From ULEZ to ULose, WeLose in London’s dirty political business of pollution

Pusillanimous politicians seeking election wins may not have the heart for the clean air fight

Photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0

ULose. I wish I could take credit for the majestic formulation, a pun on London’s biggest political hot potato ULEZ or Ultra Low Emissions Zone. Alas, I didn’t coin the acronym; Politico did, the night the Labour Party managed to lose a byelection by a mere 495 votes.

The main local issue in former prime minister Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency was ULEZ. Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell, who won the election, declared as much in his victory speech. He gave credit for his stunning success to London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is planning to expand the ULEZ next month from central London and areas like mine (in Greenwich) to the rest of London. Expansion of the ULEZ zone will mean drivers of vehicles that breach certain pollution limits would be charged £12.50 each time they drive in the designated area. That’s not a huge number, roughly 10 per cent, according to Transport for London’s research. But said the new MP, Uxbridge and South Ruislip doesn’t want ULEZ and Mayor Khan and Labour leader Keir Starmer had better sit up and take notice.

Well, they have.

All the news is of the London’s mayor “retreat” over the ULEZ scheme. Forty-eight hours after Labour lost the Uxbridge byelection, The Times, London reported Mr Khan saying he was in “constructive listening mode” on ULEZ. That was after private talks with Mr Starmer and considerable vilification by large sections of the Labour Party for apparently losing them an easy election victory. (It’s another matter that a win might not have been so easy, ULEZ or not. Labour hasn’t won Uxbridge since 1966, not even when Tony Blair led his Labour Party to a landslide in 1997.)

Anyway, ULEZ may be heading for a recalibration because of pusillanimous politicians seeking election wins. The Times noted that despite Mr Khan’s previous claim that ULEZ is the “right” approach and that clean air is a “human right, not a privilege”, the mayor’s allies now say he will review the policy.

That, the paper said “would amount to a significant U-turn”.

True. Disgracefully so.

Even though it was Boris Johnson, Mr Khan’s predecessor as London mayor, who originally proposed the ULEZ, the scheme was introduced by Sadiq Khan in central London in 2019 and expanded to inner London in 2021. In the years since, a report by the London authorities, peer-reviewed by Imperial College London’s Dr Gary Fuller, found that pollution levels have reduced by 21 per cent in the expanded ULEZ area and by nearly half in central London, compared to what they would have been without the ULEZ. As Adam Ramsey wrote in openDemocracy, “polls consistently show a majority of Londoners support the measure – and even that the more car-dependent outer boroughs are evenly split on it”. The main opposition has come from “the car lobby, and tabloid culture warriors”, he added.

And now, it seems, so is Labour’s elections-focussed leadership and sections of its rank and file, just like the UK’s governing Conservative Party.

ULose may rapidly become WeLose.

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