The expansion of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, or ULEZ, has begun. After all the sound and fury, the deadline has passed, and ULEZ is now pressing upon the borders of Kent. There are now streets in North Kent in a ULEZ divide. This should come as no surprise because urban development takes no account of what are administrative boundaries.
Like two different countries
Kent and London are like two different countries, with completely different outlooks.
Transport policy is a major difference. Transport for London (TfL) runs public transport and highways within the London Boroughs. Kent Highways does the same for Kent.
You can see the difference in the organisational titles. TfL covers transport, with an emphasis on public transport. ULEZ is as much a nudge towards increasing public transport use as it is about reducing pollution. Kent, on the other hand, has a small public transport team. The emphasis at KCC is on highways and their infrastructure. It will be interesting to see which methodology is most effective in reducing pollution and restricting the effects of climate change.
Conspiracy theories and confusion
There has been some fairly unhinged ULEZ comment from the political parties and from much of the tabloid press. God only knows what is being said on social media, as it is often the repository of outlandish, unverified conspiracy theories. I am sure ULEZ has generated plenty of those.
What is ULEZ? It is an acronym for Ultra Low Emission Zone. It must not be confused with the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) or with Congestion charging under Congestion Area Zones (CAZs). Nor must it be confused with bus lanes or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). All have one thing in common, however. All have raised the ire of certain sections of the public, who have been very vocal in their opposition to these schemes, which they see as an infringement on their personal liberties.
How to make clean air zones work
ULEZ is about reducing air pollution. If so, what is the evidence? The BBC sets out the case for clean air zones and repeats much of the evidence I set out in previous articles.
The answer is yes, clean air zones do work, but only when other things are done, such as making public transport cleaner. TfL have done that by making all buses and taxis ULEZ compliant. They are continuously improving buses and increasing bus services, introducing new services in the outer London boroughs through TfL’s Superloop bus routes.
The UK holds European leadership on zero emission buses. TfL, as the largest franchisor, is a major contributor to this positive situation. 100% of TfL’s buses are ULEZ compliant, so it is setting an example.
National government: the motorist’s friend?
In contrast, our national government is appearing to renege on its environmental commitments. The latest example is the plan to ease water pollution rules for housebuilders, This may have been in part a faulty analysis of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, when the Conservative candidate opposed ULEZ. The Conservatives lost votes and support, but not enough to lose the election.
The Department for Transport (DfT) made no adverse comments about expanding ULEZ earlier on. They were more concerned with reducing the TfL budget by increasing bus fares and reducing services. There was no sign at the time of their newly minted ‘motorist’s friend’ policy. So, while it cannot be said that the Government told the Mayor of London to expand ULEZ, they were not opposed to ULEZ until they saw an electoral advantage for the Government.
The outer London Boroughs run by the Conservatives sought a judicial review in the High Court to prove that the Mayor of London was acting beyond his powers, and failed. The landmark High Court win by the Mayor of London is estimated to have cost £1m, which will be borne by the taxpayers of those boroughs. That £1m would buy four or five zero emission buses or scrap 500 non-compliant vehicles at £2,000 apiece.
Does ULEZ hurt the poor?
We are told about how ULEZ is affecting the poor and about the cost of living. There is no doubt that those with a non-compliant car will be penalised. In TfL’s technical note on how many cars are there in London, it points out that 46% of London residents don’t own a car, that ownership of and access to a car are highest in the outer London Boroughs, and, where there are older and/or wealthier residents, these are the groups making the loudest protest. The poorest are not as much affected by ULEZ, because fewer of them own a car.
The technical note also points out that there are fewer bus services in the outer London Boroughs, which the TfL Superloop is intended to address. However, it must also be stated that the planning policies of Central Government and the outer London Boroughs have encouraged car-dominated developments (such as out of town shopping schemes, housing developments with no public transport services and multi-lane highways, etc.), whereby the car has crowded out all other forms of transport such as buses, trams, cycling and walking. Kent and Medway have done the same for many years, so when restrictions are placed on car use, there is an outcry from the public, because the alternative forms of transport either don’t exist or are extremely limited. 50 years of ‘car-centric’ planning has come home to roost.
Most vehicles are compliant
Car Dealer magazine says that used car dealers are reacting to the ULEZ expansion by not offering to buy non-compliant vehicles. Interestingly, it is not the old petrol vehicles that are the problem, but non-compliant diesels. In the many vox pops on the subject, it is the owners of old, large, luxury petrol cars and diesel vehicles that are prominent in complaining about ULEZ. Auto Trader found 1,520 ULEZ-compliant cars under £2,000, 10,553 cars under £5,000 and 65,557 cars overall within a 50-mile radius of London.
So it is not the case, as some newspapers have said, that there are no ULEZ-compliant vehicles available. Mayor Khan’s statement that 90% of vehicles are compliant appears to be borne out by the Auto Trader magazine, which stated that 88.9% of vehicles for sale in the UK are ULEZ compliant. TfL could help by setting up a credit union similar to that operated by London taxi drivers to help the low paid finance a replacement vehicle, as well as a scrappage scheme. This would help key workers on low pay. ULEZ falls away completely if your car is compliant.
Unfortunately, some individuals are taking matters into their own hands by damaging ULEZ cameras. The police are investigating reports of ULEZ camera damage. This vandalism, and the various slow traffic protests, may fall foul of the same legislation that befell the Just Stop Oil campaigners, which is ironic in view of the new ‘motorist’s friend’ policy of Central Government. A recent survey found a majority of Conservative voters supported this camera vandalism, while those of other parties did not.
We have been here before. When seat belts were made compulsory, academic studies pointed to the paternalism argument, or ‘nanny state’ trope, as being the cause of opposition. The same applied to drink-driving legislation and, of course, motorcycle helmet law. These have all been the subject of virulent opposition.
The argument that it is a tax and designed to fleece motorists falls, because it is intended to disappear once all vehicles are compliant.
Kent County Council (KCC) jumped on the political bandwagon when five outer London boroughs including Hillingdon took TfL to court and lost an estimated £1m on a High Court challenge to ULEZ. KCC acted as a cheerleader and became intransigent in not allowing TfL to erect warning signs on the Kent/London border. The lack of cooperation with London is being criticised by some motoring organisations. There have been a number of opinion polls on ULEZ, and the latest poll available still suggests that a plurality of Londoners support expanding ULEZ. The picture is nuanced, in that outer London residents are not entirely convinced about ULEZ, but outright repeal is supported by only a small minority of residents.
Scrapping of non-compliant cars, attrition, and better bus services may well mean that ULEZ becomes much less of a controversial matter next year.
A pivotal moment for Kent
This may be a pivotal moment for Kent. There is not the slightest chance of Kent adopting something like ULEZ. The 50 years of ‘car-centric’ planning policies, decimation of bus services, and a floundering Bus Service Improvement Plan mean that Kent will continue to suffer pollution and poor air quality, and that for many members of the public, the car will remain the only option.
I would hope that Kent and all the Kent Districts will cooperate, and start to change the way that cars and traffic in general are managed in Kent’s urban and country areas.