Sadiq Khan's green car scheme offers London lifeline to Conservatives

Danny Beales, Labour candidate for Boris Johnson's former seat, has distanced himself from Ulez expansion, despite uproar from Londoners

People demonstrate against the expansion of Ulez in London. AFP
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London mayor Sadiq Khan’s divisive car emissions scheme looks set to be a deciding factor in a crucial London by-election in Boris Johnson’s former seat this week.

Contentious from its outset four years ago, the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) across the city has drawn much criticism of late. The irony now is Mr Johnson first proposed the scheme when mayor before 2016 but expanded by his Labour successor. The ultimate beneficiary could be Mr Johnson's successor Rishi Sunak.

Drivers in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, as well as a band of other outer London areas, are now facing the introduction of the charge in August. Drivers pay £12.50 ($16.30) a day if their vehicle is classed as high-polluting. The fee would mean a motorist might have to fork out up to £4,560 ($5969) annually to drive on the capital’s roads. The changes to Ulez will affect up to 700,000 drivers, analysis indicates.

'Ulez is highway robbery'

Steve Tuckwell, the Conservative candidate in the by-election, has called Mr Khan a “highway robber” over the levy, which is to be expanded to cover all 32 London boroughs.

His Labour opponent Danny Beales says “it’s not the right time” to expand Ulez, during a cost-of-living crisis. He has sought to distance himself from Mr Khan as he steps up his campaign. The London mayor has not been spotted out and about in the constituency campaigning for Mr Beales.

The ballot in the West London seat is one of three crunch by-elections for the Conservatives and comes two months after the party lost more than 1,000 council seats in local elections.

If the Tories lose Mr Johnson’s former seat, as well as Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire and Somerton and Frome in Somerset, it will look bleak for Prime Minister Mr Sunak. A triple loss would make him the first prime minister since Harold Wilson in 1968 to lose three seats at by-elections on the same day.

The Conservatives are banking on Ulez to get them over the line in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Mr Tuckwell has doubled down on the policy in a bid to shore up support ahead of Thursday’s poll. He said the expansion of Ulez would “devastate local businesses and hit families hard”. He urged constituents to use their votes to “send Sadiq Khan the strongest possible message that we don’t want Ulez”.

Mr Beales, meanwhile, has been accused of flip-flopping on the issue, having initially backed Ulez only to voice opposition during a hustings.

Mr Johnson won the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in the 2019 general election with a majority of 7,210.

After his resignation as an MP last month, The National visited the area and heard mixed views from voters.

The Tories are trailing Labour in the polls and have been behind for months.

Mr Sunak has admitted this week’s by-elections will be difficult.

“Midterm by-elections for incumbent governments are always difficult, I don’t expect these to be any different from that,” he told ITV on Monday.

“But I passionately believe that my priorities are the country’s priorities.”

While Mr Khan touts Ulez as a crucial tool in London’s fight against toxic air, critics view it as the Labour mayor’s “war on motorists”.

Transport for London has argued there is an “urgent mandate” to address the capital’s contaminated air amid the climate crisis and said the expansion of Ulez was necessary.

The aim of charging drivers to use their cars in London is not to pressure them to swap diesel and petrol engines for green alternatives but to consider using public transport.

TfL aims wants to usher in a new reality for Londoners in which eight in 10 journeys are undertaken on foot, by bike or by bus, rail or Tube. The transport body says that switching to eco-friendly cars would address only one part of the problem – pollution – but still leave the city's roads congested.

Christina Calderato, TfL’s director of strategy and policy, said people living in inner London, where Ulez was introduced in 2019, are breathing cleaner air today thanks to the policy.

“So we know that these schemes work and that’s why we’re bringing forward these proposals,” she said.

Statistics show concentrations of air pollution are worse in inner parts of London than outer areas, she said, but added that deaths associated with poor air quality were higher in the latter.

“That proportion is higher because you’ve got a higher vulnerable population, particularly older people, living in outer London,” she said. “So we do need to take action in outer London as well.”

Despite criticism, Ms Calderato said bosses at City Hall have their “eye firmly on the prize of the air quality benefits”.

Updated: July 19, 2023, 8:28 AM