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The Conservatives are Not Telling the Truth About their Opposition to London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone

Sadiq Khan has faced relentless flak for the Ultra Low Emissions Zone. But it wasn’t his idea.

Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

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“Sadiq Khan thinks the ULEZ will work…Stop Mayor Khan’s ULEZ zone extension!” London Tory mayoral frontrunner Susan Hall fumed. “The Ultra Low Emissions Zone expansion must be stopped.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone – the clean air charge in London which the Labour figure implemented and is now expanding – has faced bitter, never-ending attacks from the right. The plans were pilloried by Tories in City Hall.

It is the key issue in Thursday’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Except, the outbursts above were not written about the upcoming August expansion of the zone to cover all of London. They were written before Khan expanded the £12.50 a day charge for the most polluting vehicles to cover inner London in 2021. 

The Tories on the GLA have been consistent in despising clean air measures – when it is a Labour mayor implementing them, that is. And even when their own party nationally backs the policies. 

There is a troubling hypocrisy in the Conservative Party’s position in London.

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“Why do Labour politicians not listen to the public – WE DO NOT WANT #ULEZ!” Susan Hall wrote this January. Her ally Boris Johnson thought differently.

Despite City Hall Conservatives’ take on the policy that has now been seized upon by the Labour mayor, the original idea was the brainchild of the former Tory Mayor of London.

Not only that, but the government supported its implementation and recognised its benefits. 

The scheme was officially announced and press released during Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor of London, in March 2015. There is no room for doubt about his involvement. ULEZ was, undeniably, spearheaded by Boris Johnson. 

The Conservative Party’s attempts to downplay Johnson’s role ever since have been one of the less noticed hypocrisies. 

Yet this isn’t just a passing Tory fad from eight years ago. The government’s stance on ULEZ expansion during negotiations with Transport for London (TfL) during the 2020 pandemic-era funding crisis was very clear. 

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The agreement stated that TfL must widen the scope and levels of clean air charges. 

Not only that, but ministers have openly discussed the need to replace Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) revenues as Brits move to electric vehicles (which don’t pay VED). There is, by the government’s own admission, a need for new forms of road user charging. 

Nor is this just about the initial, limited rollout of ULEZ, which covered just central London.

In November 2021, Conservative minister Jo Churchill praised Sadiq Khan’s planned ULEZ expansion to cover all of inner London – noting its positive impact on air quality and public health. 

Rank Opportunism

This stands in stark contrast to the opposition expressed by the Conservative Party in City Hall at the same time – notably 2021 Tory mayoral candidate (and as of today, Lord) Shaun Bailey’s promise to scrap the ULEZ expansion if elected. 

The Conservatives’ current opposition to ULEZ expansion is opportunistic. Susan Hall AM told Sadiq Khan ahead of the 2021 expansion: “We Conservatives have been trying to stop you extending the ULEZ..(with no success, you wouldn’t listen).” 

She claimed it wouldn’t work. But after a year, a City Hall report found that harmful pollution emissions reduced by 26 per cent within the expanded ULEZ area – compared with what they would have been without the ULEZ coming into force. Pollution is one of the capital’s biggest killers. But over four million people in inner London now breathe cleaner air, including children in 1,362 schools. 

And harmful pollution levels in the smaller central London area are nearly half compared to what they would have been without the ULEZ. 

The Tories’ true motives for attacking this latest ULEZ expansion are not hard to decipher. While half of Londoners do not drive, the Tories’ wealthier outer London base are solidly attached to their private cars. 

The Ultra Low Emissions Zone is, perhaps, one of the few good things Boris Johnson can claim credit for. He won’t – and nor will his acolytes currently running for the London Mayoralty. Cynical? Yes. We’ll see whether the strategy is working this Thursday. 

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