The rise of the Vig-ULEZ-ante By Ross Primmer

What do the cities London, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford, Glasgow, Bath, Bradford, Portsmouth and Sheffield all have in common? Not the gig list for an emerging indie band, but the growing list of UK cities which have put in place some form of low emission zone, or ULEZ, for vehicles.

Each city’s scheme is slightly different, centring around discouraging the use of more polluting older vehicles and particularly those powered by diesel. The very same fuel that was seen in the early 2000’s as the future, offering greatly improved fuel economy and reduced carbon emissions than an equivalent petrol (on average a petrol car produces 200g CO2/km whilst diesel produces 120g CO2/km).

However, diesel has a dirty secret. The emissions produced by diesel engines are known to be detrimental to health and cause a range of health problems, including cancer. Of particular concern are the ultra-fine pm 10 and PM 2.5 particles which can penetrate deep into our lungs. PM 2.5 is sufficiently fine to pass through the lungs into the blood.

Poor air quality is a significant and persistent problem across the UK. In 2021, monitoring showed how every London borough exceeds WHO limits for air pollution. Significantly this problem is not purely academic; in 2020 history was made when the south London coroner ruled that elevated nitrogen dioxide and PM levels were significant factors in the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9 year-old girl. Poor air quality is considered a factor in 9,400 premature deaths in London per year.

So how have residents reacted to the rise of the ULEZ? Dancing in the streets? Spontaneous applause of our politicians for taking decisive action? Not quite…

The rise of the ULEZ has led to a wave of public disobedience. Otherwise law abiding citizens have taken matters into their own hands to avoid paying a surcharge to drive their vehicle into town. The rise of the vig-ULEZ-ante. The Met police have announced that 795 cameras in London have been vandalised; in Bristol local news reports how number plates for ULEZ compliant cars are being stolen for unknown purposes….. In Manchester (law abiding) public protests have resulted in the ‘pausing’ of a ULEZ scheme.

At an individual level you can see how some people may feel aggrieved about the establishment of a ULEZ local to them. People love their cars, and being forced to change is undoubtedly a costly hassle. Even though grants are available for people to replace vehicles there will undoubtedly be those not willing, or able, to run the bureaucracy gauntlet to access these schemes. ULEZ regulations will likely cause stress and inconvenience for those on lower incomes who are more likely to drive older vehicles and with a need to drive. Arguably the public health message could have been communicated more effectively.

However, it is also somewhat disheartening to see how many people have become so vehemently opposed to a scheme which ultimately has been put in place to try and improve public health. People don’t like being told what to do, or inconvenienced. However, perhaps we all need to take more collective responsibility for the impacts we are responsible for. Better communication to educate and improve understanding of why decisions are being made is undoubtedly a key part of this puzzle.

The rise of the vig-ULEZ-ante perhaps isn’t surprising, and simply a demonstration of how far we need to collectively come. More difficult decisions lie ahead, and it is important that we have everyone on board to ensure that effective change happens.

At Action Sustainability we’re well versed in what it takes to communicate effectively about sustainability. Contact me if you want to find out more.

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Ross Primmer
Senior Consultant

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