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Opposition mounts as London expands fee on older vehicles in bid to curb air pollution

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People take part in a protest against the proposed ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) expansion in Tooting, London, on Aug. 26.Jeff Moore/AP Photo

Claire Turner loves her 2005 Land Rover Defender and her husband uses it regularly for gardening jobs and other errands. They live in south London and as of Tuesday, they’ll have to pay around $21 a day to drive the SUV anywhere in the city.

The fee is the result of the controversial expansion of London’s ultralow emission zone, or ULEZ, a program introduced in 2019 by Mayor Sadiq Khan to curb air pollution. Until now, the ULEZ had been confined to central London and it covered about 44 per cent of the population. On Tuesday, it will come into force across all 32 boroughs.

Anyone driving a diesel car or truck built before 2015, or a gas-powered vehicle made prior to 2006, will have to pay £12.50 per day, ($21.39). The fee applies all day every day, except Christmas, and the fine for non-compliance is £180.

“I do feel that this has gone too far,” Ms. Turner said Saturday as she stood among a group of noisy protesters in South London sporting a green vest that said “No ULEZ” on the back.

She became so incensed at the expansion that she helped start the group Action Against ULEZ Extension, which has more than 36,000 members and has been holding protests across the city. “Why get rid of cars that are quite serviceable?”

She and other critics of the scheme say it will penalize low-income families who are already struggling with the rising cost of living. It’s also unfair to suburbanites because they are far more dependent on cars than people living in central London, they add.

Opponents of the expansion got a boost last month when a parliamentary by-election highlighted the depth of opposition to the mayor’s plan. Pundits gave the Conservative Party little chance of hanging on to the West London riding of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which Boris Johnson vacated. However, the Tory candidate eked out a narrow victory by campaigning against the ULEZ expansion.

The result has led the Conservatives and opposition Labour Party to start to rethink some of their green policies, including phasing out petrol vehicles and natural gas boilers.

ULEZ “is a tipping point,” said Michael Rees, a 64-year-old retiree who was among the demonstrators on Saturday.

Mr. Rees and his wife own a Ford Fiesta that is ULEZ compliant and a diesel-powered station wagon that isn’t. He’s a big believer in saving the planet but he feels the ULEZ expansion is a step too far and simply a money-grab by Mr. Khan.

“I think everybody has got an appetite to improve the environment. The idea is how you go about it,” he said. “Everyone can have idealistic views, but when it starts to impact you financially, it will become increasingly more poignant for the man or woman on the street.”

Mr. Khan has insisted that the vast majority of cars on the road are already ULEZ compliant. The city has also increased the amount it will pay people to scrap old cars – up to £2,000 per vehicle – and officials have said that all money raised from the ULEZ program goes toward improving public transit.

“The decision to expand the ultralow emissions zone was a tough one, but it’s the right one,” Mr. Khan said after the by-election last month. “Nobody puts up with dirty water. Why dirty air?”

London has been at the forefront of slapping charges on vehicles ever since then-mayor Ken Livingstone introduced a £5 congestion charge in 2003 on cars travelling through central London during workdays. While unpopular at first, a recent poll of 1,100 residents by Redfield and Wilton Strategies showed that a majority of Londoners supported the charge, which has risen to £15.

The city added low emission standards for trucks and buses in 2008 and Mr. Johnson developed the ULEZ plan in 2015 when he was mayor. Mr. Khan implemented it four years later and expanded it in 2021.

Today, seven other cities in Britain and more than 300 across Europe have some form of ULEZ. Montreal is also considering adopting a zero-emissions zone in the downtown area.

Mr. Khan says the ULEZ has helped reduce air pollution by decreasing the number of older cars on the road. And he points to city figures that show the level of dangerous pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, has fallen by 23 per cent since 2019.

Scientists generally agree that low-emissions zones can be effective. A review of eight studies published recently in The Lancet Public Health journal concluded that these zones “reduce air pollution-related health outcomes, with the most consistent effect on cardiovascular disease.”

However, researchers at Imperial College found that the ULEZ on its own caused only a 3-per-cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations and that the zone had to be used in conjunction with other anti-pollution measures in order to work.

There remain plenty of skeptics. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has paused the introduction of a clean-air zone as opposition to it mounted. The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, has also said the city will not expand its zone and it will drop the restriction as soon as pollution levels fall.

Robin Dewey, 68, has given up hope that London’s ULEZ expansion will be stopped. He lives in Mitcham in south London and he’s already sold his 2012 Ford Fiesta because it won’t be compliant.

“Now I’m without a car,” he said. He still joined the protest on Saturday to voice his opposition. “At least we tried,” he added with a shrug.


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