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Why Ulez alone won’t be enough to decarbonise transport

London's deputy mayor for transport Seb Dance on investment, boosting active travel, and tackling anti-London politics.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

This article was originally published as an edition of the Green Transition, New Statesman Spotlight’s weekly newsletter on the economics of net zero. To see more editions and subscribe, click here.

There is an unavoidable irony in the brief of Seb Dance, the deputy London mayor for transport. Having won the car culture war by getting Londoners to switch to (slightly) less-polluting vehicles, his ultimate policy aim is to get people to abandon their vehicles (whether petrol or electric) altogether.

The London mayor Sadiq Khan and Dance’s key transport target is for 80 per cent of journeys in the capital to be done by either public transport or “active” travel (walking, wheeling or cycling around the city) by 2041. It’s an ambitious aim, requiring a persuasive pitch. So, what better place to start flogging it than at a central London conference full of New Statesman-reading policy wonks?

Joined by an entourage of three and sporting a casual brown blazer and jeans combo, Dance, who took his current post in 2022, only has faint signifiers of his previous life as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) remaining. “It’s a great shame… that there will certainly be at least one generation who misses out on that opportunity,” Dance told me ahead of his panel at the New Statesman’s Energy and Climate Change event back in May. “But I’m confident that at some point, there will be another generation,” he wryly smiled. You can take the man out of Brussels…

But events in London had kept Dance grounded. The 2 May local and mayoral elections were effectively framed as a de facto referendum on Khan and his controversial expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – a daily charge on the most polluting cars – to outer London. Was the incumbent’s strong victory – taking 43.8 per cent of votes – irrefutable evidence that Londoners support greener travel policies, even those that penalise drivers of the most polluting vehicles? Or was it because Khan’s main opponent, the Conservative candidate Susan Hall, was an almost comically divisive figure who was found to have “liked” Enoch Powell posts on X (formerly Twitter)?

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“There are lots of different factors at play in an election,” Dance said. “There’s no point [in] me pretending that policies like Ulez… were not contentious.

“But I think what we have shown is that you can be bold, that you can show leadership, that you can take difficult decisions in the interests of advancing very clear policy goals, which generally are supported,” he added.

So how do the mayor and his deputy inspire a “modal shift” (that’s what transport bods are calling the move from cars to active travel)? Build it and they will come, seems to be the plan. “It’s up to us [TfL] to provide people with more intuitive alternatives to private cars,” Dance explained. “So we’re not just going to say we want 80 per cent of people travelling by public or active travel by 2041; we’re actually going to put in the networks that are necessary to enable people.”

Forgive the London-centricity here. Active travel and a public transport agenda does also apply outside the M25, the deputy mayor later reassured his panel audience: “It’s absolutely essential that other cities have the opportunity to benefit from the kind of integrated public transport system we have in London.” But that doesn’t mean transport funding for London should be raided for spending elsewhere, Dance contends.

First, London is one of only three UK regions that provide a net tax contribution to the Exchequer; if you let its crucial infrastructure, such as transport, stagnate, it could feed into the city’s wider economic decline, he said – ultimately “[reducing] the amount of money that’s available to the rest of the country”. And for every pound spent by TfL, 55 pence is directly spent in the regions (over two-thirds of the transport body’s suppliers are based outside the capital) which help sustain jobs across the country, Dance told the audience.

There’s a third possible benefit from increased take-up of active and public transport: that it would help people live longer, healthier and more productive lives. A host of research has linked investment into healthy living to economic returns that are worth billions.

It’s a holistic argument – the kind that doesn’t always meet the infamous Excel-driven, “Green Book” funding allocation metrics of the Treasury. Dance is “hoping” he won’t have to rely on his EU diplomatic charm to convince a potential Labour government to fund ambitious future plans for the capital’s transport infrastructure.

“The first thing I would hope for is a grown-up conversation,” he said in reference to Sadiq Khan’s highly publicised clashes with the government over TfL funding. “Investing in London’s infrastructure is a prerequisite for investing in the rest of the country’s infrastructure… It would be a folly to reduce investment in London thinking that somehow that would increase investment elsewhere [when] it wouldn’t…

“The idea that you need a long-term capital settlement is something that is intuitively understood – it’s actually intuitively understood by some current government ministers as well,” he said. “So if we can move beyond this politicisation of something that ought to be a service for everybody, but have longer-term deals, we can make longer-term decisions – which also, by the way, end up being cheaper.”

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