A legal challenge to plans to expand London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to the whole of the capital is being heard in the high court on Tuesday as five Conservative-led councils seek to block the proposals.
The Ulez is due to expand at the end of August from the boundary of the north and south circular roads to throughout Greater London, requiring drivers of the most polluting vehicles to pay a fee when using them in the area.
Four outer London boroughs – Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon – and Surrey county council launched legal action in February arguing that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was not acting in accordance with relevant “statutory requirements”.
Although a high court judge dismissed parts of the challenge in April, the case is proceeding on two grounds – the legal basis for the scheme and the consultation over the shape of a £110m scrappage scheme designed to help drivers transition to newer cars or public transport.
Drivers of vehicles that do not meet Ulez standards – typically the oldest petrol cars from before 2006 and dirtier diesels registered before 2015 – will mostly be liable to pay a £12.50 daily fee after 29 August.
City Hall has vowed to “robustly defend [Khan’s] life-saving decision to expand the Ulez” and continue with preparations for the rollout without delay. The mayor has frequently cited research showing that about 4,000 Londoners a year die prematurely due to air pollution.
The high court hearing before Mr Justice Swift was due to begin on Tuesday morning and a verdict is not expected to be delivered until a later date, probably in several weeks.
The Ulez, originally drawn up during Boris Johnson’s tenure as mayor, launched in central London in April 2019 and was expanded to draw about 4 million people into the zone in October 2021. Only about 6% of vehicles now entering the zone are non-compliant and pay a fee. Transport for London (TfL) estimated earlier this year that about 15% of vehicles driven in outer London were non-compliant
The policy has become much more divisive in its latest expansion. TfL argues that most Londoners do not drive and poorer communities are more likely to suffer from toxic air. However, motoring organisations argue that the charges threaten the wellbeing of those who rely on their cars.
Edmund King, the AA’s president, said the scrappage scheme for private car owners was “limited to those on benefits – not those working long hours and multiple jobs to improve their quality of life, nor the elderly who invested in cars [that] provide the mobility for their health needs, nor those for whom cars make them feel safe when they travel – particularly at night”.
Ian Edwards, the leader of Hillingdon council, said: “We believe we can win this. Quite simply, with the harm our local economies face from the effects of the proposed expansion, we can’t afford not to fight.”
Campaigners said the councils were “fighting completely the wrong battle”. Areeba Hamid, a joint executive director at Greenpeace UK, said: “Every borough in the city exceeds pollution levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization … and the Ulez is one proven method to help urgently reduce the number of cars on the road, making our cities cleaner and safer for everyone.”
A survey of residents living in the council areas involved revealed 51% of respondents considered air pollution a major issue. One in three of those questioned believed that air pollution was adversely affecting public health in their borough.
The survey, carried out for the campaign group Clean Air Wins, found 75% of respondents believed that reducing air pollution should be a priority for their local council.