Sadiq Khan should use the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow – known as COP26 – as an opportunity to “be bold and kickstart plans to replace the growing patchwork of road charges with a simpler, smarter and fairer road user charging scheme,” in the capital, according to think tank Centre for London.
Chief executive Nick Bowes has made the call in advance of next Monday’s vast expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) from its current Central London boundaries out to, though not including, the North and South Circular roads – an 18-fold enlargement of the area covered by a scheme designed to improve the capital’s air quality by imposing charges on the most polluting vehicles.
Bowes, who was previously the Mayor’s Director of Policy, describes the expanded ULEZ as “the most ambitious scheme of its kind in the world” and says “all eyes will be on London” to see how its introduction works as COP26 gets underway from 31 October. However, he adds that the ULEZ is limited by its ageing technology, calling it “an analogue scheme in a digital age”, and with exemptions applying to many diesel and petrol vehicles alike. Centre for London produced a report in 2019 setting out how a different system could work.
Transport for London (TfL) will impose a daily charge of £12.50 on the owners of motor vehicles that drive within the ULEZ which fail to comply with limits set for the amount of nitrogen oxide gases (NOx) and small particles harmful to lungs known as particulate matter (PM) produced by their engines. Failure to pay the daily charge will lead to a penalty charge of £160, or £80 if paid within 14 days.
Bowes warns that “extending the reach of a flat charge scheme may incentivise Londoners to drive more to get value from their daily payments” – in other words if someone has to pay £12.50 to drive within the ULEZ they might decide to spend more time out on the road than they would have otherwise in order to get the most for their money, adding to pollution and congestion rather than lessening it. He also notes that less well-off Londoners who need cars for work but can’t afford to change them for cleaner models “will be particularly penalised”.
TfL has been running a £60 million vehicle scrappage scheme since February 2019, offering Londoners on low incomes grants of £2,000 towards the cost of replacing a car that fails to meet ULEZ standards with one that does, and £1,000 for motorcycles or mopeds.
However, the Evening Standard has recently reported that TfL has paid out only around 7,000 out of just over 8,000 successful applicants, who have to be in receipt one of a number of state benefits, and a broadening of scrappage or retrofitting payments to HGVs, heavy vans and coaches was ended when the available money ran out.
London Assembly Conservatives have been urging the Mayor to delay the introduction of the scheme until next year, arguing that Londoners hardest hit by the pandemic will pay the heaviest price and need more time and help with changing their vehicles. Writing at Conservative Home today, Tory group leader Susan Hall has repeated her argument that Khan could use £50 million of City Hall business rates to top up the budget for scrappage.
The Central London ULEZ was originally a Boris Johnson mayoral policy, which Khan put into effect a year sooner than it had been scheduled by his Tory predecessor.
Backing for London to adopt a more sophisticated road user charging system to replace the current, which depends on number plate recognition cameras and is essentially unchanged since the advent of the Congestion Charge in 2003, has long been the policy of the Green Party in the capital and is also favoured by one of the capital’s leading business groups London First. In an interview with On London earlier this month, the group’s chief executive John Dickie said the time has come for “a serious, in-depth conversation with Londoners” about what he acknowledged is a risky issue for politicians.
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