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Government Considered Blocking Ulez Expansion

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Government ministers considered blocking Sadiq Khan’s expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone boundary but dropped the plan after receiving legal advice stating that their legal challenge in court would likely fail.

Ministers are now said to be looking at other options to counteract the impact of the Ulez expansion, which will come into force in less than a week.

The Ulez expansion

Under the proposed Ulez expansion, those with heavily polluting cars will have to pay £12.50 a day to drive within all areas of the Greater London Authority boundary. Since Sadiq Khan has been mayor, the zone has grown from central London to the north and south circular roads. Transport for London (TfL) and City Hall now estimate that air pollution has reduced by a quarter as less than 6% of vehicles driven in the zone are non-compliant.

Sadiq Khan’s plans, set to become enforceable in August, have faced controversy since their unveiling, with some people in the affected areas demonstrated opposition to the expansion as it remains an unpopular policy amongst some drivers in the suburbs. Critics note the lack of public transport services outside of inner London mean driving is less of a choice in the outer boroughs.

However, earlier this year, controversy over the expansion developed into legal action being taken against the Mayor of London as a judge permitted the case to be heard in the high court. Five Conservative-led councils in the suburbs (Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon and Surrey) brought legal proceedings against the plan, arguing that Sadiq Khan had acted beyond his powers in the way he set about proposing to expand the clean air zone from the inner boundary of the North and South Circular roads across all 33 boroughs.

The councils had described the Ulez expansion as a “tax on living in outer London”, where they said poorer public transport connections left residents much more reliant on cars. It is estimated that up to one in five cars and almost half of vans registered to an address in some outer London boroughs fail to meet the Ulez emission rules, meaning they will be liable for the £12.50-a-day levy.

Yet, last month, delivering his 18-page ruling, Mr Justice Swift said the grounds of claim brought against the Mayor’s Ulez expansion had been rejected. He stated “I’m satisfied the Mayor’s decision to expand the Ulez area by amending the present road charging scheme rather than submitting an entirely new scheme was within his powers. Having carefully considered the decision published for the purposes of consultation, I’m satisfied sufficient information was provided to permit this wanting to respond to the consultation to provide informed responses”.

However, this did not halter controversy; Just last week, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has asked Surrey and Kent councils to “put their politics aside” and allow signs to be placed which will warn drivers of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). Both councils said they would not allow signage due to claiming that there is no mitigation to minimise the impact of the expansion of the boundary on their residents.

An attempt to block the Mayor’s plans

The Government had considered using the 1999 Greater London Authority Act to overrule Sadiq Khan’s proposals if the expansion of Ulez was “inconsistent with national policies”. However, this plan was dropped after legal advice concluded that this would not likely stand in court.

A spokesperson for the mayor of London said: “The Secretary of State could only use this power after changing national policy to prevent all cities charging drivers based on their emissions. “Ministers have directed numerous UK cities to introduce clean air zones, and the Government is under clear legal obligations to tackle air pollution. The mayor has received no suggestion from government that they have any intention to renege on these commitments.”

One of these cities includes Birmingham’s where an emissions-based charging scheme was introduced in June 2021, with an £8 daily fee for non-compliant vehicles.

Final thought

As controversy over Ulez continues, it is becoming more likely that next May’s mayoral election will effectively become a referendum on the Ulez expansion with Susan Hall, the Tory mayoral candidate, vowing to axe the expansion “on day one” – but retain the zone in its current format – if she defeats Sadiq Khan.

To further demonstrate the divide over the Ulez expansion, a YouGov survey of 1,000 Londoners found that across the capital as a whole, the Labour mayor is viewed unfavourably by 52 per cent and favourably by 40 per cent — giving a net favourability rating of minus 12 overall. However, in the 19 outer boroughs, his net rating plunges to minus 24, where car use is far higher. Police last week also revealed nearly 300 vandalism crimes relating to Ulez cameras have been recorded.

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