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The British cities charging drivers clean air fines (and how to avoid them)

ULEZ
ULEZ

Like it or not, road charging is becoming a permanent feature of driving in Britain, as clean air levies on motorists have come into force in cities across the country.

The charges on older vehicles that create more pollution now operate for drivers of private cars in four cities, specifically London, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow, while Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee will launch schemes next year. Oxford is currently trialling its own scheme on several of its streets.

Local authorities are required by law to keep nitrogen dioxide levels below a certain limit, but there are no national standards for how charging zones should be implemented, so the rules can vary significantly.

This can make them difficult to navigate – especially as more pop up around the UK – and fines for not paying can run to well over £100. Most schemes are managed by automatic plate recognition cameras, meaning there’s little chance of escaping the costs, even if you drove into the zones by accident.

Here, Telegraph Money details which clean air schemes are already in place, who needs to pay – and who can avoid the charges altogether.

How do I know if I need to pay?

Drivers should check where their car ranks on the Euro emission classification standards, which are used to judge how polluting engines are.

Websites set up to take payments for the schemes usually allow drivers to check whether they need to pay for their vehicle by entering a registration number. There is also a registration number checker on the Government’s website, which you can find here.

Simply enter your registration number and select whether the vehicle is registered in the UK or elsewhere, confirm its details (assuming they’re correct), and you’ll be informed whether or not you’ll need to pay to enter any of the existing clean air zones.

Note that the answer you receive could change if new zones are introduced, or existing ones are modified in future.

The standards date back to the 1970s and have been carried over from when Britain was a member of the European Union.

Anything below Euro 4 for petrol and Euro 6 for diesel cars and vans, generally those registered from before 2006 and 2015 respectively, must pay to enter “Clean Air Zones” (Caz).

London Ultra-Low Emission Zone

London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) is the largest and most expensive in the country.

It was expanded to cover the entirety of Greater London in August, causing ongoing controversy, and costs £12.50 every day – on top of the daily £15 congestion charge to drive in the city centre at certain times.

The charge operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and applies to private cars and motorcycles that do not meet ultra-low emissions standards.

You can pay the Ulez up until midnight on the third day following your car journey, or up to 90 days in advance.

A vehicle pollution tax in the same area as the congestion charge zone was announced by then-mayor of London Boris Johnson in 2015, with the date for its introduction initially set for 2020.

However, Sadiq Khan brought the measures forward in 2017 with the Toxicity Charge – or “T-Charge” – which was renamed Ulez in 2019. In 2021, it was expanded to inner London, and now applies across almost all of Greater London.

London also has another, more expensive daily charge scheme, known as the Low Emission Zone (Lez), which is paid instead of the Ulez for heavier diesel vehicles.

It costs £100 for lorries, vans and specialist heavy vehicles that weigh over 3.5 tonnes. For those over 5 tonnes, including buses, minibuses and coaches, it is £300.

Penalties for not paying the Ulez charge are £180, reduced to £90 if paid within 14 days of issue.

Bristol Clean Air Zone

Bristol has had a £9 daily Caz in place since November 2022, which covers just over a square mile in the centre of the city.

The same Euro 4 petrol and Euro 6 diesel minimum standards for exemption apply in Bristol, as they do in London and almost everywhere else in the country with a form of clean air zone, but the scheme is different in that it does not apply to motorcycles or mopeds.

The zone stretches from St James’ Barton Roundabout to Bristol Temple Meads in the east and tapers down to end at Brunel Way between Hotwells and Bower Ashton in the west.

It can be paid online using the Government website, which allows you to pay for any of Caz in England excluding London’s Ulez. The charge rises to £100 for heavy goods vehicles, buses and coaches.

The scheme is always in force and runs year-round, every day, all day. Payments can be made online up to six days before you enter the zone, upon entry and up to six days after the day you drove in the zone.

A fine for failing to pay Bristol’s Caz on time is £120, and reduces to £60 if made within 14 days of it being issued.

