Licensing powers to tackle air pollution

27 Feb 2019


By Matt Lewin

Since January, passengers taking a journey with Uber in London have been charged a “clean air fee” of 15p per mile. The money is earmarked towards helping drivers to upgrade to an electric vehicle and other clean air initiatives. Uber says that its “Clean Air Plan” is intended to support the Mayor of London’s efforts to tackle air pollution in the capital.

As is well known, vehicle emissions are one of the main sources of air pollution in urban areas. The major pollutants today are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) which, unlike the “pea-soupers” of the mid-20th century, are invisible to the naked eye. At long last, however, policy makers and the general public have begun to pay much closer attention to this major public health crisis.

No doubt at least partly driven by the continued growth of Uber, the number of licensed drivers and vehicles reached record levels in 2017.

For obvious reasons, hackney carriages and private hire vehicles make a major contribution to air pollution in our cities. Therefore any measures to tackle air pollution will need to make specific provision for these vehicles: to encourage the take-up of zero- or ultra-low emission vehicles; to reduce “dead mileage”; and perhaps to increase fares to fund air quality improvements.

What taxi licensing powers are available to licensing authorities to reduce air pollution caused by their taxi fleet?

Clean air fares?

Hackney carriage fares are regulated by licensing authorities. The power to set fares is in s.65 LG(MP)A 1976 which provides that prices should be set for “fares within the district as well as for time as for distance, and all other charges in connection with the hire of a vehicle”. Levying a “clean air fee”, earmarked for specific air quality improvement measures, is arguably “[an]other charge” for the purposes of s.65 and therefore it would appear there is power to impose such a fee. Obviously licensing authorities would need to carefully consider the impact of increased fares on both passengers and drivers.

However, unlike hackney carriages, private hire fares are more or less completely unregulated. If licensing authorities have no power to compel private hire vehicle operators to charge a clean air fee, any such measure would require the voluntary co-operation of local operators.

Vehicle standards?

In 2015, the government announced that six UK cities would be required to implement Clean Air Zones. Following defeats in the Supreme Court and the High Court over failures in its clean air strategy, the government has demanded that those cities (and, subsequently, other local authorities) implement Clean Air Zones “with a view to reducing statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time, which the latest assessment indicates will be 2020.”

In late 2017, one of those cities, Birmingham, adopted a new vehicle specification policy which provides that the city will not licence any hackney carriage or private hire vehicle which does not meet (as a minimum) Euro 4 standard (for petrol engines) or Euro 6 (for diesel engines) after 31 December 2019. That policy applies equally to new licences and renewals. The deadline for implementation was extended by 12 months following a consultation.

Another of those cities, Southampton, recently decided against implementing a charging Clean Air Zone, but approved a number of “non-charging measures” to meet its air quality targets, which will include revisions to its taxi licensing policy “to remove the most polluting vehicles”. The city’s current policy, like many other licensing authorities, has provisions relating to a vehicle’s age but no express requirements relating to its emissions.

Limiting numbers of vehicles?

While authorities have a discretion to limit the number of hackney carriages proprietor’s licences (s.37 TCPA 1847 as amended by s.16 Transport Act 1985), that power may only be used where the authority is satisfied, on reasonable grounds, that there is no significant unmet demand for hackney carriages. It would be a misuse of that power to use it for the purpose of reducing air pollution.

As for private hire vehicles, s.48 LG(MP)A 1976 expressly prohibits licensing authorities from refusing vehicle licences for the purpose of limiting the number of vehicles licensed by the authority.

In other words, as the Mayor of London has complained, there are currently no powers to limit the number of licensed vehicles for the purpose of tackling air pollution.

Clean air zones?

You may have noticed a government consultation, at the end of 2018, on how local authorities which have implemented charging Clean Air Zones should identify hackney carriages and private hire vehicles entering those zones.

Local authorities may establish charging Clean Air Zones under the Transport Act 2000 but given the freedom of cross-border hiring, and the much higher number of journeys undertaken by a typical hackney carriage or private hire vehicle, it is clearly essential to the operation of any such scheme that licensed vehicles can be clearly identified.

The government has laid draft secondary legislation before Parliament which will create a centralised database exclusively for the purpose of enforcement and operation of charging Clean Air Zones. Since then, the Department for Transport has proposed the creation of a separate national database for all licensed vehicles, drivers and operators for more general enforcement purposes.


We should all be able to breathe clean air. It is clear that in many of our cities, poor air quality has created a public health crisis. It is also clear that in order to secure the drastic improvements in air quality required by law that ambitious and potentially unpopular policies are required. Local authorities will need to be bold and decisive if we are to clean up our air.