A 10-mile trip plunged a father-of-two into credit card debt by costing him £2,000 after he drove his motorhome to and from a campsite in London’s low emission zone (LEZ) on Easter weekend “without knowing” he was being charged.
Geoffrey Eaton, 53, from Colchester, travelled to the capital on Good Friday with his wife Linda, 53, and their two children Adam, 16, and Elizabeth, 13, to visit family for what promised to be a “relatively cheap” and “fantastic” day out, but it turned into a “very nasty surprise”.
The self-employed architect received a penalty notice from Transport for London, demanding he pay £2,000 after driving his motorhome five miles in and out of the capital’s low emission zone, which extends to the M25 and is different to the ultra low emission zone (ULEZ).
Geoffrey made two five-mile journeys within the zone, to and from a campsite in Abbey Wood, for which he was charged £300 each time, but says that he was unaware the zone extended past the capital’s North and South Circular roads, and that he did not see any warning signs.
Only when he received the penalty notice through the mail a week later on April 18 did he realise his mistake, by which time the cost of each journey had been hiked up to £1,000 due to late payment for the charges he was not aware of, leaving him no option but to use his credit card and put his summer holiday plans on ice.
TfL have since agreed a “discretionary refund” of £1,400.
“We haven’t been abroad in six years and this two grand fine would have completely scuppered our summer holidays,” he said.
“It came at the worst time because our heating and electricity bills have gone up and up, it’s crippling us left, right and centre.
“Frankly, I didn’t know where I was going to get the money to pay off the bill.”
Over the weekend, the Laika Ecovip motorhome, which has a 2.8L engine and falls into the 3.5 tonnes or more category, remained parked while Geoffrey and his family used trains and public transport to visit his wife’s cousin Mary and explore the city.
Geoffrey thought he had stumbled upon “a little gold mine” when he discovered a campsite in Abbey Wood, just a few miles away from Mary’s house in Plumstead.
“Abbey Wood is a really nice little oasis and it’s just five minutes from Abbey Wood station, which meant we could visit my wife’s cousin on the Friday and then take the kids for a day in London on the Saturday,” he said.
The married couple – who both used to live in London and wanted to show their children where they worked and visit some of the capital’s famous landmarks – fortunately decided to take trains and public transport, otherwise they could have faced an additional charge.
“We’ve all got Oyster cards, so one of the main reasons for choosing Abbey Wood was so that we could jump on the Thameslink or Elizabeth Line, which in fact was closed for the bank holiday.
“We had a fantastic day in London.
“We went to the Southbank, had a meal in China Town, took the kids to Covent Garden, to the Royal Festival Hall and showed them some of our old haunts, where we used to work and things like that.”
Visiting central London is a rare occasion for Geoffrey and his family.
“If we got a train from Colchester, we’d be looking at £60 or £70 for the four of us to come into town,” he said.
“So, from my point of view, it meant there was a relatively cheap day out and that we could all enjoy London.”
But Geoffrey did not realise the low emissions zone, which is designed to restrict or deter access by some polluting vehicles, extends to the M25 and even quipped to his wife that they should seize the opportunity because it was due to be extended in August.
He said: “I didn’t think any more of it and I forgot, to be perfectly frank, until yesterday, when I received the penalty charge notice.
“When I logged on, I found that actually I’ve been charged £1,000 for the journey in on the Friday and then again for the journey out on the Sunday.
“The reality is that I didn’t have that money and so had to put it on my credit card.”
Geoffrey was told that if he did not pay the fine before May 1, it would double to £4,000.
“I can’t risk it going up to £4,000 because, to be perfectly frank, I just wouldn’t be able to pay it,” he said.
While Geoffrey is not opposed to having a low emission zone in London, he does not remember spotting any signs on the road or at the Abbey Wood Caravan And Motorhome Club Campsite.
“If I’ve got to pay £100 for me to be stupid and not realise I went into the zone, then I would have paid that,” he said.
“But £2,000, that’s like a month’s salary – It’s a huge amount of money.
“We could have had a room in The Shard and instead we stayed in the motorhome for two nights.”
Navigating London’s ultra low emissions zone is nothing new for Geoffrey who has registered his “dirty diesel” Jaguar Xf with Transport for London, so that he is automatically debited if he crosses the boundary.
“The thing is, when I drive into the ultra low emissions zone in my car, it costs something like £12.75 or whatever.
“But I didn’t realise there was another zone which extended all the way to the M25.”
Despite the experience, he will continue using his motorhome which he bought a few years ago.
“The motorhome has given us a new lease of life in terms of getting out with the kids and spending more family time together.
“We’ve been able to afford quite a few trips away which would have otherwise cost us too much money.”
Geoffrey appealed the case but admits that he simply did not know he was driving inside the zone.
“I believe that I’m pretty observant when I’m driving,” he said.
“But I don’t believe I saw any signs saying you are entering the low emissions zone, like you get with Congestion or the Dartford Tunnel.
“Drivers should be aware that anything inside the M25 is chargeable.”
A TfL spokesperson said: “When people face significant penalty charges we offer support and suggest a manageable way of settling outstanding amounts.
“We have discussed this with Mr Eaton and he is happy with the outcome.
“The low emission zone (LEZ) has been in place since 2008 and is well established. All entry points to the zone are signed and there are advance warning signs ahead of these.
“The LEZ has been incredibly effective in discouraging people to travel in the capital in some of the heaviest polluting vehicles in circulation.
“We are now seeing 97 per cent of vehicles in the zone complying with the standards.”