ANDREW FISHER on how the latest manifestation of ‘culture wars’, with attacks on anti-pollution policies and safer roads, smacks of desperation by failing politicians in Westminster and in Croydon
The Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election is casting a long shadow over British politics, with both major parties misreading the public mood.
Labour’s failure to win the seat (despite a 7per cent swing) has resulted in party leader Keir Starmer and his team undermining the Labour London Mayor by calling for “a rethink” of the ULEZ extension, while the Conservative Party has decided that their route to electoral success is to junk all policies to tackle climate change.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has ramped up his opposition to the expansion of ULEZ (a policy introduced when Boris Johnson was London Mayor), criticised Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (schemes that he funded as Chancellor) and local 20mph zones, and has granted hundreds of new licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea.
The Prime Minister, whose default mode of transport is helicopter, has declared to motorists, “I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars”. Sunak’s pro-car, pro-pollution declarations have made no discernible dent in his party’s polling deficit – as the Tories still trail by 15 to 20per cent.
For all the hot air that has emerged over ULEZ, polling from Redfield and Wilton shows the scheme is backed by 47per cent of Londoners and opposed by just 32per cent. Meanwhile polling shows climate change and the environment to be the fourth most important issue to voters (ahead of immigration). The Government’s approval rating on the environment has sunk to a new low of -36.
ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which is to be expanded to cover most of Greater London, including Croydon, at the end of this month, isn’t a policy about climate change. It’s about public health.
Air pollution is a toxic killer, and London’s air is bad. According to Imperial College: “There is nowhere in London that meets the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Guidelines. The main reason for this is road traffic.”
Public Health England says air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the country, the cause of between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year. And the Environmental Audit Committee has estimated that health costs as a result of air pollution range between £8.5billion and £20.2billion a year.
It is the poorest who are hit hardest by toxic air. The poor tend to live on the busiest roads, where pollution levels are worst. Imperial College points out that, “Children are especially vulnerable to traffic pollution. Pollution damages growing lungs, stunting their growth. If children enter adulthood with stunted lungs they are at risk of lifelong breathing disorders and early death.”
Discouraging unnecessary car journeys could save lives. About 1 in 7 car journeys in London are less than 1km – about a 12-minute walk. Just over one-third of car journeys are less than 2km.
For most people, reducing car use would save money and make them healthier.
Opponents of ULEZ have taken to using working-class people as a human shield, but this is disingenuous:
- Of the poorest households in London (with an annual income of less than £10,000), 78per cent do not own a car.
- For those Londoners whose annual income is between £10,000 and £20,000, 64per cent do not own a car.
- Of those who do own a car – somewhere between 84-90per cent of cars using London’s roads meet the minimum standards required for ULEZ, and so would never be subject to any charges.
Even if a minority of working-class people will be impacted, there is still a strong case for ULEZ. “Sin taxes” are nothing new. Despite data showing that for decades it was poorer people who were more likely to smoke tobacco, both Labour and Conservative governments increased tobacco duty to discourage smoking.
It worked. The proportion of smokers has decreased from nearly 50per cent in the mid-1970s to just 13per cent today.
What is lacking, or at least is inadequate in the ULEZ scenario, is the equivalent of the NHS smoking cessation services. The Mayor’s scrappage scheme is, by his own admission, underfunded.
The Mayor has lobbied the government to contribute to the scrappage scheme, as they have for other cities that have introduced clean air zones, but to no avail.
Earlier this week, in a letter to Mayor Khan, Croydon’s Mayor Jason Perry dubbed ULEZ an “unfair tax burden on law-abiding citizens”. This is the same Conservative Mayor that hiked Council Tax by 15per cent this year on Croydon’s “law-abiding citizens”.
Encouraging more walking and cycling (or “active travel” as it’s known by policy wonks) is good for our health, reducing our risk of a whole host of diseases and ailments, including obesity. In the long run, it could save the NHS money too – but Mayor Perry has instead continued to chip away at the new cycle lane on Brighton Road.
London has higher levels of child obesity than the rest of the country (25.8per cent in London v 23.4per cent for the whole of England). For Croydon, that child obesity level is 27per cent – significantly worse than London and national average.
Despite Mayor Perry opting to retain the successor to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, the Prime Minister has ordered a review of what the Chancellor who funded them now calls “anti-car schemes”. This would pose a huge revenue threat to Perry’s cash-strapped council.
A study of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in neighbouring Lambeth showed the schemes reduced traffic both within LTN areas, and at their boundaries.
Croydon was the first outer London borough to have a 20mph limit on all its residential roads. According to the police, at 20mph, 9 out of 10 pedestrians will survive a car crash; at 30mph, half are killed; and if hit by a car travelling at 40mph, 9 out of 10 pedestrians will be killed.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister has apparently described such schemes as “anti-motorist”. Which is an odd way of saying “pro-people”.
Even Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central’s former Conservative MP, tweeted, “I do support 20mph zones around schools and accident black spots… I don’t expect the Prime Minister to get involved. This kind of thing should be a matter for local councils.”
Discouraging unnecessary driving is good for our health and our wallets.
If Rishi Sunak thinks ranting about LTNs and ULEZ can distract voters from his failure on living standards, the economy and the NHS, he will be in for a rude awakening.
One suspects the same may be true for Jason Perry, the hapless 15per cent Council Tax hiker, who continues to draw a hefty mayoral salary while Whitehall appointees make all the big decisions at the council.
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher, pictured right, worked as the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is a former chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon
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