At the back end of last month the Daily Telegraph reported that a leak from Transport for London’s consultation about expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover all of Greater London had revealed that “two-thirds oppose” this policy of Sadiq Khan.
The Mayor’s plans have been “plunged into turmoil” by the disclosure, the Telegraph declared, saying that an internal document showed that “66% of Londoners” are against them.
Those claims were highly misleading, though that hasn’t stopped the London Assembly Conservative Group running a Twitter campaign with a graph stating 66% “voted” against London-wide ULEZ expansion. The Tories have described this figure as “the official results”, of the consultation. That is misleading too.
For a start, the responses to any public consultation about any policy or issue conducted by TfL under any Mayor of London are vanishingly unlikely to accurately reflect the views of Londoners as a whole.
On the contrary, consultations of the public about anything, anywhere, are almost invariably responded to primarily by people with a close interest in the issue concerned and strong feelings about it – people whose views are therefore not representative of the views of the larger population they are part of, which is the essence of the Telegraph‘s claim.
Indeed, consultations are susceptible to being disproportionately responded to by people organised by pressure groups, and their balance of opinions accordingly skewed. That makes them a still less reliable reflection of public opinion.
The Telegraph‘s assertion about the 66% figure is a misrepresentation of anther kind too. The consultation was open to both Londoners and non-Londoners, and TfL has assured me that non-Londoners were among the respondents. This renders the Telegraph‘s claim that “66% of Londoners” are against the Mayor’s plans yet more questionable.
Then there is the use by the Assembly Tories of the word “voted” to describe people’s responses. A public consultation, whatever the mechanisms provided for participating in it, is not a “vote” in the sense of expressing a preference in a binding democratic process.
Consultations are not referendums whose outcomes oblige politicians to act on them. They are one way of gauging public feeling about a policy or issue. And, of course, there are other ways. Opinion polls, for example. These seek responses from groups of people which, unlike, those keenest on responding to consultations, are representative of the population groups whose views are sought.
An opinion poll by YouGov for City Hall, conducted in July, found that 51% of Londoners believe the proposed ULEZ expansion should go ahead compared with 27% who think it shouldn’t. The 51% was composed of 22% who thought it should be implemented sooner than the current date proposed of 29 August next year, 21% who are happy with that date and 8% who think it should be delayed.
This doesn’t mean the consultation findings are worthless or should be ignored. A very large number of people lodged responses – 58,000 of them – and what they think matters. What has not yet been disclosed is any breakdown of the responses, in terms of their geographical spread or anything else.
Such information, says TfL, will be included in its report about the consultation when it is completed. If a large number of opposed respondents do not live in London, it might be argued that their preferences should be given less weight – even if, like Howard Cox, founder of the Fair Fuel UK campaign, they live not far away, in Kent.
What we do appear to know is that some of the responses opposing the ULEZ expansion have been removed from the initial total. The Telegraph said this resulted in the share of respondents favouring the plan falling to 59% on the grounds that they were duplicates or not genuine, but that this weeding out “disproportionately” reduced the amount of opposition recorded.
The Conservatives have taken up the Telegraph‘s claim that, in their words, “submissions were removed without proper oversight or scrutiny”. TfL has strongly refuted this, saying earlier this month that an “independent third party” is used to analyse all consultation responses and that that process “is still ongoing”.
It will be a surprise if TfL’s consultation report, when it appears, does not inspire further allegations that it has been rigged in some way, strenuous attempts to discredit its conclusions, and claims that pressing ahead with the ULEZ expansion have ignored the “vote” of the majority.
Howard Cox visited City Hall to see Khan, as he put it, “justifying why he is set to ignore the result of the ULEZ consultation”. In fact, as On London reported, at the meeting in question Khan indicated that he might be open to softening or revising his plans, including delaying them.
Is it reasonable to suspect – indeed, to publicly allege – that TfL has been fiddling the consultation figures as the Telegraph and the Tories say whistleblowers have told them has been the case?
Well, there have been general grounds for handling TfL’s deployment of statistics with care, as the case of the Park Lane bicycle lane shows. On the other hand, there are reasons for taking any Tory claims about road-user charging with a pinch of salt. Their mayoral candidate last year constructed an entire fantasy about a so-called “outer London tax” on motorists he said Khan would introduce if re-elected, referring to a purely theoretical scheme that the then transport secretary had already ruled out.
There is a larger issue here for the Tories. Their unrelenting efforts to save the most polluting private motorists some expense might play well in the outer boroughs up to a point. But in a city where more than 40% of households don’t even own a car, it seems unlikely to endear them beyond their shrinking base. Does that worry them at all?
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