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Glasgow Low Emission Zone

The rules are stricter north of the border. Glasgow became the first city in Scotland to introduce a Lez on June 1 this year, and the scheme includes an outright ban on older vehicles entering the city centre.

Instead of paying a daily charge, drivers of cars below Euro 4 petrol and Euro 6 diesel are issued with a fine of £60 straight away, halving if paid within 14 days of issue.

For subsequent breaches of the city’s Lez, drivers of non-compliant private cars face fines that rise with every offence, first to £120 and £240, before a final capped fine of £480.

The zone covers approximately one square mile of Glasgow’s centre, encircled by the M8 motorway, the river Clyde to the south and the city’s Castle Street and High Street to the east.

You are allowed to appeal a fine for driving a non-compliant car in the Lez, however this must be made within 28 days of issue, otherwise the penalty will rise by 50pc.

Non-compliant motorcycles and mopeds are not currently included in the ban in Glasgow.

Birmingham Clean Air Zone

Drivers of non-compliant cars who enter the area within Birmingham’s A4540 Middleway Ring Road will have to pay the city’s Caz, which is £8 per day for cars, taxis and LGVs, and £50 per day for coaches and HGVs.

The same rules as in Bristol on paying six days before, on the day, or six days after the journey apply in Birmingham for paying the charge, which can be done anytime online or by phone between Monday and Friday from 8am to 7pm and Saturday 8am to 2pm.

If you fail to pay within the allotted time, you will be issued with a £120 penalty charge, reduced to £60 if paid within 14 days.

The zone is in constant operation since being introduced in June 2021.Temporary exemptions for commercial vehicles and residents living inside the Caz have now ended.

People who work inside the zone and have a car which requires the £8 daily charge can access financial support to either buy a cleaner engine or switch to using public transport.

Which cities could impose clean air charges next?

Manchester’s proposed Caz was set to encompass Greater Manchester and impose charges on buses, coaches, taxis, heavy goods vehicles and vans, but was shelved last year amid concerns it would cause financial hardship.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which has levels of pollution that are higher than legally permitted, agreed with the Government to pursue an alternative plan to reduce emissions that does not involve charging some drivers money. The new plan is yet to be announced.

In Scotland, Glasgow’s Lez, initially brought in for local buses in 2019, was expanded to cover all vehicles in June. Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee are set to have the same rules from June next year.

Oxford is currently piloting a so-called Zero Emissions Zone on nine streets in its centre, including the whole length of some roads including Queen Street, New Inn Hall Street and Shoe Lane. Vehicles below the normal Euro emission standards for a Caz need to pay £10 a day.

The scheme is the only one to charge drivers of ultra-low emissions vehicles which use fossil fuels – which would be exempt elsewhere. Currently, this is a daily charge of £4.

The charge can be paid online with fines for failing to do so set at £60, reduced to £30 within 14 days of issue.

The zones are intended to reduce levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) to safer levels which, under the Air Quality Act 2010, local authorities are legally required to keep below a certain level.

What are the exemptions?

Drivers of compliant vehicles and electric zero emission vehicles do not need to pay the Caz, Lez or Ulez charges.

In Birmingham, Bristol and London the exemptions are mostly the same and cover emergency service vehicles, and people with certain medical exemptions who need to visit hospitals and some GP practices.

There are also a number of more niche exemptions, under UK-wide rules, for travelling showmen, military vehicles and some classic cars. These apply in London as well as Bristol, Birmingham and in Scotland.

For disabled drivers, the rules are more inconsistent.

In London, there is a temporary exemption from Ulez charges until 2027 for disabled passenger vehicles, whereas the same disabled vehicles, tax class 85, may apply for a national exemption from Birmingham and Bristol’s Caz.

London also has a community transport exemption, which is due to run out in October 2025.

Blue Badge holders do not have an automatic exemption and must pay for the Ulez and Caz – except in Scotland, where the permit holders are eligible for one-day and long-term exemptions from Lez charges.

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