“We must take action now to tackle NO2 pollution. Air pollution predominantly affects those living in our major towns and cities due to the concentration of vehicles and other sources of pollution. This continues to have an unnecessary and avoidable impact on people’s health, particularly amongst the elderly, people with pre-existing lung and heart conditions, the young, and those on lower incomes.”
Not the words of Sadiq Khan but of a long-standing government policy document, which also says “Clean Air Zones that include charging” are the best way for transport authorities to meet their obligations under law to comply with statutory NO2 limits in “the shortest possible time”. The Conservative administration has even helpfully set up a payment system for drivers on the government website.
It’s one of the ironies of the current Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) debacle that Mayor Khan, while not literally instructed to implement his new charging system as a condition of Covid period funding from the government as many have tried to argue, is nevertheless acting entirely in line with established government policy – policy the government now seems to be disavowing and which the Mayor’s own party seems happy to thrown him under a bus over (presumably not zero-emission).
Despite being forced by a series of court cases brought over the past decade by campaign group ClientEarth to get it to step up action on air quality, the Conservatives in power are still dragging their feet. Existing policy measures were found “not…sufficient to achieve most of government’s 2030 emissions ceilings”, the National Audit Office said only last year, while Parliament’s environment committee concluded in 2021 that ministers had “failed to address the scale” of the air pollution challenge.
Some 64 local authorities are subject to Whitehall directives to take action on in their areas and 31 sections of the government-controlled strategic road network are non-compliant. But “progress has been slower than expected”, the NAO found. A proposed charging scheme in Greater Manchester, covering 10 separate local authorities, is now under review after the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, inundated by protests, successfully persuaded the government to hold off.
Significantly, the NAO found that information on air pollution was generally “inaccessible to members of the public not already familiar with the details of air quality legislation”, with the finger pointed at a familiar national government tactic of shifting responsibility to town and city halls.
The NAO particularly noted government deciding that local authorities should take the lead on communicating with people and businesses about proposed clean air charging schemes, leaving them vulnerable to accusations of revenue-raising and the sort of heavy-duty campaigning seen in London, where poll results have suggested almost half of residents in the four boroughs which earlier this year, along with Surrey County Council, took unsuccessful legal action against the ULEZ were sceptical that poor air quality has a bad impact on health.
As recently as June, the government straightfacedly reiterated in Parliament that local authorities are under a duty to tackle air pollution that exceeds legal levels, and that clean air zones, as an “effective means of delivering compliant levels…in the shortest time possible”, must be considered as part of their plans.
Yet London’s Tories had been stirring the anti-ULEZ pot for months before that and based a formidable one-issue campaign effort on it for the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, which they narrowly won despite a significant swing against them. In the aftermath, Khan, already hamstrung by the government’s refusal to help him with scrappage funding or with cash to accelerate moving his 9,000-strong bus fleet to zero emission- despite effectively implementing Whitehall recommendations – found his own party lukewarm towards him at best.
Labour’s softly-softly approach was apparent on the doorstep in Uxbridge. “ULEZ. quickly emerged as an issue,” said one Labour veteran who was regularly out knocking on doors. “Much of this was because of relentless Tory campaigning.” Tory leaflets referred extensively to “Sadiq Khan’s car tax”.
Canvassers were briefed only belatedly that their candidate Danny Beales was calling for changes to the ULEZ before it went ahead. “But we were never briefed about scrappage or the Boris Johnson and [transport secretary] Grant Shapps origins of it. It’s fair to say there wasn’t any fight in favour of ULEZ locally or for increased government scrappage and so on. It was a full-blown culture war, populist Tory campaign with very little to counter it.”
Since the by-election, Labour seems to be doubling down, removing support for clean air zones from policy documents and calling for so far unspecified alternatives to charging drivers. Keir Starmer, although he has used almost identical words to those of Khan – “I don’t think anybody in this country should be breathing dirty air, any more than I think they should be drinking dirty water” – continues to distance himself from the Labour Mayor, whose view remains that “we can’t kick the can down the road when it comes to addressing a public health emergency”.
Starmer may want different measures, but the government’s own policy position remains valid – that alternative actions, such as improving junctions, changing signalling, restricting parking, retrofitting buses, installing low traffic neighbourhoods and lowering speed limits, simply may not bring about fast enough change in the cit. A wholesale rowing back from legal commitments, which all polling suggests would be significantly out of line with public opinion, might neutralising the “war on motorists” attack line but at the expense of effective action on air pollution.
For Khan, this is personal. He revealed in his first mayoral manifesto that he suffered from adult-onset asthma, attributed to poor air quality, and he’s been both moved and motivated by the fate of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debra, who died aged nine in 2013 and was the first person in the UK to have air pollution cited as a cause of death. But the Mayor is an evidence-based politician too, as anyone watching City Hall’s regular Mayor’s Question Time sessions will know. And there is no shortage of evidence of the “proven links between poor air quality and ill health” at all levels of exposure.
Perhaps it’s now time for politicians to start using that evidence to make the case for action. Recent polling backs up Khan’s claim that the ULEZ expansion actually has a large measure of support – 88 per cent of Londoners overall are worried about the impact of air pollution, according to figures from the Centre for London think tank – although pollsters Redfield and Wilton have identified a need for what they called “careful and nuanced framing” to win support for specific measures.
Boroughs are beginning to act, with Merton and Wandsworth bringing forward their own scrappage support schemes for those with non-compliant vehicles. And more could be done. Hillingdon Friends of the Earth co-ordinator Phil Page suggested in the Evening Standard: “Instead of opposing the extension, Hillingdon Council should negotiate with Transport for London for more bus routes and all-electric buses to be introduced on all bus routes through Hillingdon that are under TfL’s control. They should also invest more in active travel.”
Centre for London concluded after the Uxbridge result: “Government and London’s leaders need to work together on a strategy to give people more practical choices for transport that works. Ahead of next year’s mayoral election, London’s leaders must think about how to remain at the forefront of climate action and transport innovation in a way that works for all Londoners.”
Alternatively, as Labour London Assembly member Joanne McCartney put it during a recent City Hall debate, are the Conservatives really saying that, should they win the mayoralty next year, eight months after the latest ULEZ expansion had been introduced, they would “rip it out and make our air dirtier and more toxic?” And is Labour nationally effectively saying the same?