Mayor Khan doubled down today on the need to take urgent “life-saving” action to tackle air pollution in the capital, while agreeing there was “more to do” to address concerns about his controversial extension of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover the whole of the city.
The ULEZ expansion is due to come into force on 29 August, with a £12.50 a day charge for vehicles driving within the city which fail to comply with its pollutant emissions standards, prompting what long-time city watcher and London School of Economics professor Tony Travers described this week as a “political battle like few others”.
Khan was in combative mood as he faced interrogation from London Assembly members (AMs) at City Hall’s regular Mayor’s Question Time session. “This is urgent, right now,” he said. “There is no safe level of exposure. The current and long-term threat to public health from toxic air pollution is significant, and I can’t sit idly by when it is in my power to act. The cost of inaction is too great a price to pay.”
The Mayor argued that the existing inner London ULEZ had proved to be “hugely effective”, with nitrogen dioxide levels down by more than 50 per cent between 2017 and October 2022, and child asthma admissions reduced by a third since the introduction of the scheme.
“I do not accept that the five million people in outer London should not be able to benefit from the same life-saving benefits that the ULEZ has brought to the rest of our city,” he added.
Residents with genuine worries about the new charge had in some cases been “latched on to” by “science deniers”, he said, citing recent “important” interventions from doctors and scientists accusing ULEZ opponents of ignoring “proven links between poor air quality and ill health”, with harmful effects “not limited to high exposures”.
He was more conciliatory, though, in the face of cross-party concerns about the impact of the scheme on lower-income Londoners, small businesses and charities, and those not currently eligible for City Hall’s £110 million scrappage scheme to help with the costs of changing or “retrofitting” non-compliant vehicles.
“We are all hearing of circumstances where people are falling through the cracks,” said Labour AM Elly Baker, while Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon called for Khan to use City Hall reserves to double the size of the scrappage fund, and allow a “grace” period with warning letters instead of fines for initial offenders.
The scheme, with some £25 million already paid out, was currently meeting demand, Khan said. Eligibility had been expanded to child benefit recipients and businesses with fewer than 50 employees, with charities now able to scrap three vans rather than one and “retrofit” upgrades to older vehicles now also supported. And Transport for London figures showed nine out of 10 cars and eight out of ten vans seen driving in outer London are already compliant, he repeated.
But his support package could change, he hinted: “I accept expanding the ULEZ is not universally popular, and I accept we’ve got to keep this under review. We will continue to address the concerns people have.”
For the Conservatives, though, that would mean not tinkering with scrappage schemes, but scrapping altogether a plan they say loads cost-of-living woe onto outer Londoners while having only a “negligible” effect on air quality.
The expansion was not just unpopular, said Tory AM and mayoral candidacy contender Susan Hall, but in outer London Uxbridge ahead of next month’s parliamentary by-election, which the Conservative candidate there is seeking to bill as a referendum on ULEZ, it was the “only thing people are talking about”.
Were the Conservatives really saying that at the next mayoral election, eight months after the ULEZ had been introduced, that they would “rip it out and make our air dirtier and more toxic?” pondered Labour AM Joanne McCartney.
The now former MP for Uxbridge, Boris Johnson, scrapped his predecessor Ken Livingstone’s western extension of the original central London congestion charge zone – introduced in February 2007 – from the start of 2011, acting on a pledge he’d made prior to being elected Mayor in May 2008 to re-consult about the issue and pay heed to its findings.
But will the ULEZ, opponents’ efforts notwithstanding, be as salient an issue today? It’s a different time, but, as Professor Travers says, “few things are more personal-political than cars”.
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