Businesses across London say they have spent tens of millions of pounds to comply with vehicle pollution levels in a new clean air zone covering the heart of the UK capital that comes into effect on Monday.
Logistics companies, minicab fleets and even the hop-on-hop-off bus companies that cater to tourists have bought new vehicles, retrofitted existing coaches, and invested in new infrastructure such as electric charging points as they try to reduce emissions ahead of the deadline.
Older, more polluting vehicles that drive within the new “ultra low emissions zone” (Ulez), which will initially cover the same area as the congestion charge, will face a daily fee.
The scheme is part of efforts by Sadiq Khan, London mayor, to improve air quality across the capital, where a recent study found that 2m people, including 400,000 children, live in areas with illegally high levels of air pollution.
Facing daily fees of £12.50 for cars and vans, and £100 for older buses and lorries, many companies have opted to upgrade their fleets rather than pay the charges.
The authorities will use the same technology as the congestion charge to enforce the zone; anyone who does not pay on time faces a penalty of £160.
Addison Lee, the minicab company, paid more than £40m to buy 1,200 new vehicles during the past three months as it raced to bring its fleet into compliance. All but 70, mostly courier vans, of the company’s 5,000 vehicles will be in compliance with the new Ulez standards.
“It was a huge administrative and logistics challenge,” said Justin Patterson, head of operations at Addison Lee. “We do have a programme of replacement, but of course we had to accelerate it . . . normally we would never do 1,200 vehicles in 12 weeks.”
At Transport for London, which oversees the capital’s public transport, the fleet of 2,800 buses operating in central London has been upgraded so they are compliant with the Ulez standards — getting older, dirtier buses off the road.
Under the new policy, cleaner vehicles will not have to pay the pollution charge; including petrol cars less than 14 years old, diesel cars less than four years old, and buses less than five years old.
About 100,000 vehicles enter the Ulez each day and more than half are already compliant; the remainder will have to pay the pollution fee.
Logistics and bus companies are among those that face the biggest impacts from the new clean air zone. Big Bus Tours, which operates sightseeing buses in central London, said it had spent more than £1m to retrofit its fleet, and was also starting to buy electric vehicles.
UPS, the courier company, said it had already upgraded its London fleet to surpass the Ulez standards — most of its vehicles in central London are electric — and planned to introduce electric bicycle and tricycle couriers as part of its efforts to move away from conventional diesel and petrol.
“We are more than ready,” said Peter Harris, UPS head of sustainability in Europe, adding that the company had invested in electric charging technology to help power its London vehicles.
However, there have also been accusations that the Greater London Authority, the capital’s devolved government, has not done enough to help businesses pay for the transition, or to inform individual motorists who may be affected.
The mayor’s office has a £23m scrappage scheme for “microbusinesses” and charities, but this only opened in late February. A separate £25m scheme for low-income Londoners will open later this year.
For individual car owners, there has been some confusion about which vehicles will be allowed, and complaints that the requirements for diesel cars — which must be of at least so-called “euro 6 standard” to avoid the fee — are too onerous.
At Auto Trader, an online car marketplace, a survey of 800 London car owners found that just 11 per cent realised that diesel vehicles made before 2015 would have to pay the pollution charge.
“The only thing that is clear is that confusion reigns among London’s 2.6m car owners,” said Ian Plummer, director of Auto Trader.
The company said searches on its website for “alternative fuel vehicles” such as hybrids and electric cars had risen 80 per cent during the 12-month period ending in March 2019, compared with the previous 12 months.
By contrast, petrol vehicle searches increased by 54 per cent, while diesel searches dropped by a third during the same period.
The zone will be expanded in October 2021 to cover all areas inside the North and South Circular roads, and the mayor’s office said this would bring air quality within legal limits by 2025.
Air pollution contributed to 40,000 premature deaths across the UK, according to a study by the Royal College of Physicians, including thousands of premature deaths in London.
Shirley Rodrigues, deputy mayor for environment and energy, said health concerns were the primary reason why the Greater London Authority introduced the scheme, which is expected to be revenue-neutral due to the costs of implementation.
“It’s shocking how prevalent the health impacts [from air pollution] are,” she said. “Those health impacts are life-long impacts, and they are costing the NHS billions of pounds.”
The UK has failed to bring its air quality in line with legal limits since 2010, largely because of the prevalence of diesel vehicles, which contribute to high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution.
Additional reporting by Peter Campbell in London
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