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Everything you need to know about toll roads and congestion zones

If you're travelling to somewhere new, you might be surprised at the idea of having to pay to drive on certain roads or across certain bridges.

But there are several areas in the UK that charge drivers for the privilege. And the penalties for not paying on time could be quite steep.

So before you make that trip, it could help to know where you might encounter a toll road or congestion zone, and what you need to do beforehand.

Dartmouth Crossing - Queen Elizabeth II Bridge

What are toll roads?

In the UK there are two road traffic charging schemes: tolls and congestion charges. Tolls are essentially a tax to recoup the costs of building a road and to maintain it.

A congestion charge, on the other hand is a deterrence – lowering traffic volumes and reducing overflowing routes in and out of an area.

There are 19 tolls in the UK road network:

  • On major motorways (the M6 and M25)

  • On bridges and tunnels on A roads

  • At bridges on minor roads.

In the UK, there are currently two locations with congestion charges – Durham and London.

With existing driving costs like car insurance, car tax, and maintenance, the last thing you want is a sudden penalty charge for not paying a toll road. Tolls can be a bit of a hassle but if you plan ahead, you can keep it stress free and ensure a smooth journey. 

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Why do we have toll roads?

Toll roads (sometimes called turnpikes) have been around since the 17th century and worked the same way as now. People paid for the privilege of using a road with income used to repair and improve it.

There’s a great deal of discussion about the value of toll roads. But often government toll schemes are guided by:

  • Relieving congestion in an area

  • Helping regional economic growth

  • Improving the environment

  • Improving public transport links. 

How successful toll routes are is debatable. One of the issues is that to avoid the costs, you look for a different route. This brings congestion to areas along with air pollution. 

M6 toll road

The M6 toll road stretches for 27 miles from Coleshill, Warwickshire to Shareshill, Staffordshire bypassing the congested area between junction 3a and 11a.

Currently owned by investment group, IFM, it’s the UK’s only ‘pay to use’ motorway. It bills itself as ‘the most stress-free route’ to navigate the Midlands, averaging around 50,000 drivers daily.

In the approach to the toll plaza, look for the overhead symbols to know the appropriate lane for your method of payment. The red X means a lane is closed.

The toll plaza operates on a traffic light system to indicate whether a payment has been accepted or not and a red light means the driver is expected to stop.

There are assistance buttons if you need to speak to an operator.

M6 toll road charges

How much do users pay for the convenience of the M6 toll? It varies depending on the size of your vehicle, which toll plaza you use along with the time of day and day of the week.

And from December 2021, drivers should expect a price rise of 20p per car. There are no plans to increase prices for vans and HGVs in order to support businesses.

Also, since the pandemic you can no longer use cash to pay.  You can use either a credit, debit or fuel card, a contactless car or the M6toll TAG.

For example, let’s say you’re car travelling southbound through the Weeford Plaza mainline toll plaza between junctions T4 & T3. Between 7am and 7pm, the M6 toll cost would be £7.

If you car were travelling Northbound through the Great Wyrley toll plaza between junctions T6 & T7 it would cost £5. Night-time and weekend travel costs less for both toll plazas.

Of course, it’s even less for those willing to sign up for various discount schemes and flexible options available for same day travellers and commuters.

If you have a disability, you may also qualify for an exemption pass.  Or, if you open a TAG account, which is pre-paid, you get a 5% discount and you move speedily through. 

The toll road is currently looking at a number plate recognition trial in exchange for discounted toll road charges. This was limited to the first 200 applicants, and runs between Junctions T4 and T6 in Staffordshire. If successful, the scheme should help motorists drive on the M6 toll road without needing to pay there and then

M6 toll road penalties for non-payment

What if you don’t have the means to pay for a toll? Don’t worry. According to the M6 toll web page, simply use the call assistance button. 

Someone should take your details and you get a payment notice allowing you to pay online within a set time period. 

But if you don’t meet the obligation within the time frame you’re liable for a penalty charge of up to £70.

M25 toll road

The M25 is a 117-mile ring road. It’s also called the London Orbital because it circles Greater London neatly.

To people living in London It’s also called a giant car park.  They’re likely to have experienced sitting in its frequent traffic jams contemplating why they didn’t use public transport. 

Either way, whether you’re using the bridge going clockwise or the tunnels going anti-clockwise, no ride around the M25 is complete without the Dartford Crossing.

The Dartford Crossing over the river Thames are twin two-lane tunnels if you’re northbound, and over the QE2 bridge for those travelling southbound.

You pay in either direction and what you pay depends on the type of vehicle as well as the time of travel. 

M25 Greater London Boundary Charge

Under spending review plans, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has proposed a charge for drivers entering Greater London. The proposed area of this Greater London  Boundary Charge (GLBC) includes most areas inside the M25 ring.

If approved, drivers would need to pay up to £5.50 to drive into Greater London. This is in addition to the existing tolls in London - M25 Dart Charge and any congestion zone charges.

