ULEZ: a green greed initiative

Not so much an environmental measure as a tax on driving and an effort to keep the car monopolies in profit.

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Dozens of numberplate-reading cameras have been vandalised or covered up by people opposed to Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s widening of the (buy a new car) ‘clean air zone’ to the Greater London boundary.

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The ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (ULEZ) was introduced in central London in April 2019 by London mayor Sadiq Khan, and expanded in October 2021 to cover central London between the North and South Circular roads. Khan intends to further expand the zone to cover all of London by August 2023.

The stated aim was to reduce air pollution in London by penalising vehicles that don’t meet emissions standards. Khan claimed that the Ulez is “also about social justice”, saying it would help “the most deprived parts of London”.

Under the Ulez scheme, vehicles that don’t meet emissions standards must pay a daily £12.50 fee to be driven through the zone, or £100 for buses and lorries. Surely if, as according to Khan, “toxic air is an invisible killer responsible for one of the biggest national health emergencies of our generation”, these dangerously polluting vehicles should be banned entirely, rather than allowing whoever can afford it to drive through the zone regardless?

And, if Khan really wanted not to “stand by and watch children grow up with underdeveloped lungs in our city”, why allow vehicles that still pollute, only somewhat less? Is his aim to watch children grow up with slightly less underdeveloped lungs? Hardly a heroic stance!

Does the Ulez work?

The reality is that air quality in London had been improving even before the Ulez was dreamt of, and vehicle emissions standards keep improving. The Ulez is just one of many policies introduced to reduce pollution, but is it a necessary, or even effective one?

Researchers from Imperial College London disagreed with its effectiveness in one paper, finding that only a minimal decrease in pollution occurred during the introduction of the zone, countering claims from the mayor that “there has been no single policy that’s improved the air as much as the Ulez” and that “we’ve managed to reduce toxic air by almost a half”. In reality, other measures have had much greater effect, especially replacing the London bus fleet with less polluting vehicles.

It seems that Khan and the London Assembly are hell-bent on expanding Ulez to cover the whole of London, with the associated costs of cameras, signage and management systems. But those costs will surely be quickly recouped: the Ulez netted £226m in fines in 2022!

Who does the Ulez hurt?

The mayor is offering a ‘car scrappage scheme’ to Londoners on benefits, sole traders, companies with fewer than ten people and registered charities. This means all those earning just enough to get by, but not enough to go out and buy an Ulez-compliant car, along with sole traders and small companies based outside of London but commuting to the capital for work, are facing one more unaffordable expense.

In essence, it is yet another tax on driving in a world where driving for all too many has been rendered unavoidable.

The idea that the mayor would try to push through the expansion of the Ulez during a cost of living crisis seems more like madness than environmental concern. It’s a move that could fatally undermine the ability of many to commute into and around London, and bankrupt many small and even medium-sized businesses at a time when margins are already severely strained.

For anyone ineligible for the scrappage scheme, Transport for London (TfL) suggests a range of paltry discounts for private vehicle hire or purchase.

What is the Ulez really for?

It could be argued that the Ulez is just one part of a wider environmental strategy to reduce pollution in the capital. But why does it shift the burden onto ordinary workers, forcing people to sell or scrap working vehicles and shell out for (most likely getting into debt for) newer cars?

London is one of the most expensive cities in the whole of Europe for public transport, and one of the only cities in the world without public funding for the transport system. Combined with the drop in fare receipts during the lockdowns, this means that TfL has been unable to plan any service upgrades, and would instead have had to cut services, had it not been for the slow drip-feed of emergency funding keeping the capital’s transport network on life support.

All of which makes the Ulez scheme seem like a punishment rather than a cure.

However, the new rules achieve one thing very well – they create more demand for new cars. In 2019, the global car market was shrinking faster than it had done during the financial crisis of 2008. April 2020 saw only 1,000 new cars sold in the whole country. For the past decade, growth in car sales hovered around 0 percent. Naturally, during a financial crisis, the majority of people tend to spend less, keeping their cars for longer and buying older cars when they need to.

The Ulez scheme creates an upsurge in demand for (and therefore an artificial scarcity of) cars, helping car manufacturers to keep prices and sales, and therefore profits, up. This ‘environmental’ scheme, then, essentially boils down to encouraging the growth in production of new cars, instead of maintaining the ones we have and only replacing them when necessary.

What the mayor never talks about is that producing a new car also produces around 720kg of pollution per £1,000 spent, so that a new car that costs £25,000 to buy has already produced 18 tons of carbon dioxide emissions – hardly a ‘green’ move, even before we consider the scrapping of perfectly serviceable vehicles and the far shorter lifespan of the electric vehicles we are relentlessly told will ‘save the planet’.

What should be done instead?

Rather than penalising a minority of drivers who are still driving older cars, people should be encouraged to use public transport. This can only be done by making it cheap, accessible, reliable and convenient. Any schemes aimed at cutting pollution from private vehicles should focus on forcing big companies (which have been posting record profits during the cost of living crisis) to update their car fleets.

Unfortunately, much like the NHS and every other aspect of life in Britain, successive governments have shown that they are only interested in stealing from ordinary workers in order to keep subsidising the profit margins of the giant corporations.

The only way we will get a rational transportation system, one that works for people instead of against them, is if we own and manage it ourselves. It is quite clear that such important matters cannot be left under the control of politicians, all of whom serve the interests of big businesses.

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