Rishi Sunak has now exploited Keir Starmer’s self-flagellating response to the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election by launching a full-scale culture war against traffic restrictions of all kinds.
The potential cost to motorists of the expansion of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was deemed by the Prime Minister to be a key factor in the Tories narrowly beating Labour and holding on to Boris Johnson’s old seat. It led the Labour leader in turn to quickly distance himself from the policy.
But Sadiq Khan’s commitment to improve London’s air quality was vindicated after legal challenges from five Conservative councils to an expanded ULEZ were rejected last week by the high court. Given that the pressure on the London Mayor is likely to intensify in the weeks before ULEZ covers all London boroughs from 29 August, it is worth reviewing why this is important, and addressing legitimate concerns about adverse impacts on some motorists.
First and foremost, the ULEZ – and the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) phases that preceded it – have been effective in making London’s vehicle fleet cleaner and reducing air pollution.
High compliance rate
When the LEZ began in 2008, there was a substantial drop in the proportion of registered non-compliant heavy goods vehicles over and above the national turnover rate. By the end of 2013, after a substantial drop in non-compliant vehicles, Transport for London (TfL) estimated compliance of over 90 per cent. While air quality is more difficult to monitor, studies indicate that from 2008-2011, concentrations of PM10 particulate matter within the LEZ decreased faster than in control areas.
These benefits were greatly enhanced when the ULEZ began in 2019, which applied restrictions to all cars. Up to February 2020, the ULEZ is estimated to have decreased nitrogen dioxide concentrations in central London by around 37 per cent relative to a modelled ‘no ULEZ’ scenario.
In short, the ULEZ does what it’s supposed to do.
In London, approximately 4,000 premature deaths a year are attributed to air pollution, while in England as a whole, it has been estimated that 3.1 million children in England are going to schools in areas with toxic air.
Poorer suffer most
Poorer communities and those with a higher proportion of non-white ethnicities are exposed to higher levels of pollution, both within London and across the UK, despite generating lower emissions themselves. It’s therefore a crude (and often deliberate) oversimplification when opponents of ULEZ state that poorer people ‘cannot afford it’. Can poor and minority communities afford to bear the brunt of morbidities from air pollution?
It’s clear though that some people will be adversely affected by the ULEZ expansion. While TfL claims that over 90 per cent of cars driven in outer London are already compliant with ULEZ standards, when this is broken down by area, some boroughs have higher non-compliance, including in the north and east, where levels of deprivation are high. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, forcing those on low incomes to shell out penalty charges or change their car, imposes a significant financial burden.
In response to this issue, Khan launched a new £110m scrappage scheme to accompany the ULEZ expansion, by which those meeting certain criteria of low income, micro-businesses or independent traders can claim grants for scrapping non-compliant vehicles. Those eligible could receive £2,000 for a car, £5,000 for a wheelchair accessible vehicle, and traders could get £5,000-£9,500 for a van or minibus.
Car scrappage funded
While this grant would ideally go towards public or active transport options rather than buying another car, many will still rely on a car or van, in which case the scheme is clearly inadequate, and many who need the support will fail to even meet eligibility criteria.
Cities like Bristol have scrappage schemes for their Clean Air Zones funded by the government. While the grants available per vehicle aren’t much different from the proposed TfL scheme, because Bristol is a much smaller city the funding pot goes further, allowing less stringent eligibility criteria. The government hasn’t provided such funding for the ULEZ scrappage scheme – most likely because of the political capital in fostering animosity towards London’s Labour mayor.
In Europe, such scrappage schemes for LEZs are rare. There could be several reasons for this. Crucially, most European countries subsidise electric car purchases, often adding a scrappage bonus for combustion vehicles. The UK government no longer provides any incentive scheme for electric cars.
Schemes like ULEZ and other policies to reduce traffic pollution work best when there is accessible and affordable public transport. TfL is planning bus route expansions in several outer London area (though they could probably be more ambitious).
Majority back ULEZ
In the immediate term, however, given that only a small proportion of vehicles overall will be non-compliant, the government should stump up the funding for an adequate scrappage scheme and stop playing political games with the respiratory health of Londoners.
The ULEZ expansion is in fact supported by an outright majority of Londoners. Sadiq Khan told The Independent: “Air pollution in our city is contributing to children growing up with stunted lungs and older Londoners developing dementia. The ULEZ has already made a big difference – reducing air pollution by nearly half in central London and helping us to tackle the climate emergency.
“It’s clear that Londoners now want the zone to be expanded given the immense harm air pollution is still causing in our city, from cancer to dementia. Expansion of the ULEZ would lead to five million more people being able to breathe cleaner, less polluted air.”
Khan has probably staked his political career on this, and deserves credit for putting public health first and weathering the political firestorm. Shame on the Labour leadership for refusing to back him.