Ulez extension 2021: What will the ultra low emission zone mean for London's air pollution?

Brixton Road holds one of the capital’s least enviable titles: it has the worst air pollution in London. It’s a street that David Smith and his son Eli regularly used to walk along on their way to Stockwell Skate Park. Until a truck paused alongside them, its exhaust pipe level with then two-and-a-half year old Eli’s face, and Smith realised there might be a problem.

“Something just clicked,” he says. Researching later at home, Smith read an article explaining that diesel engine exhaust was being reclassified as “carcinogenic” (group one) by the World Health Organisation — the category used when there is sufficient evidence that a substance causes cancer in humans. Tobacco smoke also falls into this category.

“I suddenly realised that I’d been unknowingly poisoning my son,” he says. “I was taking him to all these places and literally poisoning him.” Smith’s response was to launch the Little Ninja campaign, through which the father of four highlights the effect dirty air in the capital has on children.

London pollution adds to risks for pregnant women

Smith and his family not only live close to Brixton Road — currently host to the most polluted monitoring site this year so far (averaging 55.9ug/m3, which is around 30 per cent higher than the average of 40ug/m3) — but also to polluted Putney High Street. The expansion of the ultra low emission zone, due to come into force in October next year, could transform both roads.

Under the Ulez scheme, vehicles that do not meet emissions standards must pay a daily charge to travel within the zone, set to be dramatically expanded up to but not including the North and South Circular Roads. The new area will be 18 times the size of the original and cover a significant portion of the capital. But Smith and his family live outside the expansion zone.

And while he welcomes the policy, it’s not clear what the impact on them might be. “It’s great that it will encourage people to upgrade their cars but there is a fear on this side of the South Circular that it will make things worse,” he says. “We’ve been told that lots of people travelling into the new extended zone will change their car, and therefore we’ll still get the benefit. But there will be people who just don’t want to pay and will choose alternative routes so as not to go into the Ulez area.

“So I’m worried we’ll end up getting the more polluted vehicles on our side.”

Ulez extension 2021: What will the ultra low emission zone mean for London's air pollution?

Ulez zone sign in London

Oliver Lord, head of policy and campaigns at the charity Environmental Defense Fund, says this shouldn’t be the case. “It’s something we’re looking into at the moment but the observations we have from the central scheme is that it reduced the amount of traffic in the area and there were actually also reductions in emissions on the boundary of the area as well,” he says. “So we don’t anticipate there to be any sort of adverse impacts on those living just outside the zone.”

How The Bigger Zone Will Work

The Ulez costs drivers GBP12.50 each time they enter the zone in a vehicle that does not meet emission standards. It applies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year except Christmas Day.

As with the current Ulez area, there will be signs throughout central London to indicate where the new zone starts and ends, but no barriers or toll booths. Cameras read number plates and background checks establish if the vehicle meets the Ulez standards. If you’re not sure whether your vehicle complies, you can enter details into the “check your vehicle” page on the TFL website.

Scrappage grants are available for small businesses, charities and low income and disabled Londoners who wish to replace their vehicles. TfL says money received from the Ulez will be reinvested into improving the transport network — including its roads, cycleways, buses and Tube — and making London’s air cleaner.

London has been breaching legal limits for air quality for more than a decade, argues Lord, so the expansion is important. “We’ve still got a big issue with diesel in the capital and anything that can be done to speed up the replacement of older vehicles will have a massive impact.” Diesel cars emit around 10 times as much NOx as their petrol equivalents, with even the latest “Euro 6” diesel cars emitting five times the NOx of comparable petrol cars.

In London, diesel vehicles alone produce nearly 40 per cent of all the capital’s NO2 emissions. A City Hall-commissioned report predicted that the Ulez expansion could see almost 300,000 fewer people developing chronic diseases, primarily asthma and type-2 diabetes, than otherwise expected in London by 2050. In Putney, air pollution is a hot topic.

Putney High Street, long an area of concern, has the second worst air pollution in London this year, averaging 54.2ug/m3 according to a monitoring site on the road. Richard Carter, who leads on air pollution for the Putney Society, which aims to improve the quality of life for people in SW15, welcomes the Ulez expansion but isn’t expecting too much. “It’s a long-over due measure, although there is concern among people who own older, polluting vehicles,” he notes.

Ulez extension 2021: What will the ultra low emission zone mean for London's air pollution?

What dangerous pollution do cars emit?

“Will it make a dramatic difference? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Putney resident Tom Strelczak thinks more could be done. “Walking down Putney Hill at certain hours in the day is just not an option. It is like inhaling a pack of cigarettes,” he says. “It won’t be a popular opinion, but in my view, the Ulez scheme could go much further, extending to petrol cars and being brought forward sooner.”

Diana McCann, a member of the Wandsworth Green Party who lives in Putney, would like to see the zone extended further. “The Ulez, while a welcome introduction, does not cover a wide enough area — its extension to the M25 would be a more effective limitation especially on commuter trips from outside London — and it’s still inadequate to address the existential threat of air pollution.” Those against next year’s expansion, however, argue that it could increase social inequality.

Last month, Edmund King, president of the AA, warned that those who will be hit hardest by the new charges will be those that can least afford it. “A family of five living within the North or South Circular may have bought a diesel people-carrier in 2014 in good faith. They are likely to lose a vehicle essential for shopping and family trips, even though they do the lowest mileage of drivers in the UK,” he said.

Alex Williams, TfL’s director of city planning, said: “We expect to see the benefits felt by people across the city when the zone enlarges and are providing financial support for small businesses and the most vulnerable to help them make the green transition.”

Ulez extension 2021: What will the ultra low emission zone mean for London's air pollution?

Are e-bikes the new transport trend?

Smith also recognises that those on lower incomes will be most affected by the charge but argues there are alternatives. His family invested in a cargo bike which he says has revolutionised the school run. “I’ve been trying my best to try to encourage more people to get cargo bikes.

It can be actually faster to get places than by car. “I hope when the Ulez expansion comes in people will consider it as an alternative to just going and buying a more modern car because even the most environmentally [friendly] cars still cause air pollution.”


The Air We Breathe is a year-long project that considers the impact of London’s air on our health and asks how we can take action to limit it. This project is supported financially by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity and the Clean Air Fund, who share the project’s aims, but our journalism remains editorially independent.

This project is part of our Future London initiative, which looks for solutions to some of the biggest issues facing the capital.

More about: | Future London | The Air We Breathe | ULEZ | Air Pollution

You may also like...