The politicisation of traffic reduction: how ULEZ frames the future landscape of climate policy
On the 29th of August, the ULEZ scheme was expanded to cover the outer London Boroughs, regardless of the legal challenges brought forward by some local authorities, namely – Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon and Surrey County Council – who unsuccessfully tried to stop the Mayor of London’s plans by bringing their cases to the High Court.
Traffic calming measures – be it Ultra Low Emissions Zones, clean air zones or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) – have faced much opposition, especially in the wake of the rising cost of living crisis.
ULEZ opposers mention the costs associated with upgrading their vehicles, while critics of LTNs say they displace traffic to main roads rather than reduce it, increasing congestion and worsening air pollution.
They also warn that banning traffic from certain areas decimates local businesses, including shops.
The fracture line between supporters and opposers of the ULEZ scheme seems to follow that between inner and outer London Boroughs, with the latest YouGovPoll showing 62% of support among inner Londoners and 52% opposition from those living in the outer boroughs. Recently, Croydon rolled back on its LTN scheme after facing strong opposition from residents, whereas The Guardian’s recent research uncovered £850,000 costs across London Boroughs since 2020 to repair vandalised LTN infrastructures such as cameras and bollards.
Nonetheless, the incumbent Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently said that the next Mayoral elections will not be a referendum on ULEZ, and he will instead be judged across a range of other areas.
However, as news unfolded during the last couple of months, it seems the political class has repeatedly tried to weaponise the discourse around ULEZ and green policies in general, hoping to replicate Uxbridge by-election results in next year’s Mayoral elections.
The by-election in Uxbridge saw the Conservatives clinging on to power, thanks to a strong anti-ULEZ campaign that chimed with the local constituency. The Prime Minister framed the victory as a referendum on the Mayor’s scheme by pinning Khan and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s names on the policy.
Sadiq Khan’s conservative opponent, Susan Hall, has pledged to scrap ULEZ on day one if she takes office, bidding on anti-ULEZ sentiment to win over the suburban voters.
More recently, the Secretary of Transport, Mark Harper, has posted on his Twitter profile, a letter addressed to the Labour Leader, asking for his support to the tabled amendment to the Levelling up and regeneration Bill. The amendment suggests reducing Mayoral power in the transport policy area so that future clean air schemes cannot be introduced whilst ignoring the mandate of elected local Councillors in London Boroughs.
Probably in an attempt to clean the air and weather the storm – excuse the pun – with London Boroughs, comes yesterday’s announcement from Sadiq Khan to shelve plans to introduce Zero Emissions Zone (ZEZ) in central London in 2025.
Despite all the political drama around ULEZ, the incumbent Mayor still benefits from a strong popularity, with 46% saying they approve of his performance as Mayor compared with 26 % who disapprove; whereas his Tory opponent still remains an unknown figure to 52% of Londoners.
Clearly, the political implications of this hot debate are still unfolding and will likely echo into the following months, gaining intensity as the next London Mayoral elections approach. But the Conservative candidate may have to find a different subject to stick with in order to raise her profile.
Recent data shows that dragging Net Zero into the culture war arena will not pay off in terms of winning over more consensus across populist fringes. Far from woke virtue signalling, the Net Zero pledge by 2050 is popular across the political spectrum, including with the broad Tory voter coalitions (* as data from More in Common research shows).
The centralisation of power away from local authorities might become a costly own goal for the government. Local authorities in the UK have influence over more than 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and are critical to the country’s Net Zero goals. The penalties for missed targets would likely outstrip the cost of meeting net zero (OBR recent findings).
As the cost-of-living crisis has highlighted, the focus should not be on whether to scrap net zero policies entirely. Instead, we should pay more attention and resources on delivering a just transition that mitigates the impact on the country’s most vulnerable.