ULEZ. The oddly euphonious acronym has shown itself central to the combination of misrepresentation and fear which has come to characterise so much of current political discourse.
That the air quality in our capital city is an ongoing cause for concern is well known. The Ultra Low Emission Zone which is to be extended across all London Boroughs at the end of this month (29 August 2023), has an essential role in protecting the health of Londoners. It has already reduced toxic nitrogen dioxide pollution in central London by almost 50 per cent. The verdict of the Coroner on the heartbreaking death in 2013 of nine-year-old Ella Adoo Kissi Debra, whose family lived in Lewisham, close to the South Circular road, raised popular awareness of the need for further action.
But first, the framework in which which to place these facts.
The plans for an Ultra Low Emission Zone, initially in the area of central London, where the Congestion Charge was already in force, were introduced by the then mayor, Boris Johnson, in March 2015 and was intended to come into effect in September of 2020 when a standard daily charge of £12.50 was to be levied on non-compliant vehicles. Johnson’s successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan, brought the date forward to April 2019 and the matter of its extension beyond central London has been subject to claim and counter claim as to the political processes behind these decisions.
Boris Johnson’s resignation as an MP in June 2023, following the findings of the Privileges Committee that he had misled parliament whilst prime minister. created a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Of the three polls which took place on that day, Uxbridge was the only seat not to be lost to the government – the Tories retaining it by a majority of 495 votes. Anxiety and resentment over ULEZ was presented as a significant factor.
The initial anxiety was understandable. But what seems to have been widely missed is that most vehicles would already be ULEZ compliant. Petrol vehicles registered after 2005 and diesel vehicles registered after 2015 would not be affected. Classic cars registered before 1 January 1973, motorcycles and mopeds registered before 1 July 2007 and vehicles with a disabled persons’ badge up to October 2025 (why the limitation?) are also exempt.
Which is not to deny that compliance could well be difficult for people on low incomes, who are most likely to be drivers of older vehicles. This is where economic justice must be exercised in order to achieve environmental justice. If residents of Uxbridge – which does not have the public transport advantages of inner London – are to be able to continue to use their vehicles for work, leisure, care and other family purposes, a clear and fair programme of financial assistance should have been made available. To offer a generous scrappage scheme and low or interest-free loans and to ensure that this was widely publicised would have been the action of a reasonable government.
As changes to our lifestyles become increasingly necessary if we are to avert climate disaster, politicians will not only need to have a vision, they will need to act with much greater awareness of the costs this imposes on people already struggling with a cost of living crisis and for whom choice in financial decision making is severely restricted. Uxbridge and South Ruislip is a seat which Labour could have been expected to win. That the Conservatives were able to play on understandable but largely ill-founded fears does not promise well for democracy, for our common health or for the environment.
Rishi Sunak’s government is in retreat from the environmental and climate policies embraced at COP26 in Glasgow, less than two years ago. The Conservatives are weaponising division and promoting a ‘culture war’ approach to significant and often difficult changes which will have to be faced and managed with justice and equity if we are to find our commonality and believe that politicians will be with us in the endeavour.
However, the populist approach in which the Conservatives are presenting themselves as the motorist’s friend, makes the opposition parties, by default, the motorist’s enemy. The dangerous area between fear and fact has been exposed by muddying the waters and, to put the most charitable interpretation on the lack of clear information as to the categories of non-compliant vehicles, by a failure to address the very real anxieties of voters. It was common to hear complaints on the lines of “£12 every time I take my car/van off the drive!” It seemed, strangely, to suit both the main parties not to to correct the misconception, nor to reassure those who most needed help that they would receive it.
The strong and empathetic state appears to be out of favour, whatever colour of rosette is worn by its political representatives. We have to do better.
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen