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Early Signs Show Sadiq Khan’s Expanded Ultra Low Emissions Zone is Working – and the Culture Warriors Have Gone Quiet

It was meant to be a disaster, but the doomsayers appear to be in retreat.

Conservative candidate for London mayor Susan Hall after the High Court decided in favour of London Mayor Sadiq Khan in a lawsuit against Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion. Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

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‘Cut My Tax’, a campaign from the opaque Tax Reform Council warned in August that Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone expansion “is a tax whose expansion won’t reduce pollution significantly.” 

The Ultra Low Emissions Zone would be a “disaster”, Iain Duncan Smith raged on TalkTV in July. 

In February, Harrow Tory councillor Paul Osborn said plainly: “ULEZ doesn’t work.” 

And again, Tory London mayoral candidate Susan Hall AM said: “Sadiq Khan thinks the ULEZ will work”. That one was in 2019 – when it was being expanded from central to (the wider) inner London. 

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Four years on, Hall does not propose scrapping the inner London charge, instead only backing repeal of the outer London charge. It’s almost as if, once clean air policies bed in, they become rather popular and normal. 

Clean air opposition is the dog that barks loudest before the postman arrives. They are a terror, a dire threat – until people realise they quite like breathing freely.

New analysis by Transport for London’s social media team has now found a 97 percent reduction in conversations about ULEZ on social media since the zone’s expansion on August 29, according to Politico. It is already bedding in. And the dark prophecies have not come to pass. 

Silent Killer

Illegal-levels of toxic air silently claim the lives of approximately 4,000 Londoners prematurely every year. All Londoners currently live in areas exceeding the WHO air quality guidelines for harmful micro-particles PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). 

Over 500,000 Londoners suffer from asthma and are vulnerable to the effects of toxic air, with more than half of these people living in outer London, according to analysis by Asthma & Lung UK of NHS data. 

Doing nothing was – and is – not an option. If no further action is taken to reduce air pollution, around 550,000 Londoners will develop diseases related to poor air quality by 2050. In this case the cost to the NHS and social care system in London is estimated to be £10.4 billion by 2050, according to modelling for City Hall. 

Of course, we already knew the policy worked. The ULEZ had already been hugely successful in central and inner London. Harmful NO2 concentrations alongside roads are estimated to be 46 per cent lower in central London and 21 per cent lower in inner London than they would have been without the ULEZ and its inner London expansion.

The number of schools in areas exceeding the legal limits for NO2 fell by 96 per cent – from 455 in 2016 to just 20 in 2019. 

And while CO2 reduction isn’t the intention, cumulatively since 2019 it is estimated the ULEZ has led to a reduction of around 800,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from vehicles across London over the four-year period compared to without the ULEZ. 


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The deadly toll of air pollution disproportionately affects London’s most vulnerable – its economically disadvantaged, and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities.

The Ultra Low Emissions Zone today covers 1,500km2, with the dirtiest vehicles (around 10% in the capital) being charged £12.50 a day. 

It was an easy policy to criticise – and there were valid criticisms. £12.50 is a lot, even if it only applies to a small proportion of vehicles. But the damage of pollution was too great to ignore, and proposed alternatives just didn’t stack up. 

Sometimes you need a stick as well as a carrot. And there were carrots, with £2,000 available to scrap polluting vehicles expanded to cover all Londoners with an old vehicle. 

The outcome? Over nine million inhabitants now live in the world’s largest urban anti-pollution zone. Early signs show it is working. 

Early Success

There will be much more analysis to be done. But so far, Outer London has seen a rapid increase in vehicle compliance.

Around 95 percent of vehicles across both inner and outer London now adhere to the clean air standards – an almighty turnaround from the mere 39 percent in 2017 when Mayor Sadiq Khan introduced the Toxicity Charge (T-Charge). 

Data indicates a 10 percentage point increase in vehicles that reach ULEZ standards since the start of the expansion consultation in May last year alone. 

Compliance among vans – up there as some of the biggest polluters – in outer London is now at 86%, up from 79.5 per cent this June this year. Many firms will have upgraded their fleets to electric. 

TfL’s online vehicle checker witnessed a whopping 20.5 million visits since the ULEZ expansion’s announcement in November 2022. Undoubtedly, amid the culture war over the policy, most of them thought they’d have to pay. Most did not. 

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With no help from Government – despite clean air being a legal requirement – the Mayor launched the UK’s largest scrappage and retrofit scheme, with £160 million in funding from City Hall coffers, 

Over £121 million has now been allocated to aid Londoners, with over 37,200 households awarded grants to phase out polluting vehicles.

“London is now home to the world’s largest clean air zone… Londoners are experiencing a greener, cleaner, and healthier city,” Sadiq Khan said of the findings. 

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah CBE, mother of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who tragically succumbed to asthma exacerbated by pollution, was one of the fiercest advocates for the policy. 

It’s best to quote her words: “The Coroner’s report following Ella’s premature death stated that unless action is taken to clean up the air, more people will continue to die from air pollution.

“The first steps of the expansion of the ULEZ are positive, but there is still so much more to do to reduce air pollution and improve air quality in line with the World Health Organization guidelines, not just in London but for the rest of the UK too.”

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