OPINION - Ulez is a tax on dirty air: we should welcome its extension

Older cars cause pollution linked to heart disease and early death (AP)
Older cars cause pollution linked to heart disease and early death (AP)

The extension of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which comes into force today, will help save lives.

Ulez is a tax on dirty air. The expansion will require a relatively small and declining number of older petrol (pre-2006) and diesel (pre-2015) vehicles to pay a £12.50 daily charge to drive in outer London. Nobody likes paying more taxes, but we should remember that these cars emit nitrogen dioxide and fine particle matter, both of which are linked to heart disease, dementia, and premature death.

There is a genuine argument about the precise rate and impact of Ulez. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect those who pollute the most to incur a cost. You might think that the Conservative Party, which claims to champion personal responsibility and market incentives, would back such a scheme. But the reaction from many Conservative politicians has been apoplectic. Susan Hall, the Tory candidate for mayor, hyperbolically claimed the expansion would have a “devastating impact on families and businesses across the city”.

All Londoners, including the poor, will benefit from cleaner air

The Tories have also argued that Ulez will hurt those on lower incomes. This is dubious — car ownership in London is closely linked with income. Households earning over £100,000 are three times more likely to own a car compared with those earning below £10,000. In any case, Conservatives should judge polices based on overall effect and not income. All Londoners, including the poor, will benefit from cleaner air.

Many Conservatives have become suspicious of environmental policies, concerned they are part of some “woke” scheme to abolish capitalism. This is not helped by extreme activities from groups such as XR and Just Stop Oil.

But this need not be the case. Milton Friedman, the Noble-prize winning free market economist, argued that taxes are the best way to deal with pollution from cars as they incentivise consumers to reduce emissions without imposing bans and ever more regulation.

Ultimately, we should be moving towards a full road-pricing system that accounts for the social and environmental costs of driving. Ulez may not be perfect, but it is a step in the right direction towards making the polluter pay.

Daniel Freeman is a research assistant at the Institute of Economic Affairs