Industry figures have demanded targeted support for small construction companies ahead of the “unwelcome” expansion of London’s polluting-vehicle charge.
Federation of Master Builders chief executive Brian Berry and Scaffolding Association policy consultant Chris Seaton urged the mayor of London to reconsider the detail of proposals to extend the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) this summer.
The scheme – which currently applies within an area roughly bounded by the north and south circular roads – will cover all parts of all London boroughs from 29 August.
Vehicles failing to meet specified emissions standards face a £12.50 charge for every day they enter the zone.
Sole traders and certain micro-firms can apply for grants of up to £5,000 to scrap old vans under the mayor’s scrappage scheme. But Berry said the challenge was “to make sure it is easy for builders to access and that it delivers promptly”.
The expansion of ULEZ “could not come at a worse time for small builders, who are starting to feel the pinch of the economic slowdown”, Berry warned. “They need support or they will have to put their prices up – or leave the industry.”
Berry said he recognised the need to move towards a low-carbon industry but felt small firms were being asked to “pay the price for cleaner air”.
“A significant number of small builders have old vans that fall under the charge – they go up and down on site all day with building materials in them. Firms don’t want pristine vehicles,” he said.
“Give them as much time as possible to upgrade, and an incentive. The legislation is taking away part of their livelihood. Builders don’t have a choice; they need the vans to transport the goods.”
Certain vehicles – such as those registered as historic or disabled for tax purposes – can apply for discounts or grace periods under ULEZ.
Seaton called for similar leeway to be given to construction vehicles.
“The average vehicle lifecycle is 12 years and yet they are becoming worthless overnight because they won’t have a resale value,” he said, pointing out that some small business owners would have debt to pay off on their existing vans.
“We would ask that measures implemented reflect the lifecycle of vehicles already invested in. Recognise that there are vehicles already on the roads; don’t penalise people who invested in those in good faith.”
Seaton said the ULEZ charge felt like an opportunistic money-grab from the mayor.
“He is not banning pollution, he is charging for it,” he said. “It is an extra cost for smaller companies who can’t afford to upgrade their vans.
“Construction companies are facing rising costs across the board. They can’t avoid labour or energy prices rising but this is avoidable, it doesn’t have to be done right away. It comes at the worst possible time and is very unwelcome.”
Keeping up with ever-changing legislation was exhausting for small businesses, Seaton added.
“The goalposts are moving all the time. The government needs to issue a framework that local authorities follow so we don’t end up with different cities having different rules. Companies with nationwide fleets need to know what measures they need to take to avoid charges.”
Londoners dying due to toxic air
Several outer London boroughs have stated their opposition to the mayor’s planned ULEZ expansion.
Bromley Council said in January that it was working with Bexley, Harrow and Hillingdon to “examine the legal basis” of the move.
But the Greater London Authority said the expansion of the low-emission zone would allow five-million people to breathe cleaner air.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said: “I took the difficult decision to expand the ULEZ because it will save lives, help tackle the climate crisis and reduce congestion. We have made huge progress in central and inner London but there is much more to do in outer London.
“Around 4,000 Londoners are dying prematurely each year due to toxic air, with the greatest number of deaths attributable to air pollution in London’s outer boroughs. It is causing people to develop life-changing illnesses, such as cancer, lung disease, dementia and asthma, and leading to children growing up with stunted lungs.
“We need to get the most highly polluting vehicles off our roads, which are damaging the health of all Londoners, including drivers.
“The rising cost of living has been a key consideration for me, which is why we are launching this new and improved scrappage scheme – the biggest ever – to help low-income and disabled Londoners, businesses, sole traders and charities switch to cleaner vehicles, or support them to make the most of other transport options.”