Right now Labour is implementing schemes like the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) into Greater London, with similar schemes being introduced by Labour, the Lib Dems, and Greens, all around our country. Together with businesses, charities, and many of the residents I’m so proud to represent, I worry about the impact these schemes will have on lower income and vulnerable households. Through no fault of their own, they will now have to pay a fine every time they cross an invisible boundary when meeting friends, going to work, or attending appointments — despite public transport being both unreliable and inconvenient alternatives.
I do not agree with these outlandish policies, I am a conservative environmentalist. I recognise that our air pollution is the leading environmental threat to human health — the air that so many of us are breathing just isn’t good enough for our health or our quality of life. This is before we mention the frustration of sitting in traffic, the lack of freedom and safety issues when living along a road frequently blocked by traffic, or the unpleasantness of walking along a gridlocked high street.
That is why we must find conservative, market-based solutions to these problems in a way which brings people with us. It is unfair to ask those who rely on their cars to fork out thousands of pounds on a newer and slightly less polluting car. Many have suggested cycling or walking can be an easy and popular alternative. But for my residents in Reigate and Banstead, our homes, shops, schools, GP surgeries, are spread far and wide – jumping on a bike or going by foot is simply unfeasible.
We need to move away from blunt, broad-brush instruments to tackle air pollution to a more targeted, conservative approach. Rush hour, for example, is a hotspot, where the combination of commuters and the school run gridlocks collide. By comparing term time and holiday traffic, we know that roughly one in four cars are on the school run in term time — despite the average journey only being 1.6 miles and well suited to other means of travel.
The impact of rush hour is profound. There’s an additional 15 minutes added to the average commute, 43 per cent more collisions reported, more cases of driver stress reported, and more employees being late to work. On the flip side, parents and carers should feel they can send their children off to school knowing they’ll get there safely and on time.
Despite growing up in an incredibly rural party of the country I nevertheless spent the entirety of my time to and from school on the school bus and later as a councillor I secured an hourly bus route through rural villages where before there had been none. Setting up school buses to run along the routes regularly taken by pupils is a simple, cost-effective way to allow teenagers to get to school independently, safely, and, crucially, on time.
Designating a bus for school children would free parents from sitting in the daily traffic jam. It would also create space for other commuters on regular buses and allow teenagers to travel independently.
Whilst there is no silver bullet, electric vehicles do eliminate emissions at the tailpipe which in turn will reduce roadside exposure to harmful air pollutants. Although the prices of EV cars will come down, the current upfront cost of an EV remains too much for many families. Ultimately, while we are all concerned about the impact of air pollution on ourselves and our loved ones — the bottom line matters.
That is why we need more, conservative policies to help drive down these costs and make EV cars more accessible. Successive conservative governments have already implemented several welcome measures to drive down costs and because of their efforts, several major manufacturers are now committing to 100 per cent of sales being electric by 2030. This has also meant that the second hand market — where most Brits buy their cars — is also gathering steam.
But, we can go further; we need to create an environment in which choosing an EV is a no-brainer when picking your next car. A critical part of that will be ramping up the number of public charging points by seven times. And we’ll need to make charging even more affordable by matching VAT on home chargers with public chargers at five per cent.
Part of taking a more pragmatic and proportional approach to air quality means not just looking at the pollution generated on our roads. As the temperature drops and Christmas approaches, lighting the log burner to supplement the central heating is not just a nicety but a necessity for some like my parents, and particularly so for those in rural areas who might be without gas and rely on more costly electric and oil heating. Rather than telling people they should stop doing it, we need instead to promote alternatives such as burning dried wood, using ‘environmentally friendly logs’, the benefits of having our chimney swept and opening the windows to ventilate the house when the fire is burning.
Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to tackle air pollution. We’ve introduced some of the country’s most ambitious legislation to reduce our exposure, including the 1956 and 1993 Clean Air Acts and the recent landmark Environment Act that sets really ambitious targets. When I’m canvassing I certainly speak proudly to our record on the environment – we’ve done more to protect and enhance it than any other political party in the history of our country. We do however need to demonstrate to voters that we can deliver a range of pragmatic and ambitious solutions without piling the charges onto ordinary households. In my opinion, that’s what voters expect of us, and what we can and should deliver at every level of government.
First published by ConservativeHome. Cllr Jed Dwight (Chipstead, Kingswood, and Woodmansterne) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.