Driven to distraction, pro-car Tories are bad for your health

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.

Is this man to be trusted behind the wheel?: Sunak, with family business interests in petrocarbons, would much prefer to be in a helicopter

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”.

Given that government-appointed commissioners are effectively running Croydon Council, some might suggest Perry and his £82,000 salary is an unfair burden on hard-pressed 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.

ULEZ support: recent polling data indicates that even in outer London, where the Tories and the far right have worked hard on disinformation and opposition, opinion is divided equally

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.

Read more: Prof Frank Kelly, of the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College

Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:

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19 Responses to Driven to distraction, pro-car Tories are bad for your health

  1. Thomas Windsor says:

    None of the policies of the U.K. government or opposition will tackle climate change, we are responsible for c. 2% of emissions so whatever we do will make no difference.

    • Andrew Fisher says:

      Which is why every country needs to take action. China has 27% of global emissions currently but has a far larger population. Our emissions per person are much higher. The USA has 15% of global emissions (just over half of China’s with c.1/4 of the population).

      But ULEZ is not a climate change policy. It, like the congestion charge to some extent, is about local air pollution – and on that we are solely responsible and have the power to improve air quality.

    • Anthony Miller says:

      Well, it will make 2% difference. This is like arguing that one shouldn’t drive carefully because there are other people who drive recklessly. Palpable nonsense.

    • Lewis White says:

      Whilst 2% doesn’t sound much, and our proportion might reduce if India and other populous countries get more cars, as is very likely, neverthess it is a lot for a small country with a lowish population.

      2% reduction may make the difference between life and death, so every little bit might well be critical to survival of life as we have known it. Food, water, all the key things we have enjoyed, especially in the UK and West.

      Having said that, the US, Europe, Japan and others need to do their bit too.

  2. Peter Kudelka says:

    Sound arguments are marred here by cheap political jibes: do you really believe it is in the national interest that the PM should best use his time by getting an UBER; the 118 bus; hitchhiking; the train…if not on a strike day, rather than a helicopter? Of course not, so why mention it? Perhaps previous employment as a political speechwriter is distracting from presenting a reasoned argument.

    • Andrew Fisher says:

      I’ve never been employed as a speechwriter.

      I do believe it is in the national interest that the Prime Minister should travel efficiently – both in terms of cost, emissions and time.

      Many of his helicopter trips shave minutes off at best.

    • They are not “cheap political jibes”, but statements of fact that underline the blatant hypocrisy inherent in Sunak’s recent focus shift against sound environmental measures, many of which he helped to instigate while in office.

    • Anthony Miller says:

      I’ve no idea why the PM uses helicopters private jets. All commercial aircraft fly at a top speed of ~575mph because their top speed is bounded by the speed of sound as a limiting factor. A private jet will get him there no faster than a commercial one …unless Sunak’s private jet is an old Concord or an F16… there should be 0 time saving vs using commercial flights. I’ve heard he would have to check in if he used normal flights which takes time but many airlines have VIP lounges to allow the rich to bypass the queues and I’m sure something could be worked out. The PM not using private jets could easily be done with the application of a few little grey cells and would be an easy win for the government… But they just to waste CO2 and money for vanity. Like the King. He could go easyJet too …

  3. David White says:

    As well as the points Andrew Fisher validly makes in this piece, it should be noted that Tory former minister Grant Shapps required the extension of ULEZ as part of a package put forward to assist with TFL’s finances.

  4. C M Cooper says:

    ‘Andrew Fisher (born 28 December 1979) is an English political adviser and researcher, writer, and trade unionist. He served as Director of Policy of the Labour Party, under leader Jeremy Corbyn, from 2015 to 2019’
    His views are therefore toeing the Labour Party line and we are all too well aware of what Labour Policy has done for Croydon, aren’t we? Doubtless this comment will NEVER APPEAR! Dissention is NOT Allowed.

    • Anyone with even a slightest grasp of internal Labour politics, or anyone who bothers to read this website, will realise that the notion that Fisher is “toeing the Labour Party line” is stunningly ignorant.
      What is especially amusing is that Fisher has been writing opinion columns for this website for almost two years, and in all that time we have always carried an end para which explains where he has worked in the past.
      It seems that “C M Cooper” is just exceptionally slow on the uptake.

    • Ian Kierans says:

      The first part of your copmment is true, but I am going out on a limb here (Andrew, please correct me if I am misreading ) in that Andrew is possibly somewhat to the left of politics and probably is not really toeing Mr Reed or Mr Starmer’s party line, who are a tad to the right of centre.

      It was Labour actions and negligence in following stupidly and idiotically Conservative Government policy (as did Mike Fisher to the tune of £780m to £1bn – I’m still awaiting that pesky FOI response from Ms Kerswell) and them borrowing more (on top of Fisher’s) from the Government Fund that led to our current plight.

      Oh and some insane local Conservative and Labour acts of profligacy also may have contributed along with a modicum of reckless public administrative management and savage cuts that no sane HR executive specialising in organisational design and administrative functions would ever have agreed without the CIPD removing their professional status.

      On a side note – neither the LibDems or the Greens or Independents have ever screwed up Croydon. But they have never had the chance, to be fair.

      Doubtless this comment will appear below your comment, as dissention is permitted.

      But hey, Colin, do not let little things like facts and truth get in the way of a good diatribe.

  5. C Cooper says:

    Subscription CANCELLED

  6. Lewis White says:

    Our 1960’s and 70’s love affair with the car resulted in urban motorways slicing through cities like Birmingham and even our very own Croydon.

    Neighbourhoods in places like Paris and – our very own Croydon- were divided by concrete retaining walls of raised roads, and by concrete walled and tarmac-lined troughs, aka underpasses.

    The trend now is to reduce speeds and bring trafffic back to ground level, or cover it with urban gardens and green strips. The 20mph limit might be irritating, but it has made me drive at lower than the 30mph in boroughs which are still at 30 mph limit.

    I look forward to days when buses will be spacious and fragrant, and when cars will be hydrogen or electric, and designed to become half size or full size. Half size for a one or two person nip down to the shops for a big shop, or full size when a 4 person trip, or visit to the recycling centre is needed. Wheels will sprout or disappear, and car bodies morph in size at the ultrasonic whistle from the owner’s key.

    The main thing is for us all to accept personal responsibility to reduce polloution by reducing mileage. Sadly, too many of us don’t really think… and many really do not care, even if their own grandchildren will be living in a world where wars are fought about water, unless we do something before it is too late.

    “Is your journey really necessary? ” So questioned wartime posters.
    Time for a modern equivalent, methinks.

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