Skip to main content

Labelled the ‘invisible killer’, air pollution causes health problems throughout people’s lifetimes and is responsible for between 26,000-38,000 deaths in England each year. Unfortunately, recent measures to tackle the problem, such as the expansion of charging clean air zones (CAZs) and low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), have disproportionately burdened disabled people.

The upcoming expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the London equivalent of a CAZ, to all boroughs in the city, risks leaving some disabled residents in the lurch. Intended to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions in outer London, it will force owners of non-compliant vehicles (typically post-2005 petrol cars and post-2015 diesel cars), either to upgrade their cars or be charged £12.50 per day to continue using them. For context, up to 30,000 blue badge holders drive non-compliant vehicles in the capital.

In response to concerns raised by disability groups, the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made changes to the ULEZ, but these do not go far enough. He created a £110 million scrappage scheme, providing grants of up to £5,000 for disabled Londoners to upgrade non-compliant wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and exempted some, but not all, Blue Badge holders from paying the daily charge until 2027. 

While the ULEZ changes were welcomed by disability groups, the scrappage scheme is still not enough to cover the full cost of upgrading a vehicle, and the average wheelchair-accessible vehicle costs £30,000. While costs vary from vehicle to vehicle, the starting price for a retrofit is usually £6,000. Further, many Blue Badge holders will still have to pay the charge. 

The London scheme is not the only CAZ that insufficiently protects the disabled — Birmingham offers just £2,000 under its scrappage scheme while Bristol only entitles residents to a £1,500 grant plus a £500 loan. Bristol’s CAZ exemptions, which previously applied to Blue Badge holders, have already expired, prompting fears that many disabled residents will be “trapped in their homes”.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), many of which were introduced following the Covid-19 pandemic, are another instance where disabled people’s needs have been overlooked. Intended to reduce car dependency by incentivising walking and cycling, LTNs involve the placement of bollards, planters and cameras to get rid of ‘through’ traffic on residential streets.

Unfortunately, the speedy implementation of LTNs has created problems. The bollards, for instance, are not always wide enough to fit in the non-standard cycles that some disabled people use. Additionally, some LTNs have greatly extended the travel times for disabled residents dependent on car transport and there have been concerns about insufficient consultation before rolling out new LTNs. 

Charities and campaigners have put forward several ideas to make clean air schemes more equitable. For instance, Asthma + Lung UK has recently called for nationally consistent and centrally funded scrappage scheme for all cities introducing charging CAZs, to cover the full cost of upgrading any wheelchair-accessible vehicle would help to reduce the financial strain of compliance. Disability campaigners have also pushed for all Blue Badge holders to be granted exemptions from ULEZ charges. 

Similarly, there may be low-cost measures to make public transport more accessible to at least some of those with disabilities, thus reducing car dependency for disabled people. Allowing disabled people to take on disabled-friendly vehicles like tricycles, as is being considered in Manchester, as well as equipping busses to fit more than one wheelchair user at a time, could in theory make a real difference and prevent families from having to split up every time they make a journey. Both these proposals warrant further exploration.   

Finally, as the charity Wheels for Wellbeing has argued, some problems associated with LTNs could be overcome with better consultation to ensure that planters are spaced widely enough apart, that pavements are fully accessible for all types of cycles and the needs of car-dependent residents are accommodated. 

This piece does not dispute the potential benefits of both clean air zones and low traffic neighbourhoods both in terms of reducing air pollution and in boosting levels of physical activity. However, unless relatively small steps are taken, we risk leaving disabled Britons behind.

Will Prescott is a Researcher at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Andy Carne]