Businesses operating diesel light commercial vehicles in and around London face having to make sure their fleets comply with even stricter regulations on emissions within the next four years.

As well as having to negotiate the central London Congestion Charge zone, which costs £11.50 a day and runs from Monday to Friday between 7am and 6pm, from September 2020 operators will have to meet the requirements of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, which will be live 24 hours a day, seven days a week and cover the same area.

The ULEZ was the brainchild of former mayor of London Boris Johnson, a Conservative, who was replaced by the Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in May 2016.

Johnson was not widely recognised as an eco-warrior, and the headache for LCV operators is the uncertainty surrounding reports that the new incumbent will seek to make the anti-pollution measures more stringent still. Khan has already suggested bringing th eULEZ forward a year to 2019 and extending its boundaries to take in the North and South Circular roads.

Johnson confirmed the launch of the ULEZ back in March 2016, following what he described as “a positive consultation process”.

As it stands currently the zone will come into force on 7 September 2020 – small and car-derived diesel vans (in line with passenger cars) must be Euro6-compliant and be registered from 1 September 2015 (five years old or less in 2020), while small petrol vans must meet the Euro4 criteria (up to 14 years old).

Larger diesel vans and minibuses must be Euro6-compliant from 1 September 2016 (four years and under in 2020) while petrol derivatives must be Euro4 (up to 13 years old).

Non-compliant vehicles will still be allowed inside the zone, but will have to pay a daily charge of £12.50 on top of the C-charge.

Residents living inside the ULEZ, which extends from Marble Arch in the west of London to Tower Bridge in the east, and from Finsbury in the north to Vauxhall Bridge in the south, will have a three-year ‘sunset period’, so they do not have to comply with the emissions standards until September 2023.

Transport for London and the mayor’s office have claimed the zone has the potential to halve emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, which is associated with breathing difficulties and lung disease, from vehicle exhausts within the central London area.

The ULEZ has strong support among the general public: according to TfL, of the 16,000 people who took part in the consultation, 79% said it was important or very important to tackle poor air quality in London, while 58% of respondents said they supported the introduction of the ULEZ.

With typical understatement, Johnson heralded the ULEZ by proclaiming: “The world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone is an essential measure to help improve air quality in our city, protect the health of Londoners, and lengthen our lead as the greatest city on earth.”

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, gave a more nuanced response, taking care to acknowledge the advancements made by vehicle manufacturers in cleaning up diesel engines.

“We are pleased to see the mayor has recognised that the latest diesel technology has a place in an Ultra Low Emissions Zone,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive, SMMT. “It is only by encouraging motorists to invest in the latest, lowest-emission technology, regardless of vehicle or fuel type, that the mayor’s vision be fully realised.”

The SMMT is keenly aware that the anti-diesel bandwagon is starting to gather pace, and that the fuel is in danger of becoming the scapegoat for all the capital’s (and beyond) air-quality woes.

Given that almost all LCVs use diesel powertrains, the imposition of a ban on diesel engines, as mooted (chk!) already by the City of London Corporation as well as Camden Council, would have a calamitous impact on the majority of SMMT members.

Hawes spells out the problem by pointing out that the industry has invested “billions of pounds in advanced diesel commercial vehicles” and highlighting the fact that well over 90% of LCVs use diesel. The publicity electric vans receive is not reflected in sales (the infrastructure is still rudimentary) and although some manufacturers, such as Ford with its 1.0-litre Ecoboost, have recently introduced petrol engines, these are expected to take no more than 5% of sales in their product ranges.

The SMMT believes the Government, local authorities and environmental lobby groups should consider a broad church of technologies in enabling light commercials to reduce their emissions and above all should stop “demonising” diesel.

The society points out that low-emission Euro6 diesel engines are already 95% cleaner than previous-generation oil burners and that the strategy now should be to encourage operators to adopt the most advanced new engines because the emergence of alternative fuels, such as electricity, is a painstakingly slow process.

One way to entice operators into cleaner diesels, most recently cited by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research in its paper Lethal and illegal: London’s air-pollution crisis, is to introduce a scrappage scheme to phase out older vans.

More ominously, the IPPR also called for diesel vehicles to be banned from London within a decade.

But Jenny Randall, the SMMT CV Group chair, stresses that when it comes to shifting goods, there is no viable alternative to diesel commercial vehicles. With almost a quarter of a million vans in London, it would take decades for alternative-fuel vehicles to permeate the market to any comparable extent.


Early warning sign

A nightmare scenario for London-based van operators who will already struggle to adapt their fleets to the ULEZ by September 2019 is that the zone will be introduced even earlier.

The London Assembly, which holds the London mayor’s office to account, welcomed Sadiq Khan’s move to bring forward the launch of the zone by a year, but called for him to go further and instigate the ULEZ in 2018 or early 2019.

The assembly also recommended the zone should be extended wider than the North and South Circular roads proposed by Khan, saying it should cover “pollution hotspots”, such as Heathrow, by 2020.

It also called on the mayor make the ‘T-Charge’ – which, from next year, if approved, would charge users of ‘dirty’ vehicles £10 a day to go into central London on top of the Congestion Charge – applicable to diesel vehicles fitted with Euro5 and older engines, rather than the Euro 4 standard proposal. The group recommended ending the T-Charge when the ULEZ is introduced.


How it works

Operators looking for more information about the ULEZ should visit

The ULEZ standards are based on the Euro exhaust emission standards that the European Union sets for governing diesel and petrol engines. Manufacturers can only sell vehicles from a given date that comply with these standards; Euro6 for vans becomes mandatory in September 2016.

TfL emphasis that ULEZ is not a cash-raising scheme by stating it would prefer vehicles meet the standard rather than necessitate their drivers pay the daily charge of £12.50 if they do not.

Vehicles registered outside Great Britain, including Northern Ireland, will also be liable for the daily charge if they do not meet the ULEZ requirement.

So-called “early-adopters” that met the emissions limit before it was legally required, such as Mercedes-Benz with its Sprinter and Vito vans, will be dealt with on “a case-by-case basis”, according to TfL.

Vans converted to run on alternative fuels such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG) will still be required to meet the Euro standard for the base vehicle.

Electric LCVs, which are also eligible for the Plug-in-Van Grant of up to 20% of the vehicle’s price (up to £8000), are exempt from the charge.