution. “The scale of the failure to tackle the problem is demonstrated by the failure of the Government and the previous Mayor to meet legal pollution limits,” Mr Khan said. “Urgent action is now needed to ensure Londoners no longer have to fear the very air we breathe.”

He therefore proposed that the planned central ULEZ should be introduced one year earlier, in 2019.

In addition, he wants it to be extended beyond central London from the following year: for motorcycles, cars and vans, the boundary will move to the North and South Circular; and for lorries, buses and coaches it will become London-wide. Views on the Mayor’s plans were sought at Although that consultation has now closed, the details are still available and a more detailed public consultation is promised for later this year.

Mr Khan’s plans include bringing forward the requirement for all double-deck buses to be ULEZ-compliant in central London from 2020 to 2019 and implementing clean bus corridors — tackling the worst pollution hotspots by delivering cleaner buses on the dirtiest routes.

Proposed Emissions Surcharge

The Mayor also wants to introduce an Emissions Surcharge (ES) from 2017, to penalise the most polluting vehicles entering Central London. To be known as the T- (Toxicity) charge, this would be an interim measure ahead of the ULEZ and would apply in addition to the Congestion Charge. It is suggested that it would operate in the same zone and at the same times as that Charge (7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday) and would therefore not operate on weekends or on public holidays.

ES is expected to be based on Euro standards as these are already used in the London-wide LEZ for heavy vehicles and will be used for the ULEZ. It is suggested:

  • that the charge would apply only to pre-Euro 4 standard vehicles which means buses, coaches and HGVs registered no earlier than October 2006

  • vehicles that do not meet the standard would pay a daily charge of around £10 to enter central London, in addition to the Congestion Charge (currently £11.50) and any LEZ charges that are applicable

  • most exemptions and discounts that apply to the Congestion Charge would also apply to the ES

  • however, unlike the Congestion Charge, it is proposed that vehicles with nine or more seats (including buses and coaches) would be required to pay the ES as they contribute pollutants in the same way as do other large vehicles such as HGVs. Precise details will be covered in a consultation in autumn 2016.

The ES in 2017, followed by an expanded ULEZ in 2020, would, the Mayor claimed, be the toughest crackdown on the most polluting vehicles by any major city in the world.

Idling engines, building sites and deliveries

Over the past three years, money has been available from the £20 million Mayor’s Air Quality Fund (MAQF), set up by Mr Johnson, which has supported initiatives such as a scheme to encourage drivers using Tower Bridge to switch their engines off when the bridge is closed, in order to help lower emissions and boost air quality. Another project backed by the MAQF has required construction site managers throughout London to retrofit or replace old, polluting machinery such as diggers and bulldozers. All construction sites in the centre of London, and sites building more than 10 homes or larger than 1000 square feet in Greater London, will have to replace or retrofit polluting equipment which is more than 10 years old. Currently, it is estimated up to 12% of NOx and 15% of particulate pollution in London come from construction and demolition activity.

More information about London’s LEZ for non-road mobile machinery (NRMM) can be found at the NRMM website.

Others taking action include the New West End Company, representing businesses in that part of London including Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street. Announcing a plan to halve traffic in these major shopping areas by 2020, Chief Executive Jace Tyrrell said: “Everyone recognises that air quality is one of our top issues, it is consistently bad and it has got to be addressed. Our members employ 150,000 staff in the West End, it’s about them, it’s about their customers and it’s about the reputation of London across the world.”

Launching a five-year strategy document, West End Retail 2020, Mr Tyrrell mentioned initiatives such as one in Regent Street, led by landlord the Crown Estate, which has seen brands including Armani sharing electric delivery vans to move stock from a depot in Harlow. This has resulted in an 80% drop in the number of vehicles making deliveries to the 50 participating stores and has cut the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) being poured into the street by 10t.

Low Emission Neighbourhoods

Five Low Emission Neighbourhoods (LEN) are to be set up across eight London boroughs, with pollution-busting measures including strict new penalties for the most polluting vehicles, car-free days and parking reserved for the cleanest vehicles.

The proposals will come into full effect by the start of 2019. They include, in Marylebone, an electric vehicle delivery scheme (in conjunction with UPS) consolidating freight delivery to cut down on vehicles on the roads.

Spreading the word

On taking up office, Sadiq Khan said that Londoners should have been better informed on more than 100 occasions, during the last two and a half years, about the dangers to their health from the capital’s air. There had already been 22 incidents in 2016, he noted, and he has accordingly directed TfL to develop, as a matter of urgency, a package of alerts to keep people in the capital better informed when air quality is at dangerous levels. By the beginning of August 2016, the Mayor was able to report on the introduction of air quality alerts at bus stops, tube stations and roadsides across the capital to notify Londoners during the worst incidents of air pollution. The alerts will use a three-day-ahead forecast about air pollution levels provided by airTEXT.

More vulnerable Londoners with particular health needs will continue to have access to the airTEXT service enabling them to get regular forecasts through text, voicemail, email, mobile app and online.

