We must learn the right lessons from the Uxbridge by-election. Steve Tuckwell, our excellent candidate, won because of a hard-fought local campaign and the help of hundreds of dedicated activists. Undoubtedly, many voters went to the polls to reject Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion. But as my colleagues representing outer London and I have made clear on the doorstep in Uxbridge and our constituencies, opposing Labour’s charge doesn’t mean we’re anti-environment.
It would be wrong to assume that people in Uxbridge and South Ruislip voted against action to safeguard our environment. That’s certainly not what I saw on the doorstep, nor is it what my constituents think as a neighbouring MP. Many voted Conservative last Thursday to protect the green belt and because Hillingdon Council has a strong green record for installing electric charging points, boosting recycling, and planting trees.
It’s fundamentally a conservative instinct to care for your local environment, which sees many people put a cross next to Conservative candidates in local and national elections. That was true in Uxbridge as it is in any other election.
One of the reasons people oppose the ULEZ expansion is because air pollution is much lower in outer London than inner London. And even where hotspots exist, the primary sources are clear. Uxbridge voters concerned about air quality rightly pointed to Heathrow Airport as the culprit. Given Hillingdon Council’s leading role in challenging plans for a third runway, voters backed the Conservatives locally because of their strong environmental stance. What we need are targeted solutions in outer London to tackle these issues. Outer Londoners rightly reject ULEZ, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want us to tackle air pollution where it exists.
ULEZ expansion is a clear-cut case of taxation disguised as a green measure. Transport for London’s (TfL) claims that it will only impact nine in ten cars has been debunked. Almost 700,000 cars registered in London are non-compliant, and 49 per cent of vans. The idea that Londoners don’t drive cars is also wrong. Many people living in outer London rely on their cars because public transport connections are inadequate. Hillingdon has the third-highest car ownership in London, behind Bexley and Richmond upon Thames.
These aren’t the wealthiest residents either. TfL’s analysis showed that a majority of households earning as little as £10,000 own a car in outer London. And as the Resolution Foundation’s research shows, unsurprisingly, those on the lowest incomes have the oldest cars, least likely to be ULEZ compliant. Forty per cent of cars owned by the poorest in London are between seven and thirteen years old, and 36 per cent are even older.
While there was a cross-party consensus in favour of ULEZ within central London, where public transport is best and air pollution worst, it’s far from the case in outer London. It’s unfair and unaffordable, and that’s the message voters in Uxbridge sent to Sadiq Khan, which must be a wake-up call for London Labour.
But in learning from this successful by-election, we should refrain from drawing wider conclusions about environmental action, which remains overwhelmingly popular nationwide. If we vacate this space, we’ll hand an electorally potent issue to the Labour Party before the next election. Instead, we must continue to be an environmentally ambitious political party focusing on action that lowers people’s bills, creates jobs, and unlocks investment.
With cost of living pressures being voters’ number one concern, there is a temptation to look for a ULEZ-type national issue to distinguish us from Labour ahead of the next election. But it’s not so easy. Our target to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 isn’t the same as Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion. There is plenty of time to prepare, and our car industry is already innovating and investing to meet the target.
The impact of the phase-out will be lighter than many think, as people will still be able to buy second-hand petrol and diesel cars and new hybrids. Unlike ULEZ expansion, people will not be priced off the roads with these other cars available until electric vehicles become the cheapest option. They’re already significantly cheaper to run and maintain than petrol or diesel cars. The sticker price of electric vehicles has dramatically fallen and will continue to fall as the industry grows, with manufacturers producing more and better models for lower prices.
There’s more to do to make the transition to electric vehicles as smooth as possible. We need manufacturers to bring prices down further and expand vehicles’ range. We also need to develop the charging infrastructure. London has more than 11,500 charging points meaning the city could lead the transition to electric cars. It’s installed this many because it is one of the few places in the country where power networks reveal where the grid has spare capacity for charging points. If Ofgem instructed all power networks to make this information readily available for investors, we could begin to install many more charging points across the nation.
Unlike Sadiq Khan’s attempt to push people off the roads, we want to keep Britain driving while cutting our emissions. Moving to electric vehicles will enable us to show that driving is compatible with tackling climate change and air pollution. Delaying the target would put our targets on climate change and air pollution at risk.
Weakening the target would also jeopardise investment in the electric car industry, pushing investors overseas, just after ministers secured a £4 billion investment by Tata to build a battery factory in Somerset. Having set the 2030 deadline, we shouldn’t pull the rug from underneath car firms that are now investing in electric models. Instead, we need to work out the remaining bumps, but not ditch a transition voters understand because of a failed Labour policy.
For over a decade, environmental leadership has been key to the Conservative Party’s electoral success. Even with the cost of living dominating people’s concerns, protecting the environment is the fourth most important issue for voters, according to YouGov. We have a tremendous record to champion.
Thanks to Conservative policies, the UK has one of the fastest decarbonisation rates of any G7 country, built the world’s largest offshore wind farms off our coasts, and became the first major economy to enshrine net zero by 2050 in law. We shouldn’t surrender this space for the Labour Party to dominate. Instead, we need to lead on green issues in a fair and affordable way.
First published by ConservativeHome. David Simmonds MP (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.