ULEZ: What is London’s ultra low emission zone and its wider political impact?

  • Above: Simon Harris investigates why expanding Ulez has become such a divisive issue

London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) was at the centre of national politics after local opposition to the scheme was considered the main reason for the Conservatives winning the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Below are the key details on the ULEZ, political perspectives on the scheme and a look at its wider impact.

– What is the ULEZ and how does it work?

The ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in London imposes limitations on vehicle emissions with the aim of reducing pollution. Similar schemes exist in cities across the UK and Europe.

Vehicles which do not meet emissions standards incur a daily charge of £12.50 in the capital and the fine for failing to pay is £180.

Heavy vehicles such as HGVs and buses are exempt from ULEZ charges. However, high-polluting vehicles in this category still have to pay charges in certain zones.

Boris Johnson decided to introduce an ULEZ when he was mayor of London. Current London mayor Sadiq Khan was in post by the time it became operational in April 2019.

The London ULEZ, which is due to expand to include outer London boroughs from August 29, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, excluding Christmas Day.

A total of £160 million has been set aside for a vehicle scrappage scheme to coincide with the expansion. This involves eligible drivers receiving up to £2,000 for disposing of a car.

The scheme was initially only open to people on low incomes or disability benefits, some of the smallest businesses and charities, but will now be extended to all Londoners.

– Why is the Ulez in London controversial?

The expansion of the ULEZ in London has divided opinion and the cost-of-living crisis is an important backdrop to this.

While clean air campaigners highlight the impact of pollution, particularly on children’s health and development, detractors claim it is an unfair charge at a time when many households and businesses are struggling.

The recent unsuccessful legal challenge to the expansion by four Tory-run councils largely focused on procedures and the consultation.

But their main concerns were over the economic and social impact on communities.

Another key factor contributing to the scheme’s divisiveness is the higher rate of car use in outer London and the areas just beyond. With fewer public transport options in the suburbs, critics argue more essential journeys will come with a charge.

– What are the Conservatives’ views on Ulez?

For some time, concerns over expansion of the Ulez have been regularly aired in Parliament by Conservative MPs representing affected areas.

It is a subject that has regularly come up during Prime Minister’s Questions, with Rishi Sunak saying he shared the concerns raised on the backbenches.

A general view that opposition to the ULEZ enabled the Conservatives to retain the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the recent by-election has led ministers and Tory MPs to question green schemes and the costs to households of reaching net zero more broadly.

Mr Sunak has declared he is on the side of motorists and called the ULEZ an “unnecessary extra tax” amid inflation “hassle”.

Despite a minority of the cars on the road incurring charges under the ULEZ, the Government clearly views its stance as a potential vote winner.

Ministers have been keen to stress the “burden” on ordinary families as they go about their daily business, with Mr Sunak taking the opportunity to adopt a Labour attack line regularly aimed at him, accusing the party of being “out of touch with the concerns of hard-working people”.

– How have Labour responded?

There was clearly some initial concern among the Labour leadership over the impact of the Ulez on voter behaviour in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a seat which should have delivered three damaging by-election defeats for the Government.

Sir Keir initially called on Mr Khan to “reflect” on the scheme’s expansion due to the “impact it’s having on people”.

Some Labour MPs in outer London went further by echoing Tory concerns over the economic and social impact.

However, once the dust settled on the by-election, Sir Keir was keen to emphasise the legal obligation the Mr Khan is under to reduce pollution once it reaches a certain level.

– What impact did the ULEZ have on the Conservative victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip?

There remains a widespread belief that controversy surrounding the Ulez delivered the unexpected Conservative by-election victory in Boris Johnson’s former seat.

Polls, a struggling economy and a cost-of-living crisis had all pointed to Labour maintaining its momentum and strengthening its claim to be a government in waiting.

So the conclusion was that the result must have been down to be down to specific local circumstances which trumped national concerns, with the ULEZ being the obvious choice.

There is little doubt that local opposition to the ULEZ had an impact on voter behaviour.

However, it is often the case with local issues that those who shout the loudest are not always in the majority.

With 90% of cars driven in outer London complying with ULEZ standards, according to Transport for London, has the impact of the expansion been exaggerated?

The Tory candidate, Steve Tuckwell, has strong local roots and is well known in the community. During his acceptance speech Mr Tuckwell said: “Our community came together. This wasn’t the campaign Labour expected.”

This could be interpreted as a suggestion that the new MP believed there was an element of complacency in Labour’s approach. Strategists may now be looking as much at the party’s campaign strategy as policy issues.

– Will the ULEZ be an issue at the general election?

With the localisation of limited ULEZ schemes, the issue is not going to be found among the big ticket issues that will shape the outcome of the next general election.

However, it will be considered in the context of clear political lines being drawn over green policies and the costs of net zero.

The Prime Minister’s decision on oil and gas licences in the North Sea makes it clear that the Government is willing to align itself with those who are more sceptical about current national targets and approaches.

But Mr Sunak’s announcement of a review of low traffic neighbourhoods shows he also believes there are potential political gains to be made by exploiting concerns over green policies at a local level.

For example, Tory MPs have claimed discontent over the ULEZ could be used to save Tory MPs in outer London boroughs.

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who will be defending the marginal outer London seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, recently said the Ulez could motivate Labour voters to switch allegiance.

Paul Scully, who is minister for London and MP for Sutton and Cheam, said the Uxbridge and South Ruislip result showed Labour was “beatable” in the capital.

– How widespread are ULEZ schemes and how have they been received?

In 2021, clean air zones were announced in Bath, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds and Portsmouth.

Last year six cities in England announced the introduction of their own controls. These were Oxford, Manchester, Bristol, Bradford, Newcastle and Sheffield. However, theses schemes vary in approach and scale to the London ULEZ.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham had a change of mind last year and paused the introduction of a clean air zone in the region, which would have seen drivers of non-compliant vehicles charged up to £60 a day.

An ongoing review means Greater Manchester is the only region to be legally required to improve its air quality that has not yet introduced charges for polluting vehicles.

Mr Burnham said the charges were “inherently unfair” following the challenges of the pandemic.

Similar schemes in other cities have proved controversial but opposition is generally tied up with broader concerns over low traffic neighbourhoods and, more broadly, perceived controls on movement.

– Will I have to pay the charge?

Find out if your vehicle meets emissions and safety standards required to drive in London, or if you need to pay a daily charge by clicking here.

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