Inhale clean air, exhale inequality

Some say it’s the life-saving policy which will resuscitate London. Others claim it’s the regressive tax which targets low-paid Londoners. It’s ULEZ. The Ultra-Low Emissions Zone is London’s scheme designed to improve air quality by requiring motorists of polluting petrol and diesel vehicles to pay £12.50 a day when travelling in London boroughs. These vehicles tend to be older and are generally considered to be diesel cars registered before 2015 and petrol cars before 2006. The need for clean air is undisputed. An estimated 4,000 Londoners annually pass away due to poor air quality, but ULEZ is not the right policy for this.


The Mayoral office claims that the efficacy of ULEZ is steadfast. Since its 2019 debut, it has apparently reduced nitrogen dioxide pollution by approximately 50% in central London. There is evidence to suggest that a consequence of ULEZ’s cleaner air will be a healthier economy. Reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions saves lives and delivers health improvements for the working population. The CBI claims that this reduction in nitrogen dioxoide levels could annually add 2.5 million working hours by increased workforce participation and productivity. However, these benefits are not the consequence of ULEZ itself but the product of cleaner air and ULEZ is not the only way to achieve this.


The policy gains are insignificant while hurting the poorer and vulnerable Londoners. ULEZ disproportionately affects low-income households who cannot afford to have newer vehicles. Although there is a scrappage scheme in place for poorer Londoners, the £2,000 offered is not nearly enough to afford a dependable compliant car. As a result, poorer households are effectively taxed up to an extra £4550 a year. Furthermore, the policy’s strapline boasts that it only affects 10% of London’s vehicles. It clearly questions the efficacy of this potentially inequitable scheme. If only a small proportion of road users are affected, then surely a fairer policy that targets more Londoners should be considered.


For example, in the London borough of Hillingdon, I would wager that the excessive levels of pollutants are a result of Heathrow Airport rather than vehicle emissions. In 2020, the aviation industry produced over 3 times as much NO2 as road transport in Hillingdon. Perceivably, a more effective policy would be a frequent flyers tax. The gains from this could be used to subsidise a worthwhile scrappage scheme which encourages the adoption of electric vehicles instead of necessitating it. This would effectively target the wealthiest in society (those who can afford to fly on a frequent basis) whilst simultaneously helping to decrease both emissions from vehicles and from flying. 


I acquiesce that perhaps in certain areas, such as inner London, ULEZ is the most effective combatant. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with its draconian rollout across all boroughs. It’s a lazy policy that allows for Mr Khan to perpetuate a tough stance on green issues ahead of his 2024 election. It’s his green scapegoat to maintain electoral popularity at the sacrifice of marginalised groups. It is possible, as I have illustrated, to create fair policy that targets the potent threat of pollutants. Yet the clunky one-size-fits-all rollout of ULEZ forgoes a nuanced equitable policy. 


Despite the mixed reception in London, many other UK cities are considering their own version of ULEZ, which raises the question of whether Leeds will receive a similar policy. In Bradford, a system already exists that demands polluting commercial vehicles are charged up to £50. So far, no such policy exists in Leeds and it seems as though this will remain the case. In 2017, Leeds was instructed by the Government to introduce a ‘Clean Air Zone’ which taxed polluting vehicles. However, due to adequate financial support, a significant chunk of the City’s taxis and buses have reverted to greener vehicles, leading to a great improvement in Leeds’ air quality. Hence, there has been no need for this extreme scheme. In fact, air quality is set to further improve with the introduction of electric bike schemes to incentivise locals to ditch their cars for bicycles.


Tracey Brabin, the Mayor of West Yorkshire, has concurred that Leeds does not need its version of ULEZ. Although she places the onus for air quality on individual city councils, she claims that there are ‘no plans to introduce a ULEZ in West Yorkshire.’ Furthermore, with a majority of the Leeds MPs and Councillors emanating from the Labour Party, it is unlikely they would go against the party line. The Labour Central Office came out in opposition to ULEZ. Both Angela Raynor and Keir Starmer publicly vocalised that Sadiq Khan needs to reconsider his support of ULEZ. Consequently, it seems incredibly improbable that this contentious policy will come to fruition in Leeds;  it is not only unnecessary logistically but also politically.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.