Interview: The London Chamber’s James Watkins on ULEZ, logistics and land

Interview: The London Chamber’s James Watkins on ULEZ, logistics and land

Amid the media and political furore over Sadiq Khan’s forthcoming expansion of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the views of organisations representing London’s vast array of businesses have received relatively little attention. Yet they and the firms, large and small, they represent have had, and continue to have, significant input into the shaping of the policy.

The London Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI), which represents over 7,000 London firms and works in partnership with affiliates in every London borough, has been very active over the ULEZ, consulting its members, setting out its position and, with some success, pressing City Hall for changes to help businesses adapt.

Given that opposition to the coming expansion – as with the previous one, in October 2021 – often cites the costs small businesses face, whether for replacing commercial vehicles that don’t meet ULEZ standards or having to pay the daily £12.50 charge, some might be surprised that the LCCI has long been broadly supportive of the anti-pollution measure, even while arguing for more help for its members from the Mayor.

“I have to stress that I believe the evidence the Mayor has presented that poor air quality kills,” said James Watkins, the LCCI’s Head of Policy and Public Impact, when we met last week. “There’s no doubt on that score, and the Mayor is right to say we need to take action. We’ve only really wanted to encourage him to improve the implementation of the ULEZ scheme. It is about saving lives, as the Mayor rightly says. It should not be seen by Londoners, including in outer London, as yet another tax during the cost of living crisis. It’s good business that people have good health. At the end of the day the Mayor is right to say, ‘let’s improve air quality’. Our focus has always been on the practicalities.”

Our conversation took place in the LCCI’s Queen Street office on the afternoon before Sadiq Khan’s late evening announcement about boosting the size of his ULEZ scrappage scheme from £110 million to £160 million and widening access to financial help to every Londoner with a non-compliant vehicle from 21 August, along with immediately increasing the sums available for categories already eligible. While underlining the LCCI’s backing for the ULEZ’s air quality goals, Watkins expressed his wish for a concession the organisation had successfully lobbied City Hall for be extended.

The Mayor had already agreed to give businesses a “grace period” between ordering a ULEZ-compliant vehicle and receiving it, during which they would be exempt from the daily charge, as long as they could prove the transaction was underway. This was in recognition of the current failure of the supply of commercial vehicles to swiftly meet demand for them. Watkins said the grace period will enable many businesses to survive “an existential threat to them”. And he explained the LCCI’s view that this same flexibility should be extended to employees as well as employers, who may need cars to get to their places of work, to do their jobs or both. Simply put: “What’s good enough for businesses is good enough for the workers.”

That ask was not answered by Khan’s initiative last week, and Watkins has since urged the Mayor to take “one more step” and reach that destination by providing the same grace period “to cover all Londoners” as well as businesses and also charities. This, as he puts it, would mean “Londoners can join together to improve the air quality in our capital”.

As when we spoke, he drew attention to the “global microchip shortage”, exacerbated by political tensions with the world’s main supplier, China, which is slowing production of electric vehicles, and the state of domestic secondhand market, which Watkins fears is not nearly big enough in London at present (the Mayor and his Conservative challenger, Susan Hall, have offered their own, conflicting assessments of availability across a wider area).

However, Watkins was also clear that many small businesses will “breathe a sigh of relief” that the scrappage scheme can now cover three vehicles, along with its extension to Londoners as a whole. And he and the LCCI will keep on lobbying. The context is the concerns LCCI member firms of all sizes have expressed about the expansion’s possible impacts.

A survey of 510 of them conducted mostly in May, prior to Mayor Khan’s previous widening of eligibility for the scrappage scheme at the start of June, found that nearly half were not worried about the London-wide expansion’s effect on their employee but that a third of them were, with a slightly higher percentage in outer London areas. In terms of effects on their costs, 46 per cent thought it would have no impact compared with 40 per cent who thought there would be a negative one.

It may be that businesses’ worries have been reducing since the survey, given the further adjustments Khan has made. But they seem unlikely to have disappeared. And there are a number of other, related, transport issues on the LCCI’s radar, for example the provision of charging points in outer London for electric vehicles. Watkins praised Mayor Khan’s progress on this in central and inner London, saying it will be “one of his great legacies”. But he was clear that there is still work to do in outer London areas, particularly for commercial vehicles, not all of which can use the same charging facilities as cars.

“We are in discussions with Transport for London in terms of how that infrastructure could be substantially improved,” he said. “As we move forward towards the Mayor’s vision for London to be Net Zero by 2030, you do need a really robust EV charging infrastructure.” Secure land on which to keep lorries and vans is another matter of concern. Is there enough of it available to support the capital’s logistics industry? “One of the concerns the industry has had for many years is the issue of truck crime,” Watkins explained. “Trucks have been hijacked occasionally in the middle of the night by criminals. If there were more secure truck parks that would not only help with delivery, but also with the safety of drivers, who do a difficult job really well.”

Watkins describes those drivers as “the unsung heroes of the business world, and of London full stop. We take for granted that people drive at two or three o’clock in the morning so we can buy a new pair of a jeans in a shop the next day, but the fact of the matter is they are absolutely fundamental.” Competition for London land is intense, not least for housing. Watkins accepts this, but argues that it is also needed for businesses and the jobs they provide. Michael Gove’s recent speech about housing, in which he made plain his willingness to intervene in the formation of Khan’s next London Plan, prompted the LCCI to write to Gove, making sure its view is understood.

The London Chamber prides itself on having a London-wide perspective. This has been quite literally demonstrated in recent weeks. It has hosted a by-election hustings with Hillingdon colleagues in Uxbridge in the far west, at which Labour’s candidate announced his conversion to ULEZ expansion opposition, and in Havering in the far east it has held talks and meetings covering skills – hot topic to return to another day – and local bus services. Both the council and Watkins would like to see these improved, making it easier for local young people in particular to get access to jobs around the borough.

As for the future of road user charging in London beyond the current work-in-progress, the LCCI has been fully engaged. In March, it provided the London Assembly’s transport committee with a detailed submission for its investigation of the issue, as it has to the House of Commons equivalent and to TfL. Its preference in all cases has been for a “smart” but simplifying solution which, in the specific case of London, should, in the submission’s words, “focus on improving air quality for Londoners, reducing congestion and tackling the climate emergency”. These align with the Mayor’s ambitions, including making London Net Zero by 2030. In the coming months we might learn how far they align with those of Londoners.

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