Opposition to the forthcoming expansion of the Ultra-low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to cover the whole of Greater London has been singled out as the single biggest reason the Conservatives held onto Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge & South Ruislip in last Thursday’s by-election, with both Labour and the Tories now reportedly rethinking their stance on environmental issues in the wake of the result.
More than anything else though, the outcome of the by-election provides a stark example of how facts – as well as parties’ own stated positions – can be twisted or even ignored in the pursuit of votes, as well as underlining just how little understanding there is of the issue in a part of the capital where owners of the most polluting vehicles will, in a month’s time, be subject to a £12.50 daily charge for driving there.
Conservative Party literature ahead of the by-election suggested that once expansion happens on 29 August, all drivers in the constituency (and by extension, Greater London) will be subject to the charge, and not just the small percentage that do not comply with the relevant emissions standards, with one Labour campaigner claiming that “We had people with a Tesla in the driveway saying it was outrageous that they would have to pay,” according to the Guardian.
It didn't help that the Labour candidate in the by-election responded by suggesting that the expansion needed to be reconsidered, and the narrow Conservative win has resulted in the government now apparently seeing environmental concerns as a fair target when it comes to securing votes.
In the wake of what many viewed as a surprise defeat, Labour, meanwhile, is reportedly considering distancing itself somewhat on green matters as the Tories seek to make a so-called ‘wedge’ issue out of them, as happened in the north west London constituency, and its leader, Sir Keir Starmer has put pressure on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to rethink the expansion.
Besides the apparent confusion over topics that are legislated upon at Westminster, with those done at local level – ULEZ is firmly among the latter – the by-election campaign and subsequent fallout also clearly illustrate something we have increasingly seen in British politics in recent years, namely blaming the other side for your own policy.
Khan has been portrayed by the Tories and the right-wing media as the architect of the initiative – but the fact is, the initial ULEZ, covering the same central London area as the congestion charge zone, was announced in 2015 by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, although it only came into effect in 2019, three years after the Labour politician took over as Mayor of London.
In a bizarre twist, it has even emerged in recent days that emergency government support provided to Transport for London at the height of the coronavirus pandemic was dependent, according to a letter from then Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, on Khan expanding the ULEZ zone.
Given that Shapps congratulated Tory candidate Stephen Tuckwell on his by-election win last week by hailing it on Twitter as a vote to “Stop Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion,” you can perhaps understand people’s confusion.
It’s worth noting though that with a turnout of only 47 per cent, growth in Labour’s share of the vote and a 6.7 per cent swing away from the Tories, the by-election result is perhaps not the resounding victory that has been claimed – and that’s before you even consider that Piers Corbyn’s Let London Live party, which has opposition to ULEZ as its central policy, managed to get just 101 votes.
Next month’s expansion of the area covered by ULEZ won’t be the first time the zone has been widened; in October 2021, it was widened to include the entire area within the North and South Circular Roads, meaning that parts of some Outer London boroughs – Barnet, Brent and Waltham Forest, for example – are already within the zone.
Closer to central London, where I live, in the south eastern part of the London Borough of Ealing, we’re within the zone, but the boundary is less than a quarter of a mile away.
Personally, I don’t drive, but I know a good few people who do, and one thing I would say is that those who had reservations about the scheme before it came into force do not seem to have had much of an issue since that happened – l’m guessing because they erroneously thought that they, or family or friends, would have to pay the charge, which did not turn out to be the case.
An independent report published in May this year found that Hillingdon had the worst pollution of all 32 of the capital’s boroughs, eclipsed only by the City of London, the historic financial centre, which is now pursuing an ambitious programme to reshape its streets for people, not motor vehicles.
Hillingdon, of course, is home to London Heathrow Airport, which partly explains its place in the league table compiled by the Eco Experts from a number of sources including the Greater London Authority, with their report also highlighting that poorer air quality in Outer London boroughs (which will, from next month, be included within the Ulez zone) is explained by cars being more important as a primary mode of transport in outlying parts of the capital compared to more central areas.
Other cities across England and beyond are considering introducing similar charges, or have already unveiled plans to do so, including Greater Manchester and Edinburgh, and similar to what we saw in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, the likelihood is that come the general election, such initiatives will be an important issue in local campaigning, one that will be raised on the doorstep by potential voters.
By then, of course, the expansion of the ULEZ within London will have taken place, and here’s my prediction – while it may be the focus of press attention, and calls to scrap it, ahead of 29 August, after that date many car and van owners living in areas now subject to the charge will be pleasantly surprised to discover that their vehicles do in fact comply with the regulations, and they won’t have to pay a penny, despite what the scaremongers may have told them.
I reckon it’s likely that come the next general election, whenever that is, the reality of the situation will have sunk among both voters and politicians, and that overturning ULEZ expansion will not be perceived as the vote-winner that trying to prevent it happening currently is.
The opponents to ULEZ, of course, many of whom already have a portfolio of causes they are fighting against such as LTNs, or vaccinations against COVID, will simply move onto some other issue perceived as interfering with people’s ‘freedoms’, which of course in many cases relates to motor vehicles, including besides ULEZ attempts to curb rat-running motorists through implementing LTNs, or hold speeding drivers to account through the use of speed cameras.
Never mind that driving a motor vehicle is not a fundamental ‘right’ as some would have you believe, but something that is only allowed under licence, nor the fact as we’ve previously highlighted numerous times here on road.cc that there are simply too many motor vehicles needed on Great Britain’s roads and that if motorists won’t reduce their use voluntarily, tougher measures to encourage them to do so are needed.
My guess? Smart road charging, also known as pay-as-you-drive, which would replace the current fuel duty system and according to a report last year by the Social Market Foundation is widely accepted in transport circles as being inevitable.
Endorsing that report, former Transport Secretary Lord Young of Cookham said:
Successive administrations have looked at the case for road pricing and found it perfectly reasonable and sensible – then done nothing because they believe the public will not accept the change.
This report challenges that assumption. It shows that, as so often, the public are more sensible and mature than political debate gives them credit for. When voters think about the challenges ahead for transport and tax, they accept that road pricing is a prudent and necessary step to take.
The public are open to innovation because they know that the world has changed and will continue to change, so policy must change too. The welcome shift towards electric vehicles raises a clear question about the future of fuel duty levied on petrol and diesel. The unpopularity of that duty has grown steadily too. As this report shows, a well-designed system of road-pricing would be fairer and more popular than the status quo.
It could be that his lordship overestimates the ability of the man on the Clapham omnibus or to be more accurate, the man in the Uxbridge & South Ruislip Tesla, to put aside self-interest and weigh up the merits of the issue to reach a balanced view, that’s assuming the vehicle owner (and voter) has the full facts at hand and hasn’t been misled by inaccurate statements in campaigning literature.
By then, at least, the Tesla owner’s misplaced worries about being made to pay the ULEZ charge will be but a distant recollection – assuming he remembers his concerns at all.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.