BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 4 February 2008, 17:41 GMT
Polluting lorries unwelcome in London
By Tom Symonds
Transport correspondent, BBC News

Many London motorists have noticed the new banks of cameras appearing on major roads around the city and wondered whether they are part of some new extension of CCTV Britain.

Low emission zone sign
The new low emission zone (LEZ) in London is a first for the UK

They are in fact for the new London low emission zone, said to be the biggest urban environmental control in the world.

To enter the new zone, lorries will have to meet the so-called European Category Three standard for airborne pollutants and nitrogen oxides - most modern vehicles now meet this requirement, but those with vehicles which do not will have to pay 200 a day to enter central London.

The new restrictions and charges currently only cover 12-tonne lorries with diesel engines, but buses and coaches weighing 3.5 tonnes will be included from July, and other vehicles from 2010.

Only cars and motorcycles will be exempt, and London's transport authority insists there are no plans to bring them into the scheme.

Cross checks

The key challenge for Transport for London is ensuring the restrictions are properly enforced.

This relies on automatic number plate reading cameras, either fixed or mobile, which record the presence of a lorry inside the zone.

The registration is checked against the main Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) database, which records the type of engine a vehicle has, and its emissions category.

Freight representatives also argue that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

There are cross checks with other vehicle databases, and lorries which breach the emissions standard can be fined 1,000. The fine is being waived for the next month, as an "introductory offer".

So will it work?

The London congestion charge is enforced in the same way, and there is little evidence of widespread evasion.

The low emission zone affects far fewer motorists, most of whom are company drivers who are unlikely to try to get around the system.

But using number plates to enforce an environmental law could again increase the number that are illegally copied, or deliberately mis-registered.

Expensive business

The controversial aspect of this policy relates to the cost to businesses forced to comply with the new restrictions.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) estimates 10,000 lorries may breach the minimum standard.

Some companies are fitting "pollution traps" to their exhausts; others will replace old vehicles with newer ones.

Both are expensive options, and the FTA believes the haulage industry will spend 100m adapting to the new system.

Freight representatives also argue that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Smog over London on 4 February 2007
It is hoped the zone will ease the smog and related health conditions

They say their members would be required to improve the pollution levels from lorries anyway under future EU laws, and introducing an expensive monitoring system is a waste of time.

The extension of the restrictions will hit other companies and organisations too.

The St John Ambulance service believes it could be facing a bill for 4m if it has to replace its non-compliant mobile treatment centres.

It is also true that London's air, though the worst in the country, is getting cleaner. Vehicle manufacturers are developing better technologies, and the catalytic converter is now standard.

But the Mayor of London believes there are still 1,000 people a year at risk of premature death due to smog, particularly those with existing lung or heart conditions.

Ken Livingstone says seven out of 10 Londoners are worried about the air they breathe, and that this justifies the new system.

Despite its name, the low emission zone will do little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which cause climate change.

This is another example of London pursuing a radical city-wide system of charges to solve an urban problem. Other cities around Britain are now watching closely.

How one London company is adapting

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific