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What drivers of European registered cars need to know about London’s low emissions zones

If you are driving to London from Europe with a foreign registered car you will need to know about the city's low emission zone and how to avoid being hit with a hefty fine, as some of our readers have been.

What drivers of European registered cars need to know about London's low emissions zones
Signs for the ULEZ zone in London that drivers of foreign registered vehicles need to be aware of. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

Driving in London can be anxiety-inducing even for a local with a British car. Add to that a vehicle registered in Europe and all the rules on Low Emission Zones (LEZ), Ultra Low emission zones (ULEZ) and the Congestion Charge Zone, and the stress can be overwhelming.

And importantly for The Local’s readers, drivers of French, Spanish, German registered cars or any foreign registered car for that matter can’t avoid these rules.

“All foreign registered vehicles are subject to the ULEZ in the same way as those registered in the UK,” states TfL on its website.

So what are London’s low emission zones?

Before we tell you what you need to do here’s a brief explanation of London’s different low emission zones and congestion zones.

Since 2008, London has been introducing ‘low-emission zones’ to cut air pollution and reduce traffic congestion. This means drivers of certain vehicles have to pay a fee to enter such areas under certain conditions.

The Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was the first such area established in the British capital. It includes all roads within Greater London, TfL explains, apart from the M25 (the motorway encircling the city). The LEZ applies to heavy-duty vehicles such as lorries, vans and specialist heavy vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, as well as buses, minibuses and coaches over 5 tonnes.

It doesn’t apply to cars or motorcycles. It operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

The daily charge ranges from £100 for smaller vehicles to £300 for bigger ones. If you don’t pay the charge, you will receive a fine – which is much higher.

The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) currently covers all areas inside (but not including) the North (A406) and South Circular (A205) roads, which form a ring road around central London.

From 29 August 2023, however, it will cover all London boroughs.

The ULEZ applies to all vehicles that don’t meet the set emissions standards, including cars and motorcycles (although there are discounts and exemptions, e.g. for vehicles for people with disabilities). It is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except Christmas Day.

To avoid the daily charge vehicles must meet the ULEZ emissions standards which are based on Euro emissions standards (Euro 1 to 6). As we’ve stated above you’ll know if your foreign registered vehicle meets the emissions standards, which means to you don’t have to pay the charge – when you register with TfL.

For the ULEZ area, the charge for those high polluting vehicles who don’t meet the standards is £12.50 a day (heavy vehicles do not need to pay the ULEZ charge as they already pay the LEZ).

With all the talk about ULEZ and LEZ, you’d be forgiven if you forgot about the Congestion Charge Zone, which operates from 7 am to 6 pm Monday to Friday, and 12 pm to 6 pm on weekends and bank holidays.

This covers several areas of Central London, including the City, Westminster, Charing Cross, London Bridge and Soho. You can check whether a postcode is in the Congestion Charge Zone here.

The £15 daily fee applies to all vehicles (except motorbikes and mopeds), even if they meet the ULEZ/LEZ emissions standards 

So what do I have to do if my vehicle is registered abroad and I’m heading to London?

First and foremost, the most crucial thing to do if you are planning to drive into London with a vehicle with a foreign number plate is to register online with Transport for London (TfL).

Once you do this you will know whether your vehicle meets the minimum emissions standards so you can drive in London without paying the fine – or whether you have to pay the charge.

“On receipt of this information we register the vehicle as complaint with the standards. This allows the vehicle to be used in the ULEZ without payment of the charge or risk of receiving a fine,” states TfL.

Understandably not everyone driving from Europe has been aware they have had to register.

One EU based reader David, who drives a foreign registered car told The Local: “I have a Mercedes GLC which passes all the emissions tests but I did not know I still had to register with the car with the London authorities. I drove there in October and was somewhat surprised to receive a demand from a collection agency EPC PLC for just under £500. This was the basic fine and late payments penalties.”

What do I need to register?

The problem with vehicles registered abroad is that TfL won’t automatically know whether they meet the emissions standards or not. So, you will need to provide proof that yours does.

To do so, you will need to provide a copy of the vehicle’s registration documents and the following:

  • For ULEZ: a letter from the vehicle manufacturer’s homologation department stating the vehicle’s Euro standard or a conformity certificate;
  • For LEZ: proof of abatement equipment fitted to the vehicle, for instance if the vehicle has been retrofitted.

Once TfL has registered the vehicle, its status will be updated and you will know whether you need to pay. 

TfL told The Local that they would advise drivers to submit their registration 10 days before their planned trip to London.

Drivers of British registered cars can find out if their car meets the minimum emissions standard by using TfL’s online check system.

If your vehicle is registered in the UK with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), you don’t need to register with TfL even if you live abroad, according to TfL.

You can then pay here or set up an autopay here. There is also an app to go through this process.

What are the fines?

There are hefty fines for people that do not comply with these rules.

You could receive a fine if:

  • Your vehicle doesn’t meet emissions standards and you don’t have a discount;
  • You haven’t registered your vehicle with TfL;
  • You haven’t paid the relevant charges (ULEZ, LEZ or Congestion) by the midnight of the third day of travel;
  • When registering a vehicle, you have given TfL an incorrect number plate or date of travel;
  • If you paid by post, you didn’t allow at least ten days for the payment to clear.

For the LEZ, fines are up to £2000 per vehicles. For the ULEZ the fine is £180, or £90 if paid within 14 days. The fine for not paying the Congestion Charge fee is also £180, £90 if paid within two weeks.

If a fine is involved, EPC, the contractor in charge of recovering penalty charge notices (PCNs) to cars with foreign number plates, will identify the relevant country and apply to obtain details from the National Licensing Agency. The notice will then be sent out to that country.

How to challenge a penalty

If you want to challenge a penalty charge notice, you will need to do so within 28 days (here). TfL told The Local that the 28-day period also applies to PCNs issued to drivers abroad.

The 28-day period starts from the date the penalty notice is issued, not when it was incurred. For example, if you were spotted driving in London with a non-compliant vehicle on 14 March, TfL would send your vehicle’s details to the EPC, which would obtain your details abroad and issue the PCN. The 28 days start from the day EPC issues the PCN.

A TfL spokesperson said: “The period [for challenging a PCN] is 28 days but postal delays are taken into account if an appeal is lodged shortly after that time. If, however, the appeal was made several weeks outside of the timeframe the driver would need to have a good reason as to why it was made so late.”

This article was produced in collaboration with EuroStreet news.


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‘Città 30’: Which Italian cities will bring in new speed limits?

Bologna has faced heavy criticism - including from the Italian government - after introducing a speed limit of 30km/h, but it's not the only city to approve these rules.

'Città 30': Which Italian cities will bring in new speed limits?

Bologna on January 17th became Italy’s first major city to introduce a speed limit of 30km/h on 70 percent of roads in the city centre under its ‘Città 30’ plan, first announced in 2022, and initially set to come into force by June 2023.

The move made Bologna one of a growing number of European cities, including Paris, Madrid, Brussels, and Bilbao, to bring in a 30km/h limit aimed at improving air quality and road safety.

But the change was met last week with a go-slow protest by Bologna’s taxi drivers and, perhaps more surprisingly, criticism from the Italian transport ministry, which financed the measure.

Matteo Salvini, who is currently serving as Italy’s transport minister, this week pledged to bring in new nationwide rules dictating speed limits in cities that would reverse Bologna’s new rule.

Salvini’s League party has long criticised Bologna’s ‘Città 30’ plan, claiming it would make life harder for residents as well as people working in the city and would create “more traffic and fines”.

OPINION: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

Bologna’s speed limit has sparked a heated debate across Italy, despite the increasingly widespread adoption of such measures in many other cities in Europe and worldwide in recent years.

While Bologna is the biggest Italian city to bring in the measure, it’s not the first – and many more local authorities, including in Rome, are now looking to follow their example in the next few years.

Some 60 smaller cities and towns in Italy have adopted the measure so far, according to Sky TG24, though there is no complete list.

This compares to around 200 French towns and cities to adopt the rule, while in Spain the same limit has applied to 70 percent of all the country’s roads since since May 2021 under nationwide rules, reports LA7.

The first Italian town to experiment with a 30 km/h speed limit was Cesena, south of Bologna, which introduced it in 1998. Since then, the local authority has found that serious accidents have halved, while the number of non-serious ones has remained unchanged.

Olbia, in Sardinia, also famously introduced the speed limit in 2021.

The city of Parma is planning to bring in the same rules from 2024, while the Tuscan capital of Florence approved five 30km/h zones in the city centre earlier this month.

Turin is set to bring in its first 30km/h limits this year as part of its broader plan to improve transport infrastructure, aimed at reducing smog and increasing livability.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

Meanwhile, the mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, has promised to introduce the limit on 70 percent of the capital’s roads by the end of his mandate, which expires in 2026.

In Milan, while the city council has voted in favour of lower speed limits and other traffic limitations on central roads, it’s not clear when these could come into force.

Milan mayor Beppe Sala this week said a 30 km/h limit would be “impossible” to implement in the Lombardy capital.

And it’s notable that almost all of the cities looking at slowing down traffic are in the north or centre-north of Italy.

There has been little interest reported in the measures further south, where statistics have shown there are a higher number of serious road accidents – though the total number of accidents is in fact higher in the north.

According to the World Health Organisation the risk of death to a pedestrian hit by a car driven at 50 km/h is 80 percent. The risk drops to 10 percent at 30 km/h.

The speed limit on roads in Italian towns and cities is generally 50, and on the autostrade (motorways) it’s up to 130.

Many Italian residents are heavily dependent on cars as their primary mode of transport: Italy has the second-highest rate of car ownership in Europe, with 670 vehicles per 1,000 residents, second only to Luxembourg with 682, according to statistics agency Eurostat.