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Mayor Ken's Low Emission Zone - a load of hot air?

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Analysis London Mayor Ken Livingstone wants to clean up the capital's air. But at what cost to motorists?

The Mayor has a legal requirement, primarily under the Environment Act, to ensure that the quality of London's air meets the prevailing legal standards. Earlier this month, Livingstone gave the green light to a London-wide Low Emission Zone (LEZ), aimed to tackle emissions from "the most polluting lorries, coaches, and buses."

The zone, said the Mayor, will say loud and clear that London is "a city that places environmental protection at the top of its agenda".

But only up to a point. The LEZ shoots for an easier, high-profile target while avoiding, for reasons of political expediency, major sources of emissions in the Greater London area.

As currently proposed, the LEZ targets older commercial vehicles, and will have the effect of either taxing these off of the road because of the expense in driving into the zone, or costing the operators a great deal of money for driving into it. Commercial vehicles, buses, and taxis are estimated to account for 60 per cent of gaseous emissions and about 50 per cent of particulate (soot) pollution within the zone.

Transport for London's (TfL) research estimates that the LEZ may cost operators of HGVs, buses, and coaches between £140m and £350m for vehicle upgrades over the life of the scheme; likewise between £60m and £140m for operators of light goods vehicles and vans.

But TfLs' own research, published in Phase 2 of the London LEZ Feasibility Study, also states that cars produce around 40 per cent of emissions. Yet these are not currently within the Mayor's crosshairs at all. If the LEZ was to include the more polluting types of car, says TfL, it would "have very significant inequality effects, because this would predominantly affect low-income households: almost half the cars owned by households in the lowest income group are over 10 years old" (according to TfL, a car built before 1993 is "very old").

Understandably, the Mayor would not want to antagonise so many potential voters with a Mayoral election due in 2008. However, to quote TfL, "the Mayor has asked TfL to look at the implications of including cars at a later date". Presumably after his re-election.

Opting in the buses

It would also be much more expensive and difficult initially to set up and enforce a London based, let alone national scheme, that could cope with all private cars as well as commercial vehicles - so the Zone as proposed is clearly focused on those that are easy targets, with charges high enough to "encourage" them to upgrade their vehicles.

In terms of "stakeholder engagement", which is always popular with TfL, the LEZ has landed with remarkable rapidity. The first studies into a potential LEZ were published in 2002, but the public "consultation period" ran from 30 January to 24 April 2006, leading up to the recent decision for full steam ahead by 2008.

In late December 2006, TfL invited organisations to submit their proposals to supply congestion charging related equipment for road user charging schemes, and to quote TfL, "in relation to the proposed Low Emissions Zone (LEZ), subject to final approval of this scheme following consultation".

The value detailed on the tender document is £30m to £300m, which is quite a wide variance for something that at the time had not been decided - yet, of course, we now know that it is to go ahead. It's hard to escape the conclusion that TfL had already decided that the LEZ would go ahead regardless, when the tender documents were issued.

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