See you in court

In a further bid to tackle air quality in the capital, the Mayor has also joined a High Court challenge to the Government’s air pollution plans as an “Interested Party”. Environmental lawyers ClientEarth are suing the Government for the second time in a year, having won a case at the Supreme Court in 2015 which ordered ministers to fulfil their legal duty to cut pollution in “the shortest time possible”. The new case has been launched because the campaigning group believes that the Government is still failing to do this. (This cross-party parliamentary group which acts as a policy watchdog for Defra had published a report requiring the Government to take action on air pollution before certain deadlines. It recommended that the Cabinet Office should set out by 21 July 2016 how it would bring together action across departments to tackle the problem.) According to ClientEarth, ministers have failed to report to Parliament on planned action to address air pollution, ignoring this deadline.

It also asked the Government to devise an overarching air quality strategy by the end of this year.

ClientEarth’s Healthy Air Campaigner, Andrea Lee, said: “Air pollution is one of the biggest threats to public health in this country. The Government has been complacently ignoring deadlines for years. What will it take for them to start listening?”

After Brexit?

Sadiq Khan has pointed out that many of the problems with London’s air quality originate outside its boundaries and indeed outside the UK so can only be tackled by concerted action with other European countries. Environmental charity FoE has reinforced the message that pollution does not stop at national borders. It has therefore urged continued co-operation between national Governments as being essential if air pollution limits are to be reduced to those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The green charity is also urging the UK to maintain and uphold EU protections on air pollution, regardless of the Brexit outcome.

Action by the UK…

The Government has announced that £19 million will be made available to help fleets of commercial vehicles access the latest innovative low- and zero-emission vehicle technologies. The competitive scheme will be funded by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) through Innovate UK and competition opened for bids in July. With HGVs and vans contributing nearly a third (31%) of the UK’s domestic transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the new funding stream aims to encourage the widespread introduction of low-emission vehicles to UK fleets.

Funding to trial vehicles before commercialisation

Greater take-up of such vehicles will not only help the UK meet its CO2 reduction targets, but will also help reduce fleet operating costs. Grants will be available on a competitive basis, with two funding streams open to bids. One stream will fund projects that trial vehicles and on-vehicle technology, with the aim of testing the benefits of the technology before commercialisation. It will support small trial fleets of low-emission vehicles (HGVs and vans) and their refuelling/charging infrastructure. It is anticipated that projects in this category will range in size from total costs of £500,000 to £5 million. Projects should last between 18 months and 2 years, with vehicle trials of at least 1 year.

Funding to develop innovative on-vehicle technology

The second category will fund projects that develop innovative and disruptive on-vehicle technologies, systems or business models. Applications under this part must reduce emissions in the real world. Innovate UK expects that these projects will last for no more than one year and will range in size from total costs of £250,000 to £5 million. Companies interested in bidding for funding must register their interest by 12 October with the deadline for submitting applications being 19 October. Full details can be found at

Low-carbon HGV technology accreditation scheme

Transport Minister Andrew Jones has also announced a low-carbon HGV technology accreditation scheme intended to provide fleet operators with an independent validation of how much fuel they could save by adopting the latest retrofit technologies onto their existing vehicles. According to the Freight Transport Association (FTA), the current Low Carbon Truck Trial has helped put over 300 gas-powered HGVs on the road with supporting infrastructure.

…and by the EU

Until the UK finally leaves the EU, and possibly not even then depending on the exit agreement reached, it remains subject to Union legislation so hauliers should be paying close attention to the European Commission’s strategy for low-emission mobility. For the first time, this includes CO2 standards for trucks, as well as cars and vans. Green campaigning group Transport & Environment (T&E) has described the Commission document, available at, as “a meaningful step in the fight against climate change”. Once the new strategy is in place, Europe will follow the USA, China, Japan and Canada by introducing CO2 and fuel efficiency standards for trucks, with road tolls for HGVs made dependent on their fuel efficiency.

In the medium term, the Commission believes that advanced biofuels will be particularly important for lorries and coaches. It expects natural gas to be increasingly used as an alternative to diesel in lorries and coaches. “Its potential can be increased significantly with the use of bio-methane and synthetic methane (power-to-gas technologies),” the strategy document said. Before the end of 2016, the Commission expects to launch public consultations on the approach towards reducing emissions from road transport generally, including cars and vans as well as lorries, buses and coaches. The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) welcomed the proposals, with ACEA Secretary General Erik Jonnaert commenting: “The automobile industry is fully committed to continue reducing CO2 emissions across all business segments, from passenger cars to trucks.”

Watch out for…

  • more consultations in 2016 this year by the Mayor of London with regard to expanding and bringing forward the date of implementation of the ULEZ

  • consultations by the European Commission on its proposals to introduce CO2 and fuel efficiency standards for trucks as well as possible changes to how road tolls for trucks are charged

  • the introduction in 2017, in London, of an ES on the worst-polluting vehicles.