Ultra low emission zone sign

What is a clean air zone?

Around the UK, cities are creating clean air zones that are designed to improve air quality and reduce pollution. What do they mean for you and your car? Our guide explains all.

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By Cazoo editorial team

Clean air zone, Ultra Low Emission Zone, Zero Emission Zone – they go by many names and there’s likely to be one already operating, or coming soon, to a city near you. They’re designed to improve urban air quality by discouraging high-polluting vehicles from entering them. To do this they either charge a daily fee to the car’s owner or, as they do in Scotland, impose a penalty for entering them. 

Most of these zones target buses, taxis and trucks but a few also target more highly polluting cars including comparatively new diesel models. Here’s our guide to where clean air zones are, which cars attract charges when entering them; how much those charges are and whether you can be exempt.

What is a clean air zone?

A clean air zone is an area within a city where pollution levels are most acute and where vehicles with high levels of exhaust emissions are charged a fee for entering. By charging fees, local authorities hope to encourage drivers to switch to less polluting vehicles or to walk, cycle or use public transport. 

There are four classes of clean air zones. Classes A, B and C target commercial and passenger-carrying vehicles. Class D is the most wide-ranging and includes cars. The majority of zones are Class D. 

You’ll know when you’re about to enter a clean air zone due to prominent road signs. These may feature a drawing of a camera to remind you that cameras are being used to identify each vehicle entering the zone and whether it should be charged a fee.

What is the Ultra Low Emission Zone?

Known as ULEZ, this is London’s clean air zone. It covers the same area as the capital’s Congestion Charge Zone but from October 25, 2021, it will expand to cover the area up to but not including the North Circular and South Circular roads. Vehicles that don’t meet the ULEZ emissions standards pay both the ULEZ charge and the congestion charge. 

Why are clean air zones necessary?

Air pollution is regarded to be a major contributor to heart and lung disease, strokes and cancers. It’s a complex mix of particles and gases with particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide being major components of vehicle emissions.

Transport For London figures suggest that half of London’s air pollution is caused by road traffic. As part of its clean air strategy, the UK government has set legal pollution limits for particulates and is encouraging councils to establish clean air zones.

How many clean air zones are there and where are they?

There are 14 zones either operating or expected to be operating soon. Most are Class D zones that charge certain cars as well as buses and commercial vehicles, but five are Class B or C zones which do not charge fees on cars.  

As of July 2021, the clean air zones are:

Bath (Class C, active) 

Birmingham (Class D, active) 

Bradford (Class C, expected to start January 2022)

Bristol (Class D, summer 2022)

London (Class D ULEZ, active)

Manchester (Class C, May 2022)

Newcastle and Sheffield (Class C, date unknown)

Oxford (Class D, August 2021)

Portsmouth (Class B, late 2021)

Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh (Class D, spring 2022).

Which cars have to pay and how much is the fee?

Depending on the city, charges range from £2 to £12.50 per day and are triggered by the vehicle’s emissions standard. This measure of a vehicle’s exhaust emissions was created by the EU in 1970 and the first was called Euro 1. Each new Euro standard is tougher than the last and we’ve reached  Euro 6. Each Euro level sets different emissions limits for petrol and diesel cars, due to the (usually) higher particulate emissions of diesel cars. 

Generally speaking, Euro 4, introduced in January 2005 but mandatory on all new cars registered from January 2006, is the minimum standard required for a petrol car to enter a Class D clean air zone and London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone without attracting a charge. 

A diesel car must comply with Euro 6, which has been in force on all new cars registered from September 2015, although some cars registered before that date are also Euro 6. You can find your car’s emission standard on your car’s V5C registration document or your vehicle manufacturer’s website.

Do I need to pay to enter a clean air zone in my car?

It’s easy to find out whether your car will be charged to enter a clean air zone using the checker on the government website. Enter your car’s registration number and it’ll give you a simple yes or no. The TFL website has a similarly simple checker that allows you to find out whether you need to pay the London ULEZ charge.

It’s important to note that in Scotland no access charge is levied. Instead, a £60 penalty is imposed on non-compliant cars that enter the zone.

Are there exemptions for clean air zones?

In Class A, B and C zones, cars are not charged fees. In Class D zones, petrol cars complying with at least Euro 4 and diesel cars complying with at least Euro 6 pay nothing. Oxford is an exception in that only electric cars pay nothing while even low emission cars pay £2. In most cities, motorcycles and historic vehicles over 40 years old pay nothing.

Typically, there are discounts for people living in a zone, for Blue Badge holders and for vehicles with a disabled tax class although this is by no means universal, so check before entering. 

When do clean air zones operate and what’s the penalty for not paying?

Most zones operate 24 hours a day all year round, with no exemption for bank holidays other than Christmas Day. Depending on the zone, if you don’t pay the charge you may receive a penalty charge notice which, in London, imposes a fine of £160, or £80 if you pay within 14 days.

In Scotland, non-compliant cars pay a £60 penalty for entering the zone. There are plans to double this with each subsequent breach of the rules.

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