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Understanding clean air zones

In this article we share everything you need to know about the UK’s clean air zones, from what they are and where they can be found to what the different charges are.

Clean Air Zones

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Air Pollution in the UK

The main source of air pollution in the UK comes from transport – mostly from cars and trucks burning petrol and diesel to get about. That’s why some cities around the country have introduced clean air zones: to reduce pollution and improve quality of life for the people who live there. It’s all part of the national ambition to reach net zero by 2050. 

Today there are charges for driving older, more polluting cars in Birmingham and London – and we expect the charges to spread to other cities too.

What are clean air zones and low emission zones?

A clean air zone (or CAZ) is part of a city that charges fees to highly polluting vehicles, based on their emissions. That means you might have to pay a set daily charge for driving there. The charge covers a period from midnight to midnight, no matter how many times you drive in and out.

They don’t apply to all cars: a lot concentrate on more heavily polluting cars and trucks. But they apply to all traffic, no matter if you live in the zone or need to drive there for work. 

They’re designed to improve the quality of local air and make it safer to breathe by reducing nasties like carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. And they’re already popping up around Britain.

ULEZ sign post

How are clean air zones different from low emission zones?

A clean air zone (CAZ) is the essentially the same as a low emission zone (LEZ), London also has the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).

Where are CAZ’s in the UK?

There are currently five cities with clean air zones or low emission zones: London, Bath, Birmingham, Bradford and Portsmouth. Only London and Birmingham charge for driving polluting cars – the others only charge for larger or commercial vehicles.

Do you need to pay to drive an electric car in clean air zones?

No, you don’t. This is because electric cars don’t emit CO2 or NOx from the tailpipe, while an average small petrol car emits 120 g/km of CO2. 

Which other cities will get them?

There are plenty of other cities phasing in clean air zones. Bristol, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, and Tyneside look to be next on the list but other cities including Edinburgh, Oxford and Glasgow are planning how to introduce them.

How does it work in Birmingham?

Birmingham’s scheme is Class D, which means it includes cars. If your car isn’t up to scratch, you’ll need to pay an £8 charge (November 2023) if you’re driving inside the A4540 Middleway ring road. Electric cars are, of course, free.

You can check whether your petrol or diesel car is up to scratch and pay online at the drive in a clean air zone page. Diesels need to meet the Euro 6 standard and petrols should be Euro 4 standard. 

It also applies to non-compliant buses, coaches, taxis, trucks, vans, minibuses and others – and it can cost up to £50 a day to drive in the zone.

electric car charging

How do London’s low emission zones work? 

There are three different charges you might need to pay if you’re driving in London.

London low emission zone (LEZ)

This was London’s first low emission zone. It was set up across most of Greater London to encourage the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles in London to become cleaner.

The good news is that for most of us it’s simple: you don’t need to pay if you drive a car. If you’re driving a lorry, van or vehicle over 3.5 tonnes you might, though – anywhere between £100 and £300 a day. You can find out the details on the Transport for London low emission zone page

London ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ)

This was introduced in 2020 across central London and in August 2023 was expanded to cover all London Boroughs (excluding M25). It applies to cars as well as heavier vehicles and costs £12.50 a day (November 2023). 

How do you tell if you need to pay? You can check your car’s registration on the Transport for London (TfL) website

As a rule, you shouldn’t need to pay for petrol cars first registered with the DVLA after 2005 or diesel cars registered after September 2015. And, of course, if you’re driving an electric car you won’t have to pay.

London congestion charge

This covers central London during peak times: 7am-6pm Mon-Fri and 12pm-6pm Sat-Sun. It aims to discourage people from driving in the centre of the city.

It’s £15 a day (November 2023) and it applies to all cars – and you’ll need to pay it on top of any ULEZ charges too. There’s good news for electric car drivers, though: you can register for the ‘cleaner vehicle discount’ which gives you a 100% discount until Christmas 2025. Please note there is a £10/year application fee to get the exemption.

How do you pay to drive in a clean air zone? 

