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UK Clean Air Zones explained

We take a look around the UK to answer the most common questions on Clean Air Zones, also known as Low or Ultra-Low Emission Zones.

What are Clean Air, Low or Ultra-Low Emission Zones?

As the government gets ready to phase out petrol and diesel cars over the next two decades, one trickle-down policy has been for local authorities to introduce traffic restrictions in the form of Clean Air, Low or Ultra-Low Emission Zones (CAZs, LEZs and ULEZs). These zones will allow them to charge motorists for driving fossil-fuelled vehicles through certain town and city centre areas.

And with more than 35 million cars on the road in Britain, that could mean lots of drivers paying fees for their fossil-fuelled vehicles’ emissions.

Why are Clean Air Zones being introduced?

The main aim of these zones is to minimise vehicle pollution in congested town and city centre areas, with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels a key measure of urban air cleanliness. In 2010 the European Ambient Air Quality Directive established a safe air quality level of below 40 micrograms of NO2 per cubic metre of air.

In 2007, the European Commission published a report titled ‘Towards a New Culture for Urban Mobility’. This report claimed that 100 billion euros, or 1% of the EU’s GDP, was being lost every year as a result of decreased productivity in urban areas caused by traffic congestion.

But the biggest issue is public health, with nitrous oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter – or PM2.5 and PM10 – present in the air. For those who live and work in polluted areas, these can increase the risk of a range of health conditions from asthma to heart attacks and strokes. Therefore, in place of cars and trucks, another aim is to increase the use of public transport, or walking or cycling in city centre areas, and make them much more habitable.

How will these low emission zones work?

One way of encouraging city drivers to shun personal and business vehicles in favour of alternative methods of transport is to introduce penalties for vehicles entering the areas while failing to meet European emissions standards. This index covers petrol and diesel cars and light commercial vehicles, ranging from ‘Euro 1’ with the fitting of catalytic converters to cars in 1992, to ‘Euro 6’, the most recent upgrade of Euro emissions standards in 2014, with an even stricter ‘Euro 6’ revision in 2017.

Which towns and cities are they in?

London: The UK capital’s eight million residents were already familiar with the Congestion Charge policy put in place back in 2003, but in April 2019 Transport for London went even further by introducing a ULEZ for Central London, with a £12.50-per-day charge for motorists using motorbikes, cars, private taxis, small and large vans, and minibuses that don’t meet petrol Euro 4 and diesel Euro 6 standards. For buses, coaches and heavy vehicles over 3.5 tonnes failing to meet Euro 6 standards for both petrol and diesel, the charges are dramatically higher at £100 per day.

Currently only covering City district and Westminster, London’s ULEZ will extend from Haringey in the north to Lambeth and Lewisham in the south from October 2021.

Glasgow: A limited LEZ is already in place, with one in five of the buses using the city centre subject to European emissions standards. An extension to subject all vehicles entering Glasgow’s LEZ to the rules is to be introduced by December 2022.

Birmingham: As Britain’s second most populous city, Birmingham launched its CAZ in June 2021 in response to huge commuter numbers entering the city each day. The following standards must be met for vehicles passing through:

  • Diesel, minimum Euro 6
  • Petrol, minimum Euro 4
  • Zero-emissions vehicles such as all-electric and hydrogen. • Low-emission like hybrids meeting diesel Euro 6 and petrol Euro 4 standard.

There will be an £8 charge for private cars and taxis, and a £50 levy for buses, coaches and HGVs that are not up to recognised emissions standards.

Leeds: Leeds' planned CAZ has been scrapped due to a shift to cleaner vehicles, according to a review by Leeds City Council and central Governme. Instead of a CAZ, Leeds will now consider introducing new air quality targets that go further than the national standards.

Edinburgh: LEZ plans for Scotland’s capital were still at the consultation stage as of October 2021. With the local authority concerned that 80% of the city’s air pollution is caused by nitrogen oxides (NOx), options for clean air zones have been put to the public, including for a city centre zone or a city-wide zone stretching further out to Edinburgh’s suburbs.

Aberdeen: Plans are in place to introduce a LEZ in 2022, with cars travelling through the Granite City set to be subject to charges for not meeting Euro 6 diesel or Euro 4 petrol requirements.

Manchester: With a metropolitan area of more than two million people to consider, the Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan seeks to introduce two-pronged reforms, the first wave began this year, with its proposed Clean Air Zone, where any charges would occur, not including cars (other than private hire taxis), mopeds or motorbikes.

Amongst those categories to be charged a daily rate of £100 for urban driving are HGVs with an engine classification poorer than Euro 6, and there’ll be a £7.50 charge for vans and minibuses from 2023.

Sheffield: The local authority wanted to introduce a CAZ in early 2021 with a proposed £10-per-day charge within the Steel City’s inner ring-road and centre, covering taxis, vans and LGVs who don’t comply with Euro 4 petrol standards, and £50 per day for coaches, buses and HGVs that don’t meet diesel Euro 6 standards. However, due to Covid-19 these plans have been delayed.

For a comprehensive list of inner-city zones across the UK and Europe, the EU’s Urban Access Regulations section has an interactive map where you can check dozens of European cities’ lower-emission requirements.

The UK government also has a handy page where you can check if you'll be charged to drive in a Clean Air Zone. All you need is the number plate of your vehicle and they'll tell you if your vehicle meets the emission standards.

What vehicles will be affected by Low Emission Zones (LEZ)

For each LEZ/ULEZ/CAZ, the local authority dictates what level of restrictions are to be applied.

For Scotland’s LEZs, the proposed restrictions are:

• Euro 4 for petrol cars and vans (generally vehicles registered from 2006)

• Euro 6 for diesel cars and vans (generally vehicles registered from September 2015)

• Euro VI for buses, coaches and HGVs (generally vehicles registered from January 2013)

(These dates are only indicative - please check to confirm with your vehicle manual or the manufacturer.)

To help you understand if your vehicle might be allowed entry to a Low Emission Zone, please use this online vehicle checker here.

How much will it cost to enter a low emission zone?

The focus of the LEZs is to discourage pollution, not to raise additional revenue.

With this in mind, Scotland’s charges will be penalty-based to discourage non-compliant vehicles from entering the zones.

For example, it is currently proposed that non-compliant vehicles will be charged £60 for entering a LEZ, but that penalty will be reduced 50% if paid within the first 14 days of receiving the penalty.

And with all this in mind, why not discover a cleaner way to drive?

About the Author

John McCallum