The government is to use the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to go on the attack over what it has called “Labour’s war on motorists”, part of a wider battle against green policies it hopes could prove popular with voters.
With the extension of the clean air scheme to every London borough beginning at midnight on Monday, Sadiq Khan, the capital’s Labour mayor, said that while the decision was difficult, the devastating health effects of toxic exhausts trumped other considerations.
In what could be seen as a coded swipe against Keir Starmer, who pressured the mayor to pause the extension of the £12.50 daily charge for using a heavily polluting vehicle, Khan said he wanted to be “a doer, not a delayer”.
“The easiest thing for me to do would have been to kick the can down the road, but we simply don’t have time to waste,” he said.
Despite Starmer’s ambivalence about Ulez and mooted clean air schemes in other cities, ministers plan to directly link the expansion to the Labour leader, echoing the tactics that helped the Tories to an unexpected win in July’s Uxbridge byelection.
The extended clean air zone “is the latest salvo in Labour’s war on motorists”, said the transport secretary, Mark Harper, who will be dispatched on to Tuesday morning’s broadcast round to amplify the message.
“From a ban on road building in Wales to a tax on the poorest motorists in London and secret Labour plans to make drivers pay per mile – the realities of Labour politicians in positions of power are ideological policies that hit hardworking motorists hard,” he said.
The reference to road pricing follows a report at the weekend saying Khan and Transport for London (TfL) have explored ways to implement a pay-per-mile road levy, something the mayor has said is not being planned.
A spokesperson for Khan said he “has been crystal clear – a pay per mile scheme is not on the table and not on his agenda”.
Such schemes have been considered as a possibility by TfL, including when Boris Johnson was mayor, and by the Treasury, as officials explore ways to tackle a looming fiscal shortfall from diminishing fuel duty revenues as drivers switch to electric vehicles.
While the Uxbridge result was not wholly encouraging for the government – the 7,000-plus majority Johnson had won in the seat in 2019 plummeted to below 500 – the narrow win has prompted Rishi Sunak to ditch some green policies and seek to portray Labour as eco-zealots with a dislike of drivers.
In the aftermath of the Uxbridge vote, Sunak and Harper announced a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, filters that aim to increase walking and cycling on quieter streets, which the prime minister described as “anti-motorist”.
A key test of the anti-green agenda will be whether ministers and friendly newspapers are able to keep the Ulez expansion in the headlines, given that coverage and complaints gradually diminish after the implementation of such schemes.
Devised by Johnson and implemented under Khan, Ulez initially covered just inner London and was initially extended in 2021. The further expansion is seen as more controversial, as outer suburbs have a less dense public transport network and a greater reliance on cars.
Khan has fought back against Sunak, saying the prime minister’s stance had “put decades of progress on clean air into reverse” and risked “stunting the lungs” of London’s children.
The mayor, who has received no central government help, has committed £160m to a scrappage scheme to help drivers of older vehicles upgrade, a programme that was expanded and made more generous earlier this month.
Khan’s office said that in the last week alone there had been more than 15,000 applications for the scheme, totalling £6m in funds.
While Harper called the Ulez expansion a “money grab”, Khan’s office says any net revenue will be invested in public transport, including better bus services in outer London. As the proportion of compliant vehicles increases, revenue will drop, and the scheme is forecast to only cover its costs by 2026-27.
Khan said the expansion was “a landmark day for our city which will lead to a greener, healthier London for everyone”.