You check if you’re exempt and pay online at the drive in a clean air zone page – or you can pay by phone if you can’t use the online service. You can pay six days before your visit, on the day of your visit or up to six days after. And a ‘day’ is midnight to midnight – not 24 hours from when you enter the zone. So if you drive into the zone at 11pm and out at 1am, you’ll need to pay for two days.

In London, you can pay at the TfL website.

How do you know when you’re in a clean air zone? 

You’ll normally see big unmissable signs that start miles away from the edge of the zone. They give you plenty of warning and often explain how to pay.

Navigation apps sometimes tell you when your route includes a clean air zone too, which can help with planning.

If you drove in and out of a clean air zone, would you pay again?

No, they don’t. This is because electric cars don’t emit CO2 or NOx from the tailpipe, while an average small petrol car emits 120 g/km of CO2.

What are car emission standards?

All cars have an minimum emission standard, which you can find in your logbook (or check with the manufacturer). They classifications are based on how much they pollute, and they’ve been introduced over time. The first was Euro 1 in 1992 and the most recent was Euro 6 in 2015.

Different clean air zones have different standards so you’ll want to check online at the drive in a clean air zone page to make certain. Unless you’re driving an electric car, of course…

What are car emissions standards? How can you avoid charges?

Just don’t drive in the area in a polluting vehicle. For car drivers that might mean changing your route or catching a bus, train or tram. Or if you still want to drive, why not consider switching to an electric car?

How are councils encouraging electric cars in CAZ areas?

As well as not charging for electric cars, councils like Bristol are installing more charging bays to encourage people to go electric.

Do London’s low emission zones work?

Claire Harding, Research Director at think tank Centre for London, recently told Air Quality News that the zones have delivered good results: “I think it would be impossible to argue [the zones] haven’t made a difference,” she revealed. “It’s early days for ULEZ, but it seems to be working in the sense of less polluting vehicles driving through central London.”  

According to a new study by Move Electric, 39.8% of Londoners would be likely to switch to an electric car if plans to expand the city’s ULEZ are brought in in 2023. 

James Attwood, Move Electric editor, commented: “The intent of ULEZ to deter drivers from using old, polluting vehicles and to decrease air pollution in the capital is clearly working. Alongside expanding the ULEZ, it is important London’s boroughs, and the whole of the UK, is ready to meet widespread EV adoption, with sufficient electric vehicle public charging infrastructure.” 

Drivers in London might end up paying more than £4,500 per year if they have a non-compliant car and drive in the expanded ULEZ every day – so it’s absolutely going to encourage drivers to make the change to cleaner vehicles.

What are the types of clean air zones?

There are four types of clean air zones – Class A to D. Cars are only included in Class D.

Class Vehicle type
ABuses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles 
BBuses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, heavy goods vehicles 
CBuses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, heavy goods vehicles, vans, minibuses 
DBuses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, heavy goods vehicles, vans, minibuses, cars and the local authority has the option to include motorcycles

How does it work in Bath?

Bath’s clean air zone is a Class C, so it doesn’t apply to cars. Non-compliant vans, taxis and minibuses pay £9 a day, and it’s £100 a day for trucks, lorries, buses and coaches. It covers roads in Bath City Centre and areas including Kingsmead, Bathwick and Walcot.

How does Bradford’s clean air zone work?

Bradford’s clean air zone is a Class C, so again it doesn’t apply to cars. Non-compliant taxis pay £7 a day, vans and minibuses pay £9 a day, and it’s £50 a day for trucks, lorries, buses and coaches. The zone covers the area inside, and including, the Bradford outer ring road and extends along the Aire valley corridor.

How does Portsmouth’s clean air zone work?

Portsmouth’s clean air zone is a Class B, so it doesn’t apply to cars. Non-compliant taxis need to pay £10 a day, and if you’re driving a non-compliant truck, bus or coach you’ll pay £50. The zone is approximately 3 square kilometres and it’s to the south west of Portsmouth.

All charges correct November 2023.

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