If we’re calling it a “tax”, London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone £12.50 daily charge can be defended as progressive only in the environmental sense. Financially, unlike income tax, it does not discriminate on grounds of wealth or income. Rather, it is a form of flat tax – one which is equally applied to all who have to pay it regardless of their ability to do so.
Therefore, like the VAT consumers pay on services or goods, the ULEZ charge takes a greater proportion of the money of the poorest than it does of the richest. London Conservatives, such as Greg Hands MP, who is also his party’s national chairman, have drawn attention to this in opposing the forthcoming further expansion of the ULEZ, saying it will “hit the poorest Londoners hardest”.
Yes, we might quibble with this claim: many of the poorest Londoners don’t own a motor vehicle and therefore won’t be affected by the next ULEZ expansion at all. It is also a little incongruous: Conservatives in general favour taxes being flatter, such as smaller differences between the income tax rates paid by the highest and lowest paid.
Nonetheless, let us take it at face value as an expression of concern for some of London’s less well-off. And as Hands and colleagues embark on an “internal review” of how their party is run in the capital, let us consider other ways in which London Conservatives can speak up for Londoners with low incomes as next year’s mayoral and general elections approach.
Transport policy offers further opportunities, especially to Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for Mayor (pictured), who is among the Tories who have criticised the ULEZ charge for its disproportionate impact on the least solvent motorists. Many Londoners who don’t have much money to spare depend heavily on public transport to get to work or to seek it, especially buses. What better way to champion London’s poorest than by promising to freeze the price of bus fares?
Of course, even though it might produce an increase in bus use, this policy would have implications for Transport for London’s finances. But Hall, as a Conservative, might be in a better position than incumbent Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan to secure the help required from the Conservative national government, assuming it still exists come 2 May 2024 when the mayoral election will take place.
The present TfL funding deal is due to expire at the end of March, but previous ones have been extended. Perhaps Hall could encourage such an extension and then be in a position to strike the next deal with her fellow Tories in Westminster, one that allows her to put London’s low paid bus users to the fore. As someone who has criticised the ULEZ expansion as a “money grabbing scheme” Hall would, presumably be equally opposed to TfL “grabbing” more of Londoners’ money through fare rises in general.
Housing is another area of policy where Hall could champion the interests of the poorest Londoners. Housing costs, typically in the form of rents, are a major contributor to an estimated 2.2 million Londoners – around 25 per cent of us – living in poverty. Proven and obvious ways to address this include the building of more homes for rent at well below market levels, enabled by a combination of sympathetic planning policies and central government funding.
London’s Mayors have significant powers in the linked policy areas of “affordable” house-building and strategic planning. Hall could again champion the poorest Londoners by vowing to secure from communities secretary Michael Gove the maximum flexibility for using funds allocated by national government towards building homes for social and low affordable rents. He has lately both shown and signalled an appreciation of the unmet need for them. Hall could publicly and privately urge him to go further.
She could also commit to persuading Tory-run outer London boroughs to increase affordable house building, such as on TfL-owned car parks. The transport body has been looking for development partners for three it owns in Harrow, where Hall is a long-serving councillor. These schemes could provide around 400 affordable dwellings. Who better than Councillor Hall to facilitate getting them built? And while she’s talking to him about bus fares, she could encourage transport secretary Mark Harper to let TfL go ahead with its plans for homes on Cockfosters station car park, 40 per cent of which would be affordable.
An area of national government policy London’s top Tories could address as part of their internal review would be the amount of local housing allowance (LHA), available to private renters who need it. LHA rates have been frozen by the government since April 2020 while private sector rents have rocketed. In London, according to the cross party local authorities group London Councils, this means a meagre 2.3 per cent of properties available for private rent are affordable to London households who depend on LHA.
In line with their commitment to London’s poorest over ULEZ, it is surely only a matter of time before Hands and Hall lead the cry for Rishi Sunak’s administration to sharply increase LHA rates in London without delay. Presumably, too, it won’t be long before we hear them demand that the Renters Reform Bill, currently creaking its way through Parliament, is enacted as swiftly as possible.
These are just some of the ways in which London’s senior Tories can develop their ULEZ campaign theme of defending the least well-off Londoners against policies that make their lives more expensive and difficult. It is a theme they give every appearance of believing to be not only morally correct but also a vote winner. Will this fervour be applied more widely? Will its scope and levels expand? Over to you, Hands and Hall.