When the Conservative Party held Uxbridge and South Ruislip in a by-election in July, new political battle lines were drawn. The constituency was about to become part of Greater London’s ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez), and it was only this – not the fact that, as I wrote at the time, it’s a highly conservative place – that was credited for the result, by both Labour and the Tories.
This led the government to delay net-zero targets and put rhetorical emphasis on “motorists”. Labour publicly opposed the Ulez policy of its own London mayor, Sadiq Khan.
The opportunity for Rishi Sunak and fear for Keir Starmer is that traffic-calming measures have become a new front in the culture war. It is not unfounded. London Labour insiders fear that six to ten seats in and around London could be affected by the backlash against Ulez. And this is spreading beyond the capital. Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP for Peterborough is trying to suggest that Ulez could be introduced in his patch. A Labour councillor in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, fretted to me that he was recently asked on the doorstep about Ulez. Senior figures in the Labour Party are particularly concerned about the electoral risks of Labour-run Wales’s change from a default 30mph to 20mph speed limit.
Yet while at a national level the main party leaders are wary of vocal opposition to traffic-calming measures, most councillors have introduced them and are overwhelmingly in favour, according to an exclusive poll of councillors in England by the New Statesman’s Spotlight policy team*.
When asked whether their local authority area had introduced any form of traffic-calming measures, such as a low emission zone, low traffic neighbourhoods or 20mph speed limits, 51.9 per cent of councillors surveyed said “yes” – and a huge 84.8 per cent said they support these measures, or would support bringing them in.
Among Labour councillors, 58.7 per cent said they had introduced them (probably because they are more likely to represent more densely populated urban areas), and 91.3 per cent supported them. Although Conservative councillors were less in favour (half said they hadn’t implemented them, and 55.8 per cent didn’t support them), they weren’t overwhelmingly opposed – 44.2 per cent were in favour.
Similar proportions of Tory councillors also said the green transition would have a positive effect on their area as those who said it would have a negative effect, 34.6 per cent and 38.5 per cent respectively, although within that 5.8 per cent did say the transition would have a "very negative" effect, compared with less than 2 per cent who predicted it would be "very positive".
These results suggest opinions among local policymakers are more positive and nuanced about such measures than the main party leaders suggest. Councillors will perhaps act as a buffer to using these topics as part of a culture war come the general election, particularly as councils need the funds from such schemes (extending Ulez was, after all, necessary to fund Transport for London’s depleted coffers).
“This polling shows that councillors on the ground can see what the main party leaders have lost sight of: policies to cut our emissions, clean up our air and calm down our roads are popular and make people’s lives better,” said Hirra Khan Adeogun, co-director of climate charity Possible, which is in favour of measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods. “The party leaders would be wise to listen to their own councillors, who have a much better informed view of what their residents actually want than the right-wing papers which seem to command their attention.”
*The full councillor survey results were published in a special policy supplement with the New Statesman issue of 24 November.