The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) currently covers the area in central London between the north and south circular roads, although it is due to expand later in 2023. The aim of the ULEZ zone is to discourage the use of heavy polluting vehicles to improve air quality within the zone.
When the ULEZ was introduced in 2019 it was the toughest global emission standard in operation and all money earned from the congestion charge zone is reinvested into London's public transport network, further encouraging people to use their car less.
Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, and Edinburgh have now joined with several other cities in England to introduce local low emission zones (LEZ) with the same aim to improve air quality and protect public health. Currently in Scotland, Glasgow's LEZ began being enforced as of 1st June 2023 whilst the other three cities are currently active but in a grace period until 2024, meaning that no charges will be enforced until then.
The European Union imposed regulations on cars with the aim of improving air quality from 1992 and meant that new cars being produced have to meet certain standards. At introduction this included catalytic convertors becoming mandatory on new cars and there have been a series of Euro emissions standards since with the most recent, Euro 6, being introduced in September 2014 for all cars registered from September 2015.
These regulations define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new light duty vehicles sold within the EU and EEA (European Economic Area) member states. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) quoted in 2017 that carbon monoxide emissions were down 63% in petrol and 82% in diesel since 1993, hydrocarbons were down 50% in petrol since 2001, nitrogen oxide emissions were down 84% in total since 2001, and particulate matter was down 96% in diesel since 1993.
Whilst we are all aware that emissions from vehicles are still a problem for the environment it's obvious that these emissions standards have worked and continue to do so, which is why the European Commission is considering further regulations for the new Euro 7 standards currently being worked on and is unlikely to come into effect until at least 2025.
When looking at ULEZ and LEZ compliant vans you'll see Euro 3 and Euro 4 being discussed and these refer to vehicles registered after 1st January 2001 and 1st January 2006 respectively. Euro 3 split hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide limits for petrol and diesel engines for the first time and added a separate nitrogen oxide limit for diesel vans and cars. Euro 4 then tightened and lowered the requirements for 2006 models.
Euro 6 and Euro 6 diesel are the most recent emissions standards and placed a focus on diesel vehicles' NOx emissions by drastically reducing them from 0.18g/km in Euro 5 to 0.08g/km after studies connected them with respiratory problems. They are also the first standards to include the introduction of the World Harmonised Lights Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP) which determines the levels of pollutants, CO2 emissions, and fuel consumption of traditional and hybrid vehicles as well as the range of fully electric vehicles.
In order for a van to meet the ULEZ standards it must comply with the relevant Euro emissions standards. For petrol vans registered with the DVLA from January 2006 should meet Euro 4 whilst diesel vans registered from September 2016 must meet the Euro 6 standard. Currently the Scottish LEZs also follow these requirements for new diesel vans sold and new petrol vans sold.
Whilst driving within a low emission zone, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras used to read plates. The information is then checked against local and national vehicle licencing databases to monitor every vehicle that enters the area and detect those which do not meet the ULEZ standards.
If you have a van that doesn't comply with the requirements of the low emission zone, for example a Ford Transit Custom registered in 2014, the ANPR cameras will register your plate as you drive through the area and confirm with the vehicle database that your diesel van does not meet Euro 6 emissions standards.
You will then receive a penalty charge notice that you must pay, this is the same as receiving a parking ticket or a speeding ticket. In Scottish LEZs these are set at £60 for all non compliant vans and vehicles and are reduced by 50% if paid within 14 days. The penalty amount doubles every time you breach the LEZ rules within a 90 day period, capping at £480 for cars and light goods vehicles and £960 for minibuses, buses, coaches, and HGVs.
Within London's ULEZ things work a little differently. You can opt to pay a daily ULEZ charge of £12.50 if your van does not meet the emissions standards, which is a great option if you're only driving in the area for a day or two. You can also set up an Auto-Pay functionality for the duration of your visit which will automatically bill you for the days that you drive within the ULEZ. The penalty charge is also higher in London, coming in at £180 and reduced to £90 if paid within 14 days.
There are some exemptions to ULEZ charges and LEZ charges. ULEZ exempt vehicles include those for disabled persons as long as they are registered with a "disabled" or "disabled passenger vehicles" tax class, are Blue Badge holders, or receive a reduction in annual road tax as it is used by a disabled person in receipt of PIP at the standard rate. Additional exemptions apply to specialist vehicles such as emergency services vehicles, military vehicles, and also vehicles of historic interest; it's unlikely that your van will qualify for any of these categories however.
The local authorities for each zone have the capacity to choose time-limited exemptions within their own LEZ areas if necessary. It's important to check with each individual local authority if you are unsure of the area you will be driving in.
The most relevant exemption for van drivers is the exemption of fully electric vehicles. These are not subject to any restrictions due to their absence of an internal combustion engine however a hybrid will still be subject to meet minimum emissions standards.
If your petrol van already meets Euro 4 emissions standards or your diesel van meets Euro 6 emissions standards you don't have to do anything and you can continue to drive as normal. Next time you buy a new van it will also already meet these requirements.
If you currently drive a van that is not compliant the most obvious course of action is to consider exchanging your van for one that meets the requirements of the ULEZ or LEZ that you will frequently drive in. This doesn't mean that you have to make the change immediately, especially if your city isn't enforcing penalty charges until 2024.
In London Sadiq Khan has introduced a scrappage scheme which provides grant payments to successful applicants to scrap or retrofit their non compliant vehicle to switch to a cleaner, greener option. The last scheme saw the removal of more than 15,000 polluting vehicles and will support Londoners on certain low income or disability benefits, and eligible micro businesses (up to 10 employees), sole traders and charities with a registered address in London.
Scotland has previously also run scrappage schemes but are currently closed for new applications. The Scottish Government and the Energy Saving Trust do advise that you can register your interest for future funding that may become available.
Some vehicles may be able to have parts retrofitted that will bring them up to Euro 6 compliance although this is not the case with every vehicle.
At first glance, the introduction of low emission zones across the country seems like it will cause major upheaval for lots of drivers, however this isn't the case at all. SMMT reported that in the first half of 2023 the UK has registered 18.6% less diesel vehicles than in 2022 and that plug in hybrid vehicles registered have increased by 21.2%, showing that as well as many people opting to change there is stock readily available too.
The grace periods before penalty charges are enforced also gives you plenty of time to work out what the best option will be for you too, whether that is retrofitting parts where available or spending time looking for a new, cleaner van option.