Ignore the noisy minority around ULEZ and focus on the facts - London needs to clean up its air

Despite the noisy protests, polls show that the Ultra Low Emission Zone is popular amongst Londoners

Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Who would have thought that less than 500 west London voters could have such a big impact on national environment policy.

I’m attempting to do a sort of political butterfly effect, so cast your minds back to 20 July - the night of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Boris Johnson had resigned, what had been a safe Tory seat since its inception, and Labour and the Conservatives were battling it out.

If less than 250 votes had switched from the Tories to Labour, Danny Beales would have become the area’s first Labour MP - and the night would have been seen as a disaster for Rishi Sunak.

It’s likely neither Sunak or Keir Starmer would have upended their environment policies, and perhaps the ULEZ wouldn’t have dominated the news cycle for weeks.

As it was, Steve Tuckwell won - with a majority of 1.6% - and told the world that it was all because of Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion. Sunak announced a review of all low-traffic neighbourhoods and more than a hundred new North Sea oil and gas licences, while Starmer U-turned on Labour’s clean air zone proposals.

And since then an incredible number of column inches have been dedicated to covering the ULEZ expansion, which was rolled out to cover the whole of London on 29 August.

Protesters against the ULEZ, which will charge the most emitting vehicles to drive in London. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/AdobeProtesters against the ULEZ, which will charge the most emitting vehicles to drive in London. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/Adobe
Protesters against the ULEZ, which will charge the most emitting vehicles to drive in London. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/Adobe

One columnist even called for the end of devolution in the UK, due to the fact not everyone who visits London lives in London. By that logic we may as well get rid of all geographical boundaries or ban English people from visiting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Such is the noise around this, from protests with around 250 people in attendance getting front-page newspaper coverage to vandals destroying ULEZ cameras, that some of the facts have been obscured.

For some people the ULEZ is a matter of life and death. Thousands of Londoners die in a year, with causes linked to pollution, a study by Imperial College London has found. This is more likely to be people in outer London, where the ULEZ has expanded to, and every borough in the doughnut exceeds the WHO’s recommended guidelines for nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 pollution.

There have been a number of studies around the effectiveness of the ULEZ, with one published in the journal Atmospheric Pollution Research in August 2022, found nitrogen dioxide concentrations dropped by 12% within the first year.

City Hall’s own research found nitrogen dioxide levels were 49% lower in central London thanks to the ULEZ, and 22% lower up to the North and South Circular boundary. A study on clean air zones by the Lancet, revealed positive health related outcomes - particularly around cardiovascular disease. 

Someone I know was previously a fit and healthy Londoner in their early 60s, who has never smoked and was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The number of non-smokers being diagnosed with the deadliest form of cancer doubled in the UK between 2008 and 2014, and now accounts for 15% of lung cancer diagnoses and 6,000 deaths a year.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan with clean air campaigners in Catford, south east London, on the first day of the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to include the whole of London.Mayor of London Sadiq Khan with clean air campaigners in Catford, south east London, on the first day of the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to include the whole of London.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan with clean air campaigners in Catford, south east London, on the first day of the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to include the whole of London.

These are exactly the kind of deaths the ULEZ is designed to protect. Research from University College London and the Francis Crick Institute found that exposure to PM 2.5 particulate pollution is linked to the rise in lung cancer amongst non smokers, as well as other cancers.

Let’s not forget that the Mayor of London, and other devolved leaders across the country, are legally mandated by the government to reduce pollution. Conservative opposition, who seem to forget this was Boris Johnson’s idea, fail to come up with any better ideas to clean up London’s air. Neither does Sir Keir Starmer for that matter.

And while the charge is effectively a regressive tax - it is not tapered dependent on income - it is worth remembering that the capital’s poorest households are the least likely to own a car. In outer London, 70% of households that earn less than £10,000 annually do not own a car and neither do a majority of households that earn between £10,000 and £19,999.

Khan has said the money from the ULEZ expansion will go towards improving public transport in outer London boroughs, which is essential, and he was right to expand the scrappage scheme to all Londoners. City Hall estimates that less than 10% of vehicles that regularly drive in outer London are non-ULEZ compliant, which much lower than some of the coverage and protests may have led you to believe.

Despite all the column inches decrying the ULEZ’s unpopularity, it’s worth remembering that some of the most recent polling found that 58% of Londoners either support or strongly support it.

The Mayor deserves credit for sticking to his guns with a policy that was bound to generate vocal opposition, as opposed to Sunak and Starmer who changed their minds based on a 495-vote majority in a by-election. 

Uxbridge and South Ruislip and the ULEZ could have surprisingly far-reaching implications in the next general election, but in the meantime try to ignore the noisy minority and focus on the facts.

Ralph Blackburn was previously editor of NationalWorld's sister site LondonWorld.