Will London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone improve the city’s health?

London. We think. Not sure, actually. Image: Getty.

A new Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is being introduced in London, to reduce harmful emissions from traffic and improve air quality. Those who drive polluting vehicles into the city centre will face a daily charge – £12.50 for cars, motorcycles and vans, and £100 for lorries, buses and coaches – on top of the existing congestion charge. By October 2021, the scheme will expand to cover an area 18 times larger.

The rationale for the ULEZ is clear: large numbers of people are living in areas with pollution levels well above the legal limits set by the European Union (EU). These limits are based on detailed evidence about the impacts of air pollution on people’s health – which can cause everything from short term effects like worsening asthma symptoms, to a loss of healthy years of life in the longer term.

Other cities across the UK and beyond will be watching closely, as London’s ULEZ is effectively a test bed to gauge the effectiveness of such schemes at clearing up air pollution and improving the health of residents.

Major health problems

Over recent years, several London-based studies have shown that the city’s air pollution is associated with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, increases in daily deaths, stroke risk and low birth weights, as well as reduced lung volumes in children, dementia among the elderly, and poor mental health in children and adolescents.

Clearly, the polluted air that people breathe in London is having profound effects on their health, throughout their entire lives. So, while some people will lose out – for example, those who need to drive in central London for work – that should be weighed against the clear need for action to reduce pollution, on health grounds.

As well as the current health concerns, there are legal reasons why London authorities have introduced the new charge. Much of the area covered by the ULEZ often exceeds the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) – especially near roads, where diesel vehicles are a major source of the gas. The EU annual limit for NO₂ is 40μg/m³ (that’s micrograms per metre cubed).

A map of annual mean NO₂ pollution levels across London, based on data from 2013. Areas coloured from yellow through to red exceed annual targets. Image: London Air/KCL.

There are also other legal limits set by the EU for airborne particulate matter of various sizes. If you consider fine particles – often referred to as PM₂.₅ (generally less than 2.5 microns in diameter) – then the picture looks better. Most of London meets the EU’s annual limit for PM₂.₅, which is 25μg/m³.

But numerous studies have shown there are clear health impacts below this concentration, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that an annual target of 10μg/m³ would be best to protect people’s health. If this lower annual exposure limit was to be used, many areas across London would exceed it – just as they currently do with NO₂.

Medicine worth taking

The evidence shows that diesel exhaust emissions are the major driver of poor health outcomes due to air pollution. That doesn’t mean that other pollutant sources, such a biomass burning, agriculture, industry, or particles derived from brake and tyre wear, are not important – but it makes sense for cities to make reducing diesel emissions a priority. Will it work, though?

The ULEZ, like the Low Emission Zone before it, is designed to encourage the uptake of newer, low emission vehicles both by businesses and the general public with the aim of reducing air pollution in the target area. Current evidence does suggest that air pollution concentrations are falling in London as a result of several measures, such as the Low Emission Zone, but these improvements still need to be accelerated to deliver health benefits.


Since the ULEZ targets all vehicles, modelling commissioned by the Greater London Authority predicts that it will have significant impact on air quality, compared with earlier policies, which focused on restricting only certain types of vehicles. But this projection still needs to be validated.

If the ULEZ is the equivalent to the treatment to the air pollution problem, then like a clinical drug trial it requires independent evaluation, measuring both the changes in pollution concentration, and health improvements among Londoners.

Work is already ongoing to address these issues, such as the Children’s Health in London and Luton (CHILL) project, which is examining children’s respiratory health and lung growth across the introduction of the ULEZ. But further work evaluating this scheme is needed, to keep ensuring that policies are developed based on evidence – and prove to the public that this is a medicine worth taking.

The Conversation

Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology, King's College London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.