Why London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone - ULEZ - has become a divisive issue

City Hall ULEZ
A group of five Conservative-led London councils launched a legal challenge against it but was defeated in court in July. Credit: PA

London’s clean air zone will expand on August 29, but the plan has become a divisive political issue in recent months.

The Prime Minister has thrown his weight behind Tory backbenchers sceptical of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion, which will see the zone cover all of Greater London.

Labour meanwhile appears to have internal disagreements over the party’s support for ULEZ, with fears that backing similar zones across the UK could be a vote loser at the next general election.

Here is a look at some of the political issues surrounding the ULEZ expansion.

Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, announced in 2022 he would expand the zone to cover all of outer London.

Most owners of older cars that are not compliant with pollution standards will have to pay £12.50 a day to drive within the zone.

Initial discontent with the plan began among Conservative MPs in outer London boroughs and those representing commuter towns in the Home Counties.

A group of five Conservative-led London councils launched a legal challenge against it but was defeated in court in July.

But it was not until the Uxbridge by-election following Boris Johnson’s exit from Parliament that the ULEZ expansion became a political issue on the radar of the UK’s national political leaders.

The Conservatives narrowly retained the seat, and Labour claimed worries about the ULEZ expansion had contributed to their defeat, though the party did reduce the Tories’ lead from more than 7,000 to 495.

In the light of the poll, Sir Keir Starmer called on the London Mayor to “reflect” carefully on the rollout of ULEZ.

He has since said cities across the UK should look at other options for tackling air pollution instead of schemes similar to ULEZ, and Labour’s national policy forum has reportedly veered away from explicit support for them.

Blue zone shows current ULEZ zone, green shows current LEZ zone and expanded ULEZ zone Credit: TfL

“What I don’t want is schemes that disproportionately impact on people in the middle of the cost-of-living crisis, so we need to look at options for achieving what we all need to achieve, which is clean air,” Sir Keir said.

“There are other ways of achieving this, so my driving principle is clean air, absolutely yes, but a proportionate way of getting there and looking at what the options are for other cities, other places doing it in different ways.”

Ahead of the next general election, Rishi Sunak has meanwhile sought to portray himself as on the side of “motorists” and create a dividing line between the Conservatives and Labour.

The Prime Minister has ordered a review into low traffic neighbourhoods and other plans aimed at curbing traffic and pollution in city and town centres.

In a post on Twitter, now known as X, Mr Sunak shared a photo of himself behind the wheel of former prime minister Baroness Thatcher’s old Rover, describing cars as a source of “freedom” for families to “live their lives”.

Susan Hall, the Tory candidate for next May’s London mayoral elections, has meanwhile promised to halt the ULEZ expansion from day one of her mayoralty if elected.

Mr Khan will seek a historic third term of office as London Mayor next May.

He has widened a scrappage scheme aimed at helping motorists with the costs of buying ULEZ-compliant cars to include all Londoners, with grants of £2,000 available to scrap a car.

Simon Birkett, the founder of the campaign group Clean Air in London said both political parties may have made a “knee-jerk reaction” to ULEZ following the Uxbridge by-election.

He warned that Rishi Sunak could face accusations of having “betrayed drivers” in future if he veers away from recent statements, and suggested that the Labour leadership need to “do their homework and think about how they communicate some of their messages” on clean air zones.

But Mr Birkett added there may be a silver lining for ULEZ from the by-election, telling the PA news agency: “It has forced some of the top politicians to actually think about what they are going to say about these things when they are fighting a general election.

“We may have a much better informed political debate around environmental, and climate, and health issues as we head towards the general election.”

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