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Congestion Charge exempt cars: do electric cars have to pay?

Do electric cars have to pay the London Congestion Charge? We explain the ins and outs of how this daily levy for driving into the UK's capital affects electric and hybrid vehicles

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When driving into central London, you'll see signs with a white 'C' on a red circular background stating ‘Congestion Charge’. This means that drivers of certain types of vehicle must pay a fixed amount per day to enter the centre of the UK's capital city.

Launched in 2003, the London Congestion Charge was intended to deter people from unnecessarily driving into the city centre (particularly in private cars), causing congestion and pollution. Until March 2020, the charge applied between 7am and 6pm on weekdays and stood at £11.50.

It was temporarily suspended during the coronavirus lockdown, then re-introduced. From 22 June 2020, the daily cost was increased to £15 and the operating hours extended to seven days a week, 7am-10pm. These were characterised as 'temporary measures' but there has been no indication that they'll be reversed as yet.

Some vehicles are exempt from the Congestion Charge at all times. In the early days of the charge, anything emitting less than 100g/km of CO2 escaped the fee. However, improvements in technology that reduced engine emissions meant a larger number of vehicles became exempt. As a result, the limit was dropped to 75g/km CO2, where it remains as of early 2021.

This means a smaller number of cars are now Congestion Charge exempt. No standard petrol or diesel car can achieve such low tailpipe emissions, so only plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars remain exempt from the fee.

But even they're set to lose their exemption eventually. From October 2021, only drivers of fully zero-emissions electric cars will get away with not paying, and then in December 2025 that exemption will be removed, too. These dates were unaffected by the coronavirus changes.

Which cars are exempt from the Congestion Charge?

Until 2025, all purely electric cars, vans and other vehicles are currently Congestion Charge-exempt, because they have zero tailpipe emissions. This means if you purchase a fully electric vehicle and register it with Transport for London (TfL) you won’t have to pay the London Congestion Charge. Examples of fully electric cars are the Renault ZOE, Nissan Leaf and Volkswagen ID.3.

Nearly all plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are Congestion Charge-exempt until October 2021, as the vast majority emit less than the current 75g/km of CO2 limit. So the likes of the Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Kia Niro PHEV are all exempt from the charge. However, pay attention to the wheel size you order. Larger wheels increase tailpipe emissions, and individual options and trim levels are taken into account when working out Congestion Charge exemption. In some cases, these could push a PHEV over the limit.

To find out whether or not you need to pay the Congestion Charge, look up the official CO2 emissions figure in your vehicle’s brochure or manual. You can always contact your dealer to find out more. As noted above, exemptions aren't automatically applied – you have to register your car with TfL first. If you drive a sub-75g/km car into the zone without registering it with TfL, you'll still be liable for the charge.

How does the Congestion Charge work?

You have to pay the charge only once per day. This means you can drive in and out of the Congestion Charge zone any number of times on the same day without further penalty. You pay the charge online, on Transport for London's website.

You can also pay the charge in advance, or wait until the next day to pay. Doing the latter adds £3.50 to the total payment, bringing it to £18.50. However, if you don’t pay by midnight the following day, you'll be issued with a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for £160. If you pay this within 14 days, it's reduced to £80.

What other exemptions are there?

Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs), which comprise electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hybrids, aren’t the only cars to get away without paying, or that pay a reduced fee. Until August 2020, residents within the Congestion Charge zone could apply for a Resident’s Discount from Transport for London. They needed to prove their residency as well as vehicle ownership, however this scheme is now permanently closed to new applicants.

Blue Badge holders don't have to pay the Congestion Charge at all. As with the other exemptions, it’s vital that the vehicles used by a Blue Badge holder – a maximum of two per badge – are first registered with TfL in order to qualify for exemption. Other vehicles facing no charge are those with nine or more seats, breakdown recovery vehicles and motorcycles.

What about other zones?

The London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was introduced in April 2019, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the same boundaries as the Congestion Charge zone. Petrol cars and vans that don't meet at least the Euro 4 emissions standard have to pay £12.50 to enter the ULEZ area, while diesel cars and vans that don't meet at least the Euro 6 standard are liable for the charge.

This means that while Euro 4 and 5 petrol cars get away with not paying the ULEZ charge, Euro 5 diesels and earlier have to pay it. As a rough guide, diesel cars and vans registered before September 2016 aren't Euro 6 compliant. If in doubt, use TfL's online vehicle checker to see if you need to pay. The ULEZ is set to expand in October 2021 to the 'inner London area' (i.e. the zone bounded by the North and South Circular roads).

What are other UK cities doing?

Cities such as Birmingham and Leeds are also working towards the introduction of Ultra Low Emissions Zones, where older cars would be charged up to £10 a day to enter. These fees wouldn't apply to electric, hybrid or plug-in vehicles, though.

However, Oxford is looking to take things further. Under council plans, the city would introduce the world’s first zero-emissions zone, which would first ban all non-zero-emissions taxis, cars and light commercial vehicles from a small number of streets, before being extended to cover all non-electric vehicles, including HGVs, in the entire city centre.

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