ULEZ: Expansion must be ‘start’ of efforts to clean up London’s pollution, says asthma sufferer

A sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is pictured near Hanger Lane in west London. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images.
A sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is pictured near Hanger Lane in west London. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images.

A London-based asthma sufferer who was recently admitted to hospital said she lives with “the consequences of London’s toxic air on a daily basis”, as she hopes the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion will be the start of more measures to curb air pollution in the capital.

Charlotte Baker, a south-west London resident, said she found it “surreal” when, while sitting in her hospital bed following a recent severe attack, she heard people complaining during radio phone-ins about not being able to drive to the shops or exchange their SUV for a newer model.

“Are these issues really that important compared to fellow human beings not being able to breathe?,” she told LondonWorld. “Not to mention the cost to the NHS and wider society of repeat hospital admissions for asthma sufferers.”

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London.

From August 29, the ULEZ will be expanded from its current inner London boundaries to cover the whole of the capital. From that date, most drivers of non-compliant vehicles will be liable to pay a £12.50 charge.

While the decision has come under significant opposition, largely due to the expansion coming during a cost-of-living crisis, the mayor Sadiq Khan and Transport for London (TfL) say the move is necessary due to the impact of air pollution in the capital on residents’ health.

A City Hall study released in April found that all of London’s boroughs exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines for toxic nitrogen dioxide levels.

Researchers at King’s College meanwhile reported how people with dementia exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide were likely to record greater use of community mental health services.

Soumitra Bose discovered he had lung cancer in 2021, and was told air pollution was a likely cause. Credit: Ben Lynch.
Soumitra Bose discovered he had lung cancer in 2021, and was told air pollution was a likely cause. Credit: Ben Lynch.

Imperial College has estimated that around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely every year due to air pollution, a figure regularly referenced by both TfL and the mayor’s office.

Critics of the ULEZ expansion have pointed to an independent Integrated Impact Assessment (IIA) completed for the mayor by Jacobs, which found the scheme is estimated to have a minor impact on nitrogen dioxide exposure (NO2), and a negligible impact on PM2.5, a fine particulate which causes damage to lungs.

However, a TfL report on the assessment highlighted that while in some cases the expansion will make minor or negligible improvement, in absolute terms, its impact will be notable.

For example, it states that although the impact on carbon emissions is assessed as negligible, “this equates to a saving of 27,000 tonnes of CO2 saved in outer London, which is a comparatively larger saving than we have seen with other similar policy interventions. It is nearly double that which the central London ULEZ achieved in its first year of operation.”

Commenting on the City Hall data earlier this year, Mr Khan said: “London’s toxic air is leading to children growing up with stunted lungs and causes around 4,000 premature deaths a year – with the greatest number of attributable deaths in London’s outer boroughs.

“This data is yet more shocking proof that London’s air quality has been in serious breach of the recognised global standard - and it’s a problem in every single part of the capital.

“I have made tackling toxic air pollution a priority since I was first elected in 2016, and we have made huge progress since then. However, I am determined to do all I can to ensure that children now and the next generation of Londoners can grow up breathing cleaner air – wherever they live in the capital.

“This is why I made the difficult decision to expand the ULEZ London-wide - to help save lives and to give all Londoners the right to breathe cleaner air.”

‘A lethal cocktail’

“There is nothing more terrifying than feeling like you simply cannot catch your breath, knowing that three people in the UK die of your condition every day,” Ms Baker, who is also co-chair of Richmond Living Streets, told LondonWorld.

She said the issue goes beyond pollution levels in isolation, with humid, hot weather conditions and other irritants such as pollen combining with pollution to “create a lethal cocktail for people like me”.

“Often people tweet images of pollution maps showing ‘green’ at me, as if this means conditions are fine - they often aren’t for people with lung conditions because of other factors.”

Ms Baker is not the only person who has been impacted by air pollution to have raised the need to clean up the capital’s air with LondonWorld.

Soumitra Bose, a Croydon-based retired finance director, said he believes clean-air initiatives such as the ULEZ and zero-emission buses are “essential”, having been diagnosed with lung cancer seemingly aggravated by pollution.

Mr Bose, who has received surgery and been given the all-clear, added while he believes the upcoming expansion may have been done “a little bit hurriedly”, “we have to really move in this direction”.

And earlier this year, Ruth Fitzharris, an executive assistant and spokesperson for the campaign group Mums for Lungs, explained how her son had missed weeks of school this year due to being hospitalised with an asthma attack in January.

“Air pollution is impacting children in London, and I would advise you to avoid traffic-filled roads and busy roads,” she said.

“The impact of toxic air is very real and proven by all the data. We have loads of studies that show air pollution is having an effect on children’s health.”

Commenting specifically on Mr Khan’s decision to extend the ULEZ, Ms Baker said: “I support the ULEZ expansion to my part of London and wish it could have come sooner.

“However, it needs to be the start of measures to curb air pollution of all sources in London, and particularly from transport. Incentivising people to get out of their cars, via better public transport provision in outer areas, and improved walking and cycling infrastructure are needed - but there need to also be tougher measures to curb short car journeys in particular, and increased innovation in areas like last-minute cargo bike delivery.

“In a city with good public transport provision, choosing to drive if you are able to take an alternative is limiting the choice people like me have to simply breathe and live our lives.”

A High Court challenge launched by five Conservative councils had attempted to block the ULEZ expansion as-planned, though the presiding judge found in-favour of the mayor and TfL.

There have also been multiple protests organised in opposition to the ULEZ expansion, with chants of “Get Khan out” reportedly heard at a demonstration in Tooting on Saturday (August 26).

The mayor has however repeatedly stressed he intends on sticking to his August 29 expansion date, and the deputy mayor for transport, Seb Dance, recently told LondonWorld TfL is “very confident” the systems are in-place.