ULEZ – Right policy: Wrong approach

From the Communist Party environment commission.

Both Tories and Labour seem to be competing with each other to backtrack on important climate and environmental commitments. The Labour Party is even frightened of campaigning on anything which the Tories might have an argument with, instead of making the case. The ULEZ is one such issue – which Communists argue is right in principle, but wrong in its implementation.

The Benefits of ULEZ

The world’s first Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) was launched in 2019 in central London. It was expanded in 2021 across inner London to cover around 44% of the city’s population. It bolsters the original London-wide Low Emissions Zone which began in 2008.

The one year report, produced by the London Assembly this year, evaluates the impact of these schemes. There’s no doubt about their positive impact:

• Nitrogen oxides emissions from traffic reducing by 23% since 2019 across London
• Reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) by 7% over the same period
• Carbon emissions from traffic reducing by 3% since 2019, across London-wide

Millions of people across London have benefited from the resultant cleaner air, with harmful nitrogen dioxide concentrations 21% lower than they would have been in inner London without the ULEZ, and 46% lower in central London. These figures are even higher at roadside locations. Particulate matter concentrations have similarly reduced by 41% since 2017.

These pollutants are dangerous. Nitrogen oxides can enter the lungs really easily, causing serious damage to lung tissue. Even short exposure can irritate healthy lung tissue, and create the conditions for the development of asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, increasing the risk of hospital admission and premature death. Particulate matter is made of of particles so small they can travel to the deepest parts of the lungs, causing short term eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, but also affecting lung and heart function, worsening medical conditions like heart disease and asthma, resulting in increased hospital admissions and mortality.

So what’s the problem with ULEZ?

No-one could argue that the policy of low emissions zones isn’t the right one for London and other major cities to protect the lives of working people and their children. But Communists would argue that the implementation of this and other policies geared to mitigate the effects of pollution and the climate emergency, must not be at the expense of the livelihoods of working people or be paid for by those already struggling with the cost of living crisis.

The extension of the ULEZ would impose a daily tariff of £12.50 on those driving older, more polluting cars. This is a real problem for those struggling with the costs of living, and where, particularly in outer London areas not as well-served by public transport, more working people depend on their car.

The scrappage scheme, intended to help people transition to cleaner transport, is insufficient for the purpose. It gives only £2,000 as a grant for those wanting to dispose of an older car that meets the criteria, and only for those on benefits. The guidance points out that the grant might even affect how much benefit you receive!!

What do Britain’s Communists say?

The way the scheme has been implemented illustrates the dangers of trying to solve environmental crises at the expense of working people. It isn’t working people who have continued to produce and sell cars which pollute, despite the technology long being available to dramatically improve emissions. It isn’t working people who have determined to develop private transport rather than invest in a modern, subsidised, public transport system unlike many cities in Europe.

Paying an extra £12.50 each day to drive, on top of other spiralling costs is a crippling levy. The scrappage scheme needs a complete overhaul to ensure the grants people receive in order to change their cars provide a real incentive, and that the scheme is tied to access to subsidised public bus and rail transport to provide real encouragement to ditch the car. Levies on big business, or Treasury funding should be the source of this investment.

In the longer term, there needs to be a real shift in approach:

• to realise a massive investment in cheap, public transport locally and nationally – important for the environment and jobs
• proper control and regulation of car manufacturers in order to stop pollution at source
• a real expansion of electric car charging infrastructure so that the use of electric vehicles is a feasible alternative for people where private transport is unavoidable
• The design and re-design of urban road systems with an emphasis on safety – to encourage cycling and walking
• As part of our reclaiming the NHS from private health care, a massive investment in public health – recognised at the inception of the NHS as important in the protection of peoples’ health and well-being.

Ultimately, attempts to deal with environmental crises such as clean air in cities, the climate emergency or biodiversity collapse, will never succeed whilst trying to preserve an economic system based on profit and capital accumulation. Both Tory and Labour politicians seem to think we have a choice as to whether to deal with these issues or not as part of their power games – we haven’t!