‘This is a public health crisis’: how the expansion of Ulez is affecting the daily lives of Londoners

Some welcome the low emissions zone, others question it … and many despise it. But almost everyone agrees something has to be done about air pollution in London

The small business owners

Alexandra Maynard runs Blue Bella Blooms, a florist in Enfield, with her sister Georgina Jeffrey. The Ulez expansion meant them having to give up their old van and buy a new vehicle.

“It would have ended up being too expensive to keep the old van,” said Maynard. “We use our van to deliver flowers around London six days a week. The scheme has gone against us personally, and we are just trying to earn an honest living.” She said that the Ulez expansion has created a “triple whammy” of extra costs, following increased import charges because of Brexit as well as the cost of living crisis.

“If we are going to have rules to reduce air pollution, don’t do it with these high charges that working-class people can’t afford to pay.”

The old van was decorated with the business name, advertising its flowers to people around the city.

“Now we are trying to find the money to decorate the new van,” Maynard added.

The parent

“My son started having asthma attacks in 2018 during a really hot summer with high levels of air pollution,” said Ruth Fitzharris, a mother of one and part of the group Mums for Lungs, which campaigns for clean air in London and across the UK.

“He was only 18 months old and ended up having seven asthma attacks that put him in the high dependency care unit at our local hospital.” She said the interventions he needed were really frightening. “It’s terrifying seeing someone not able to breathe, especially a child.”

‘It’s terrifying seeing a child not able to breathe’ … Ruth Fitzharris is campaigning for clean air across the UK and welcomes the expansion of Ulez
‘It’s terrifying seeing a child not able to breathe’ … Ruth Fitzharris is campaigning for clean air across the UK and welcomes the expansion of Ulez. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Fitzharris said that as a result her consultant told the family to avoid traffic and car fumes, “because it is making children in London sick”.

She cites evidence that shows air pollution impacts all different areas of health, not just asthma, but dementia, mental health and cancer. “We need the national government to act on this because it’s a public health crisis,” she said. “Ulez is a step in a positive direction. Clean air zones work – and they work­ quickly.”

The professional drivers

Simon Rush was a private hire driver for more than two decades, while Seth Seglah drives an electric car as a private hire driver. Rush says that it will be a very limited number of professional taxi and other private hire drivers who will end up paying the £12.50 a day Ulez charge. “Once a vehicle is over 10 years old, it can’t be licensed by the majority of private hire operators,” he said.

Rush, who is now the president of the GMB Professional Drivers Branch, said that instead it is other issues that are bothering his drivers. “It’s things such as the removal of the exemption on the congestion charge,” he said. “Fuel prices are creeping back up. Vehicle licensing costs have gone up. What doesn’t go up are the rates that drivers receive from their fares; 25 years ago, I was earning about £1 a mile working in the suburbs. And today some operators and some jobs are earning the same, or less.”

‘It’s impacting on every aspect of our lives’ … Seth Seglah says Ulez can be compared to the introduction of the poll tax
‘It’s impacting on every aspect of our lives’ … Seth Seglah says Ulez can be compared to the introduction of the poll tax. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Seglah, on the other hand, said that even before the expansion of the zone, Ulez “is impacting on every aspect of our lives”. He added: “I go to a church with a very big congregation, but people cannot come to church because they cannot afford to travel there now. In some respects it can be compared with the introduction of the poll tax – a tax on the poor. This will impact pensioners who cannot afford to buy new cars.”

Seglah, vice chair of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain Private Hire Drivers branch, argues that the ride-along companies should take on some of the costs of Ulez. “We are providing a service. The ride-along companies should be finding a way to relieve this burden.”

The campaigner

Oliver Lord, UK head of Clean Cities Campaign and chair of the London Healthy Air Coalition, says that feelings have been running high ever since the expansion to the Ulez was announced. “Our coalition has been under attack from those opposed to Ulez. People campaigning on clean air issues have faced intimidation,” he said.

Campaigner Oli Lord
‘If we don’t act, people will struggle with poor health’ … campaigner Oliver Lord says that feelings have been running high since the expansion of Ulez. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Ulez schemes were growing in popularity around the world, Lord said, but they should be delivered in an equitable way. “That involves scrappage schemes, investment in public transport and the creation of new initiatives such as shared electric car schemes,” he said. “It can also mean improving cycling infrastructure, such as building secure bike sheds, so people know they can get the support they need to reduce their car use.”

He describes the Ulez as a public health policy. “And as with any public health policy, we need to ask people to change their behaviour to keep others safe. If we don’t act, more people will struggle with poor health, and health inequities will increase throughout society.”


Sian Norris

The GuardianTramp

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