Since the idea of expanding the ULEZ to LB Merton was first raised by the Merton Liberal Democrats in February 2019; residents have been rightly concerned this would be another tax on them at a time when they can least afford it, and that expanding the ULEZ would not improve air quality in the way its supporters claim.
Merton Conservatives have constantly opposed the expansion, arguing that due the present cost of living emergency, which the council declared in July 2022, and numerous other factors set out below, the plans to expand the ULEZ should be dropped.
The threat to Merton
In July 2022 LB Merton declared a ‘Cost of Living Emergency’ which passed with unanimous support from all political groups. However, the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups refused to support a Conservative amendment to request that Mayor Khan scrap the ULEZ expansion and freeze the GLA precept, leaving residents vulnerable to new tax rises during these tough times.
If Mayor Khan continues with his plans, the ULEZ expansion will costs a family with one car over £4,500 per year, if they drive every day. Residents correctly regard this as a new tax, and one that they cannot afford during the current circumstances. TfL figures show that 64 per cent of Merton households own a car and ONS figures show that 60 per cent of London households earning between £23,192 and £29,546 own a vehicle. It is clear that expanding the ULEZ will hit those on modest incomes the hardest.
Expanding the ULEZ will coincide with the forecast Winter energy price increase, due in part to the war in Ukraine. Some commentators have speculated that this will add £2,000 to the energy bills of an average family. When taken with the ULEZ charges that would mean an increase of over £6,500 per year at a time when food prices are also rising.
There will also be a wider impact on families as the daily ULEZ charge will affect all aspects of care for young children and elderly relatives. Grandparents driving into Greater London to care for grandchildren will be forced to pay the charge, as will carers and those working for charities. The ULEZ is indiscriminate and will cause a great deal of issues for hardworking families in Merton. This has been unaddressed by the Mayor of London and will strain the budgets of families during the cost-of-living emergency.
Mayor Khan has a long record of proposing and then backing away from new forms of vehicle charging. He previously proposed a £2 per day charge for every vehicle driven on London’s roads, as well as a £3.50 per day charge for vehicles which cross the Greater London boundary. These charges have, thankfully, been scrapped. However, Mayor Khan has chosen to push ahead with the ULEZ expansion.
It is simple economics that the ULEZ expansion will have a serious impact on businesses in outer London. Why would shoppers from outside of London choose to pay £12.50 to visit a shop in Greater London when they could order the goods they need from the internet. Many high streets suffered during the pandemic and businesses are right to be concerned about the impact of the ULEZ expansion.
Michael Lloyd of the Federation of Small Businesses has said there is “great cause for concern” from an expanded ULEZ and he is right. Merton Conservative note that the mayor’s office has not produced any analysis of the proposed ULEZ expansion that could show that there is no threat to businesses, or that trade will not be diminished by the ULEZ expansion.
The expansion of the ULEZ will also be felt at the local government level. Whilst it is not yet clear whether there will be a continuation of the Business Rates Pools for the coming financial year, ULEZ expansion and the economic losses that come with it will surely impact council revenues over years to come.
Additionally, the Mayor could use the resources available to him to promote environmental, social and governance investment among small and medium sized businesses in London. Many SME businesses often lack the resource and funding to prioritise making ESG investment. Instead of a new tax on residents the mayor should focus on the provision of free ESG consultancy and grant support for London’s circa 1 million SME businesses to assist them reaching their net zero ambitions.
The environmental incompetence of Mayor Khan
In his rush to press ahead with the previous expansion of the ULEZ to the north and south circulars, against the wishes of many Londoners and business experts, Mayor Khan and his officials have run into serious and mounting problems. Due to the bungled and poorly administered scrappage scheme that was cancelled after one month of operation, it is right for Londoners to be deeply sceptical about the ability of the mayor’s office to deliver any future scrappage scheme for the Greater London area when the previous expansion saw such administrative incompetence.
The cost of the ULEZ expansion has been estimated at around £400 million, with much of this money due to be spent on new CCTV cameras and other related infrastructure. According to the mayor’s office the ULEZ is an environmental measure, however, Londoners are right to question how new CCTV cameras will improve air quality.
Mayor Khan has a poor record on the environment. When he was elected in 2016, he claimed that he would plant over 2 million trees by the end of his first term. At the 2021 election only 280,000 trees had been planted.
Currently only 4.4% of the London bus fleet is electric, if London had a fully electric bus fleet the reduction in emissions would be equivalent to a total reduction of 20% which is the same as taking one million cars off the road. The Conservative candidate for the 2021 Mayor of London election, Shaun Bailey, promised to have a fully electric bus fleet by the end of his first term. Using the current rate of electrification under Mayor Khan it would take until 2037 for London’s bus fleet to be fully electric. Therefore, the money for the ULEZ expansion could make a greater impact on London’s air quality if it was used to buy electric busses, the effects would also be realised immediately.
The ULEZ was first designed to come into operation in the area of Central London that also operated the congestion charge zone. This makes sense as Central London has a wide variety of transport options; however the situation is completely different in Merton where many parts of the borough are a long way from the London Underground stations or Thames Link and bus link are sparce.
From the information that has been provided by the mayor’s office to justify the ULEZ expansion there has not been any proper analysis of how residents of outer London will transition away from cars when there are so few public transport connections compared to where the ULEZ is already in operation.
When Merton Liberal Democrats first proposed the idea of expanding the ULEZ to Merton it was clear that the economic consequences of the ULEZ had not been properly considered. However due to the changes in economic circumstances of many residents, it is clear that ULEZ expansion was a bad idea then and is a disastrous one now.
For the reasons set out above but especially the cost-of-living emergency, the cost to businesses and local government, the administrative incompetence of Mayor Khan, and that there are quicker, cheaper and more efficient way to reduce air pollution, Mayor Khan must think again and scrap the ULEZ expansion. That Mayor Khan is pressing ahead with the proposals shows how little he understands, or cares for, the residents in boroughs such as Merton.