ULEZ and making London zero-carbon by 2050

A version of this article was first posted on PoliticsHome’s blog

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Capita’s Chief Executive writes following the launch of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone, which his company was commissioned to design, implement and operate. He says if the scheme is rolled out across the country, it would be seen as the third great post-War move to tackle poisonous air across the UK after the smoking ban and the Clean Air Act.

Air pollution is one of the world’s most devastating killers.

The World Health Organization estimates that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, resulting in seven million deaths a year - more than 9,000 of them in London. This is not far behind cancer, which claimed 9.6 million lives globally in 2018.

London’s experience shows that air pollution is also a silent killer. In contrast to other great industrial capitals, our air is relatively smog-free – a result of the Clean Air Act in 1956 - and usually appears clear. Yet London has struggled with illegal levels of air pollution for nearly a decade due to the presence of heavy emitting vehicles – the transport hotspots of Marble Arch, Tower Hill and Piccadilly Circus are among our most noxious areas.

This is a public health crisis, which is why this week’s launch of London’s 365 days-a-year, 24 hours-a-day Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is so important. My company, Capita, has designed the system and business processes to operate the scheme, which is run by Transport for London.

The nitrogen dioxide that fills London’s air is linked to all manner of deaths and illnesses in the capital, including asthma, strokes, heart disease and dementia.

Children, being closer to the ground and, therefore, exhaust pipes, disproportionately suffer, with those in inner city London found to have 5% smaller lung capacity than other young people. Worryingly, there are more than 800 schools, nurseries and higher education colleges in the capital where pupils breathe in toxic air that breaches EU limits.

Under ULEZ, vehicles that fail to meet new exhaust emission standards have to pay £12.50 a day – or £100 for lorries, coaches and buses – to drive in an area that covers the existing Congestion Charging Zone, stretching from Mayfair in the west to Spitalfields in the east.

It is estimated this will cover around 100,000 cars, vans, HGVs, and coaches every day. By discouraging heavy emitting vehicles from entering our central streets, the scheme is predicted to see nitrogen oxide emissions fall by 45% in this zone in its first year of operation alone.

This is a major step in the Mayor’s ambition to make London a zero-carbon city by 2050 and has already prompted behavioural change in the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has installed electric vehicle charging points in Smithfield Meat Market and Barbican Estate car parks and is purchasing ultra-low emission vehicles for its fleet.

This is, in effect, an acknowledgement that to remain a world class centre of finance, London must also be a pioneer of environmental excellence, and, among many other things, this scheme will encourage the use of low emission buses and electric cabs.  

But to achieve that, London needs to use highly sophisticated technology.

Capita designed, coded and configured a number of proven products to create dependable, stable technology that records vehicles that come into the zone and collects associated payments and fines.

This has now been expanded and adapted to track highly polluting vehicles. It helps ensure that residents who live in ULEZ enjoy a two-and-a-half-year ‘sunset period’ when they won’t be charged, giving them plenty of time to replace their current vehicles with more fuel-efficient vehicles.

If ULEZ proves as successful as is expected, other cities and regions across the UK will soon follow suit. Drivers of heavy polluting vehicles in Birmingham, for example, are already set to pay £8 a day when travelling within the city’s ring road from early next year through the creation of a Clean Air Zone.

Should the scheme be rolled-out across the country, it is likely that today will be seen - after the smoking ban and the aforementioned Clean Air Act – as the start of the third great post-War move to tackle poisonous air across the UK. For the good of future generations, we must hope and believe that will be the case.

Jon Lewis is chief executive of Capita, which was commissioned to design, implement and operate the Ultra-Low Emission Zone in 2018