The proposal has been criticised by other government ministers.

M25 Dartford Crossing toll charge

Under the payment scheme introduced in 2014 called the 'Dart Charge', you no longer pay at the barrier. Instead, you pay either in advance or by midnight the day after crossing.

Automatic plate recognition cameras and electronic tags are used and cross-checked with DVLA records to ensure they charge you the right amount.

It also recognises non-UK plates, and charges apply even if you live outside the UK. You only need to pay the tolls between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. It’s free to travel other times.

Cars (including trailers), motorhomes and any minibuses that have nine or fewer seats in total are £2.50, or just £2.00 if you have an account. 

You can pay: 

There are discounts available depending on the type of vehicle used and if you decide to open an account. There are exemptions including for people with disabilities.  

If you’re a resident of Dartford or Thurrock you could take advantage of a local resident discount

M25 toll road charges for non-payment

If you don’t pay in advance, you must pay the toll by midnight on the day you used the road.

If not, the penalty charge is £70 to be paid within 28 days. This is reduced to £35 for quick payment and goes up to £105 if you miss the deadline.

Where is the London congestion zone?

Anyone driving in London needs to pay a congestion charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and/or Low Emission Zone charges. These tolls in London apply if your vehicle doesn’t meet set standards.

The congestion zone map shows the area extends from Marylebone in the north-west down to Southwark in the south-east, encompassing:

  • Buckingham Palace

  • The City of London

  • The Gherkin

  • Tower Bridge

If you’re in the zone you’ll see a C in a red circle. Since October 2021, the zone area for the ULEZ expanded to include the area up to (but not including) the North and South Circular roads. 

The London congestion zone and ULEZ charges are in effect between 7am and 10pm every day except Christmas Day. 

The Low Emission Zone covers most of Greater London and is in effect 24/7. It’s meant to discourage heavy diesel vehicles, while the ULEZ aims to improve air quality in Central London.

How much do you pay for congestion charges in London?

The daily congestion charge in London is £15, whether you pay in advance online or sign up for the Transport for London’s AutoPay system.

This lets you make a one-off payment or set up auto pay. There’s an annual £10 charge for each vehicle (up to five) added. 

The benefit of AutoPay is not having to remember to pay the charge and there is protection from getting penalty charges.

If you fail to pay in advance you can pay within three days but the fee is £17.50.

There’s an online tool to help you check if your vehicle meets emissions and safety standards.

If it doesn’t meet those standards you might need to pay an additional daily charge of £12.50 to drive in Central London. This is active from midnight to midnight. 

It’s possible to pay charges up to 90 days in advance and you can always check if the postal code you're driving through is in the ULEZ zone. There are exemptions during the pandemic for:

  • NHS workers

  • Home care worker

  • London Ambulance staff 

  • Council and charity workers

London congestion charge penalties

Failing to pay the congestion charge could land you with a stiff £160 fine. This falls to £80 if you pay within 14 days but rises to £240 if you take longer than 28 days and get a charge certificate. 

Of course, mistakes can be made and you do have a right to challenge Penalty Charge Notices.

How to meet LEZ standards

If you drive to London regularly, to avoid LEZ charges there are methods to help you meet those standards:

Some vehicles may be able to be retrofitted with emissions reduction technology, which has to be approved. For example:

  • Selective catalytic reduction, which reduces NOx emissions

  • Replacement Euro VI engines

  • Converting a vehicle to electric power.

If you’re able to show a booking with a CVRAS-approved fitter or an approved retrofit solution you get a three-month grace period and might not have to pay the LEZ driving charge if driving in the zone.  

Durham City congestion zone

Durham’s congestion zone predates the London zone by a few months and was the first to be introduced in the UK.

The congestion zone covers a small area on the Durham Peninsula, near Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle, Durham Market Place and Durham University colleges.

It was introduced because the single road leading to the area was built with horses and carts in mind rather than cars.

The charge is active between 10am and 4pm Monday – Saturday, and costs £2 per day. There’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system that records vehicles entering and leaving. 

If you don’t pay the charge by 6pm on the day you use the road, you or the registered keeper is liable for a £50 penalty fee. There are automatic exemptions or you can apply for an exemption if:

How to pay the Durham Congestion Charge

There are only three options available according to Durham County Council. You can:

If you’ve had a Penalty Charge Notice, online payment is your only option

Are there any toll roads in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

No, there aren't any toll roads in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Scotland abolished all of its toll roads in 2008, and the only toll roads in Northern Ireland are when you cross the border into the Republic of Ireland.

List of other UK toll roads

You can find a comprehensive list of UK toll roads on GOV.UK.  It includes:

  • Bridge crossings like Kingsland in Shrewsbury

  • Whitney-on-Wye in Hereford 

  • The Humber Bridge in York

  • Mersey Tunnels, Queensway in Liverpool

  • Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

  • Kingsland Bridge in Shrewsbury, Shropshire 

  • Whitney-on-Wye Bridge in Hereford

  • Tamar Bridge in Devon