In March 2015 the Mayor of London described the capital’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) as “an essential measure to help improve air quality in our city, protect the health of Londoners, and lengthen our lead as the greatest city on Earth… Together we can ensure everyone who lives, works in, or visits our city has the cleanest possible air to breathe.”
The Mayor of London who spoke those words wasn’t Sadiq Khan but his predecessor, Boris Johnson. It was also Johnson who agreed a new settlement for Transport of London (TfL) while in office that ended a £700m a year Treasury grant, making it one of the few transport networks in a major Western city not to receive any central government funding at all.
This might seem an odd place to start when assessing how the expansion of Ulez across all 32 London boroughs today (29 August) became such a divisive front in the culture war, but it’s useful context. Because it shows that the case for Ulez as both an environmental ideal and a way to prop up TfL’s finances, predate Khan by quite some way. For all that the current mayor has become inextricably associated with this policy and with the broader attempt to reduce driving in London, both thanks to his own self-promotion efforts and to the Tories’ relentless efforts to use Ulez as a weapon against Labour (though not in Birmingham, where the Ulez-equivalent Clean Air Zone was implemented by a Tory mayor) it’s the Conservatives who should really be taking credit.
Johnson’s plans, of course, only covered central London, requiring vehicles that did not meet emissions standards to pay an additional fee whenever travelling through the congestion charge zone. Khan adopted the policy in 2019 in his first term as mayor, then expanded it in 2021 to the area within the North and South Circular roads, covering 3.8 million people. Today’s expansion adds another five million.
Still, when Johnson wrote in his Daily Mail column last month of the “sheer bone-headed cruelty” of Khan’s scheme, calling it “insane” and “so transparently wrong and unnecessary”, the former mayor had a difficult line to walk. The entire purpose of the column, just two weeks before the by-election in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency Johnson had just triggered by quitting as an MP, was to ramp up the anger around Ulez and help make it as divisive a campaign issue as possible. Hence not just railing against the supposed unfairness of the scheme, but accusing his successor of having ulterior motives. “Khan has so badly mismanaged the finances of Transport for London that he needs to balance the books – and that is why he has suddenly decided to mulct the motorist again,” Johnson wrote. “It’s money, not air quality, which is driving him.”
And yet, the erstwhile PM still couldn’t quite resist reminding readers that Ulez had actually been his idea, crowing about the “great reductions in pollution” he achieved as mayor.
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Try as Johnson might (and he definitely tries) to draw a distinction between his original central London Ulez plan and Khan’s outer-city expansion, it is unclear how making a poor Londoner “pay £12.50 just to drive their car a few hundred yards in one direction rather than another” for the sake of cleaner air for all was fine when he suggested it in 2015, but morally reprehensible in 2023. The concept hasn’t changed, just the boundaries.
Also unclear is what other Tories think about all this. Take Grant Shapps, who was transport secretary in Johnson’s government during the Covid crisis. The pandemic, with its government mandate for people to “stay at home and save lives” for months on end, proved devastating for TfL’s finances, which – again, thanks to Johnson – are heavily dependent on fares in the absence of a grant from the Treasury. With TfL on the brink of bankruptcy due to the sudden crash in passenger numbers, a bailout was inevitable. And the Conservative government, negotiating with a Labour mayor, spotted an opportunity to attach certain conditions to this bailout.
Hence the letter sent by Shapps in May 2020 demanding Khan not just reintroduce the congestion charge and Ulez (temporarily suspended during lockdown) but “urgently bring forward proposals to widen the scope and levels of these charges”. The transport secretary also proposed expanding the congestion charge from central London “to cover the same area as the Ultra Low Emission Zone”, which would have imposed an additional £15 daily charge on most cars driving through a much larger area of London – something he did not mention when tweeting last month about how “hardworking people will lose because Sadiq Khan doesn’t care about hitting drivers with unneeded costs”. So much for protecting the motorist.
It is true that Shapps did not mention expanding Ulez across all London boroughs. That decision, announced in November 2022 in a statement headlined “Five million more Londoners to breathe cleaner air”, was presumably all Khan’s. The current mayor has become an ardent crusader against pollution, drawing on his own diagnosis of adult-onset asthma to make the case for bringing down emissions in the capital. He does not claim to have been pressured into it or into the previous expansion by a Conservative transport secretary. Rather, he is owning the policy as entirely his. “The decision to expand Ulez London-wide was a difficult one, but necessary to save lives, protect children’s lungs and help prevent asthma, dementia and other health issues,” reads the mayor’s statement today. “I am not prepared to stand idly by when we have the ability to save lives and help tackle the climate crisis.”
Khan’s determination to own this policy possibly explains why Keir Starmer and his team haven’t pointed out the various Tory hypocrisies surrounding it. The Labour Party is split, especially the wake of the Uxbridge by-election near-miss, between those who back Khan’s clean-air mission and those petrified of how ferociously unpopular Ulez is among certain voters. Khan clearly thinks the policy is worth it, both morally and electorally given the scheme is relatively popular among Londoners; it doesn’t serve his narrative to remind anyone that the Conservatives sowed the seeds, and he’s now so associated with it the rest of the Labour Party has made a similar call. The Tories, meanwhile, have spotted a wedge issue that plays into culture war stereotypes of woke progressives hammering ordinary people (no one ever mentions that nine in ten vehicles are Ulez compliant), and are exploiting it for all it’s worth, with no mention of the assaults on the poor motorist they themselves demanded back in 2020.
All of which is to say, this debate might look very different had a Conservative won in the 2016 mayoral election – someone who could have continued Johnson’s Ulez legacy without being held hostage by the Westminster government when Covid hit. They wouldn’t face claims of being driven by “money, not air quality”, because the government wouldn’t have used TfL as a bargaining chip during Covid. And their fellow Tories would be proud to support a pollution-cutting mayor in helping to “lengthen our lead as the greatest city on Earth”. Something to consider next time you’re charged £12.50 to cross the M25.