Published:

Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.

If Sadiq Khan was serious about tackling air pollution in London, he would be helping Londoners to scrap their older vehicles – not endangering their livelihoods by expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

When ULEZ expands later this month, over half a million drivers could be hit by the charge. The new zone will span up to the North and South Circulars – that’s 18 times the size of the existing area. With a fifth of Londoners driving non-compliant vehicles inside the zone, few will be able to avoid Khan’s latest driving tax.

If you have no choice but to drive to work, like many tradesmen and shift workers in the NHS or emergency services, you’ll be hit. If you drive to the shops, take your kids to school, or help sick relatives get to hospital appointments, you’ll be taxed. And if you live inside the zone with a non-compliant vehicle, you’ll be charged every day you use your car.

No one wants dirty, polluting vehicles on London’s roads. But what Khan fails to understand is that the Londoners driving them are those who will struggle most to replace them. They’re not a bunch of petrol junkies driving around unnecessarily to pollute our air – but ordinary Londoners who rely on their vehicles and can’t afford to buy a new one.

Nothing was more insensitive than the Mayor’s advice to struggling Londoners that “you don’t need to buy a brand-new vehicle, you can buy a second-hand vehicle”. Not only was it patronising, but he also failed to recognise the soaring cost of pre-owned vehicles. As Britain unlocked a record number of people are seeking second-hand cars, causing the average asking price to rocket by 15.2 per cent. For struggling Londoners, the Mayor’s quick fix is out of reach.

But let’s also remember the Mayor’s timetable for expanding the ULEZ charge. Londoners were supposedly given three years to prepare for the expansion. However, that’s not happened due to the pandemic. It’s absurd to think that businesses bought new fleets of vehicles when their doors were closed and staff on furlough. No family bought a new car when they were worried about their livelihoods and told to stay at home. Yet, only three months after lockdown restrictions ended – hopefully – for good, Sadiq Khan is ploughing ahead with a new £12.50 a day driving tax.

Londoners haven’t had time to recover let alone prepare for ULEZ expansion. That’s why the Mayor must delay his plan until next year if he won’t drop it altogether. If Khan did so, many struggling Londoners would sigh with relief and feel the post-pandemic squeeze loosen. Now is simply not the time to be hiking road charges on those who can least afford them.

However, I won’t hold my breath for a sudden change of heart from Sadiq Khan. Expanding the ULEZ charge has little to do with air quality, but a lot to do with bankrolling his wasteful administration. If the Mayor was serious about tackling air pollution, he would not be leaving Londoners with a bill many can’t afford. Instead, City Hall would be offering targeted grants to Londoners, small businesses and charities to scrap their older vehicles and avoid the charge.

Sadly, the two ULEZ scrappage schemes for vans and heavy vehicles closed last summer, leaving small businesses and sole traders with no help throughout the pandemic to prepare. Whereas the only remaining scrappage scheme for cars and motorcycles is too narrow. This scheme is supposed to help low-income and disabled Londoners, but it only pays out to those receiving certain benefits – excluding thousands of workers who can’t afford the ULEZ charge or a new vehicle.

That’s why the Conservative Group on the London Assembly has called on the Mayor to use £50 million from City Hall’s business rate reserve to invest in scrappage schemes. The sizeable investment would allow for the two closed scrappage schemes to be reopened for sole traders and small businesses. And it would enable the Mayor to offer grants to Londoners who less than £30,000 to scrap their non-compliant cars and motorcycles like Birmingham City Council does. Our plan would not only throw thousands of Londoners a lifeline but speed up the removal of polluting vehicles, tackling air pollution.

Sadiq Khan may have forgotten it but he has a duty to help Londoners prepare for ULEZ expansion. He can’t sit back with money idle in a City Hall bank account while his policy slaps thousands of drivers with a whopping bill. I urge the Mayor to listen to people’s concerns, consider delaying ULEZ expansion, and adopt our plan to help Londoners ditch their polluting vehicles – and avoid the punitive charge.