Today marks the start of the London's Low Emission Zone. This basically means that, within the zone, which pretty much encompasses the whole of Greater London administrative area, lorries and Heavy Goods Vehicles have got to meet certain standards for minimising exhaust pollution (mostly concerning NOx - Nitrogen Oxides - and 'particulate matter'). Lorries that don't meet the standard have to pay £200 for each day they travel into the zone.
Does £200 seem a bit steep? Good, it's meant to. The daily rate has been set deliberately high in order to basically force drivers to modify their vehicles so that they meet the standards. The modifications can cost a few thousand pounds, but for anyone that regularly drives into London, this'd soon work out cheaper than paying the daily charge.
Why is this happening? Well, London apparently has one of the worst levels of air pollution in Europe (and the worst in the UK), and the Mayor has a legal obligation to take steps towards meeting targets for air pollution set nationally and by the EU (targets which London has so far missed). The effects of air pollution are said by TfL and the Mayor's office to cause the premature deaths of 1,000 people each year in London, and can make asthma worse and contribute to respiratory diseases.
The emissions standard that vehicles have to meet to avoid the charge isn't some arbitrary thing, it's the 'Euro III' standard, which all vehicles sold in the past 8 years will have had to pass anyway. So all the Low Emission Zone is doing is making people with older vehicles upgrade to meet the standard earlier than they would have done so if they had just waited until needing a new vehicle. This will, admittedly, cost some haulier firms a fair chunk of money, but if they're using old vehicles which don't meet modern pollution standards, then they deserve to pay in my view, for the sake of actually improving air quality in London at all quickly.
Whilst the Low Emission Zone is costing a fair amount to implement (with all the consultations, the advertising, and the CCTV cameras to enforce the scheme), I think it's worth it. Not only will it hopefully have some immediate impact, but it also sets a framework for being able to further reduce emissions in the future. Indeed, it's already planned to include lighter lorries in the scheme from July 2008, to include large vans and minibuses from 2010, and finally to upgrade the standard to Euro IV from 2012. It's not hard to imagine these incremental improvements continuing into the future, until we eventually reach a state where the air in London is almost as clean as the countryside.
The Low Emission Zone policy could become a contentious one in the upcoming Mayor of London elections though. Whilst Tory contender Boris Johnson's website's currently states that he supports the scheme, according to the non-official 'Re-elect Ken' website, Boris has attacked it in recent TV interviews, calling it "the most punitive, draconian fining regime in the whole of Europe".
This seems a bit rich, seeing as drivers can pay the charge up until midnight of the next working day (which means you can pay on Monday if you've driven in on Friday, even though the scheme operates 24/7 and you can pay online at any time). If drivers miss this generous deadline, they get a the first time they drive into the zone, which gives them 28 days to clean up their vehicle. Even if they don't bother with this, they still only get fined for driving their vehicle into the zone after this grace period has expired, which means the first date anyone will have to pay the charge is the 1st March. Finally, the £1000 penalty charge is reduced to £500 quid if you pay it within 14 days. And the haulage companies have all been given plenty of warning through direct letters and adverts in the trade press anyway.
Besides which, having high fines is kinda the point.