Monday 24 July 2023

Why ULEZ is not the solution to London's air quality problems - Environment Monday

 On Thursday, the Labour Party was taught a well deserved lesson in what happens when you ignore your core voters. The voters of Uxbridge astounded just about everyone and elected a Conservative MP. The reason? Everyone agrees that it is Sadiq Khan's ULEZ policy. This has hit Labour on two fronts. The first was the soft Tory vote, who in the other two by elections stayed at home, to show their disgust at the chaos in the Tory Party. ULEZ gave them a reason to vote. The second was Labour voters, who own old cars affected by ULEZ. I doubt too many well off Tories in Uxbridge actually drive old bangers that are affected. People who drive pre 2006 petrol cars are by and large people who can only afford to run something that is cheap and cheerful. When you upset a significant lump of your core vote, then don't be surprised if you lose a seeming slam dunk. 

There are three things that I simply cannot understand about Mayor Khan's policy. The first is his lack of understanding of who drives old bangers. People don't own rustbukets because they like cars. They own them because they need one to survive and they simply can't afford anything better. Hitting them with huge charges is not something a party claiming to be standing up for working people should do. One of the most perverse things about Mayor Khan's policy is that if it succeeds, it will mean that owners of vintage, classic cars, who can afford to drive them in London, will have a better experience on the road, whilst key workers will be taxed off them.

 The second thing is that he's done little to provide alternatives to using the car. In our Borough, Barnet, almost nothing has been done to provide safe cycling provision. There have been no new rail, light rail or tube lines. The bus network has not improved and stations such as Mill Hill Broadway still do not have step free access. How can Sadiq Khan reasonably expect modal shift when it is genuinely not an option for many. 

The third thing that he does not seem to understand is the plight of business owners over the last three years. I have a non complaint diesel MPV that I use almost exclusively for work and deliveries. In the summer, we support many music festivals with low cost solutions for sound systems. I am faced with a huge investment in a new vehicle when our business has not recovered to pre covid levels. I've had a few lectures from non business owners, suggesting all manner of alternatives, but when you have incurred huge debts to keep your business afloat (and you are dealing with cancer), the last thing you want is to add more debts and costs. 

Those are three reasons that I believe the scheme is not practical, in terms of serving London's needs. However, even if you completely ignore these issues, the question should be whether ULEZ is the answer to London's poor air quality issues. I don't believe that Mayor Khan has gone anywhere near making this case. There are many sources of air pollution that he's done nothing about. If you look at building developments around London, many kick up all manner or dust and pollutants. Khan himself passed the NIMR scheme in Mill Hill, which has kicked up huge amounts of dust. He has done nothing about the Edmonton incinerator, that spews all manner of pollutants into the atmosphere. Trains in London still use Diesel haulage. Stations such as Marylebone and St Pancras have large diesel engines spewing out fumes, whilst virtually all cross London freight is hauled by diesel powered locomotives. When you also add in wood burning stoves, barbecues, etc, there are all manner of sources of particulates that cause asthma etc in London. 

We are told that electric cars are the answer, but in the UK, over 40% of all electricty generation uses fossil fuels. A petrol or diesel engined car is actually using about the same amounts of fossil fuels to get from A to be B as an electric car. Of course the fumes are not produced locally, but they are still part of the problem. The main cause of roadside pollution is the sheer volume of cars, lorries and vans and congestion. Addressing this would go a long way to addressing the problem. If a new car is 70% cleaner than a pre 2006 model, it still produces emmisions and if it is stuck in traffic, would produce more than an old vehicle moving through at 20 mph on the same street. We need to target hotspots, not places where there is no problem.

Poor air quality in London is nothing new. Air quality is far superior to when we had the great smogs in the 1940's and 1950's. The improvement was down to the clean air act. A sensible and well thought out piece of legislation. What the UK desperately needs is a huge commitment to a proper, countrywide clean air policy. One that looks at, and addresses, all of the causes and all of the solutions. It seems to me that this should include; Better public transport, which is properly accessible; Full electrification of the UK main  line rail network; A massive increase in light rail provision, based around key hubs in large population centres; Road pricing in pollution hotspots during peak times (to move non essential journeys to times when they are less likely to cause pollution); More effective dust suppression legislation for all building projects; Green taxes on air traffic, targetted at older, more polluting planes.

My main issue is that in 95% of the area it targets, there isn't a problem. I'd rather see far bigger costs in the 5% that has a problem, than what we'll have which is a very blunt instrument for very specific problems.

The whole idea of ULEZ was thought up by Boris Johnson as London Mayor, as he recognised that there was a problem. I have a degree of sympathy with Khan who is getting the flack for implementing the scheme Boris thought up, but he has been totally uninterested in the real problems that it will cause people least able to afford it. As the reality of election mathematics bites, his previous refusal to listen means that there is a real chance the scheme will be abandonded rather than made work. If I was Khan. I'd just put it on key hotspots at times of the day when pollution was at its peak. 

The bottom line for Labour is that ULEZ may lose them 20-30 winnable seats in London and The South East and if this means the Tories scrape back in, then I suspect that many sensible environmental policies will be ditched for a generation. The UK will squander a chance to be at the front of green technologies and future generations will look back on us a generation that simply didn't care and didn't have the wit to do anything about it. 

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