Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/05/24/london_low_emission_zone_analysis/

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

Motorist surveillance goes orbital

By Jason Scrutton

Posted in Policy, 24th May 2007 14:21 GMT

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.

Where do the dirty doers go?

One of the concerns of commercial operators has been that they should have adequate time to prepare for implementation, and some of them might well think that upgrading a whole commercial fleet in nine months is unreasonably brisk. But all TfL's buses, notes the announcement, already conform to LEZ standards.

The LEZ will undoubtedly have an effect in London, and as the objective is to improve air quality rather than simply raise revenue, it is likely to squeeze the most polluting vehicles out - and if this doesn't happen early on, fees will likely be made even more punitive in order to make sure it does happen. The LEZ will also eventually be applied to all commercial vehicles, so will have the general effect of bringing up the standards of those vehicles within the zone.

But where do the older vehicles go? Naturally these vehicles should have some value - albeit reduced, so clearly they will be sold outside of London. So while Londoners will benefit from the LEZ, people living outside London will have the polluting vehicles turning up in their areas.

To quote TfL from last November: "While non-compliant vehicles being redeployed away from London could increase emissions elsewhere, this would be more than off-set by the change in the fleet overall." UK citizens who don't live in London will no doubt share their joy over this shining example of joined-up transport policy.

As the later phases of the scheme start to bite home, the pain will begin to extend beyond the easy target of big, old, smokey trucks. Once it is applied to smaller vehicle, such as minibuses, community organisations, schools, the scouts, and voluntary groups will be obliged to find the cash to buy a nice shiny new vehicle.

Taxis, or Hackney Carriages, also produce a lot of pollution, and since 2 April, 2005, an additional 20p "environmental levy" has been added to each taxi fare so that, to quote TfL: "Taxi drivers can invest in equipment that will allow them to comply with the Mayor's taxi emissions strategy."

Ken Livingstone can be assured that there won't be any complaints from taxi drivers - as each one will have been saving up the 20 pence coins in a jar in order to buy a new vehicle.

Unpaid fines

Foreign vehicles, as was the case with the Congestion Charge, are an obvious bugbear, but probably also a handy source for future outraged speeches by the Mayor.

Currently, most foreign registered commercial vehicles incurring a penalty charge notice (PCN) never cough up. To quote TfL: "From 1991 to 2006, the number of foreign registered vehicles (FRVs) in the UK has risen by over 400 per cent, yet 95 per cent of fines issued to foreign vehicles are never paid. A robust system for sharing traffic violation data and enforcing traffic fines across EU borders doesn't yet exist. Even excluding Congestion Charge losses, these uncollected fines amount to over £1m per month in London alone," TfL noted in February.

I wonder how this is factored into the TfL cost model? Perhaps a disgruntled (and otherwise soon to be out of a job) commercial vehicle owner/driver would be better off taking a ferry across the Channel and buying a vehicle there?

According to TfL, the scheme will operate using number plate reading digital cameras and in-vehicle "tags" to identify vehicles, which in conjunction with the DVLA database will determine the vehicle's emissions standard, and from this decide whether or not a charge is due.

TfL has, however, studiously avoided saying that the equipment necessary to monitor and track commercial vehicles in the LEZ is bar a simple software change, exactly the same equipment that would be needed to track and charge private motorists for congestion or pollution charging as well.

Extending the camera zone

TfL, characteristically, has not mentioned privacy at all, if there are to be camera based systems at many locations across the LEZ, the system must by definition capture the VRM (number plate) of all vehicles passing it - whether or not they are required to pay any congestion or pollution charges. Of course, the system may then discard the data for all vehicles that are exempt from the charge.

TfL also mentions that it may consider including the sections of the M1, M4, M11, and A3113 that are within the M25 in the LEZ; currently doing so would require the approval of the Secretary of State. However, that may not necessarily be needed as at some point very soon a Transport Bill will be presented to Parliament which will enable councils to introduce road charging on a "trial basis".

To avoid over-complicating matters by involving other councils, the LEZ will cover the 33 Greater London boroughs, which is not quite the whole M25 area. But depending on the pervasiveness of the monitoring equipment it could potentially form an "instant" extended charge zone, or maybe just a snooping and surveillance one.

As to the costs of the Low Emission Zone, if a transport company has no choice but to buy new vehicles or pay the charge, then it logically follows that significant elements of this will be passed on ultimately to consumers - you and me. Unless we happen to be driving a foreign registered vehicle.

So there will certainly be less pollution in the Greater London Area - which is clearly good news, as a former cyclist in Central London I certainly welcome it.

But with barely a mention of it in Ken's gleaming press releases, we will be in a situation where every vehicle can be tracked and traced - and I don't recall seeing that in any manifesto, or recall Londoners being given the option to vote on it. Remember, once the system is in, there is no turning back, or getting away from it.

Of course, it is possible that TfL is either not aware of the issues - or has hoped no one will notice. ®

Jason Scrutton was the risk manager for the contractor who delivered the London Congestion Charging project, and currently assists his clients with stakeholder engagement and congestion management. Until recently, he regularly used to cycle from east to west London.