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Sam Hall: Ditching conservative environmental policies is the wrong lesson from Uxbridge

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network

By-elections are gruelling affairs, both for political parties but especially for the candidates thrown unexpectedly into intense political campaigns with the nation's media watching. While the Conservatives lost seats in Somerset and Frome and Selby and Ainsty, they can take comfort in Steve Tuckwell's victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, who should be congratulated.

Tuckwell's victory has widely been interpreted by political parties and commentators as a rejection of Sadiq Khan's plan to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charge across outer London. Inevitably, the Conservatives will be looking to learn the lessons from this remarkable victory to defend their majority in next year's general election. But they would be wrong to conclude, as some are already doing, that other environmental policies are unpopular with voters.

Sadiq Khan's decision to expand the daily £12.50 ULEZ charge for polluting vehicles across outer London, where people have fewer affordable public transport alternatives than the rest of the capital and during a cost of living, is controversial. The Conservatives have capitalised on the public backlash.

But a strong environmental platform remains a political asset for the Conservatives. It's a top-five issue for voters. Concerns about water pollution have been effectively weaponised by the Liberal Democrats in Southern England. Greens took dozens of council seats off the Conservatives in this year’s local elections, while anti-net zero Reform UK won only six seats. And in northern England, opinion polling has shown that voters see net zero as an opportunity to capture new industries, create jobs and level up. Voters want to see environmental action but want it to be fair and beneficial to themselves, their family and their community.

Undoubtedly, with inflation still running high, the cost of living is the top issue for voters, and the party they trust to ease the pressure on household budgets will likely win the next election. This is why ULEZ expansion has proved unpopular in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But it's wrong to conclude this is a rejection of environmental policies more generally.

Going into the next election, the Conservatives will need to champion and build on their environmental record, and there are plenty of policies they can propose to reduce the cost of living while protecting our environment. For example, tax breaks for homeowners and landlords to retrofit homes will cut people's energy bills, unlocking onshore wind and streamlining planning rules for offshore wind will lower energy prices, and introducing a zero-emission vehicle mandate will incentivise car firms to supply affordable EVs in sufficient numbers.

The Conservatives should still demonstrate their commitment to tackling air pollution even if they oppose ULEZ expansion. Nationally the party should double down on its 2030 phase-out of new petrol and diesel cars which will keep people driving while cutting emissions and air pollution. Drivers are already switching faster than anticipated. Charge point numbers are rising steeply, with 44,000 public chargers installed in total and a 36% increase in the past year alone. And Jaguar Land Rover has announced plans to invest £4 billion in building one of Europe's biggest battery factories in Somerset. There's more to do to reach this target, but delivering it will demonstrate the party’s commitment to cleaning our air.

Heading into next year's mayoral election, London Conservatives will need to propose an alternative plan to tackle air pollution. ULEZ expansion may be unpopular in outer London, but air pollution remains a concern across London. Over two thirds of Londoners worry about the impact of air pollution on their health. They are right to: while air quality in London has improved significantly, large areas still exceed nitrogen dioxide pollution limits.

At the Conservative Environment Network's hustings, it was welcome to hear the party’s candidate, Susan Hall, announce her plan to give £50 million to local communities to tackle air pollution in hotspots. But further measures will be needed to achieve air quality goals, including helping more people walk and cycle, extending pilots of clean micro-mobility technology, encouraging more freight shipped on the river and liberalising planning rules for electric vehicle charging points.

The Conservatives secured a victory against the odds by focusing the campaign on ULEZ expansion. They effectively pulled off a protest vote against an unpopular mayor instead of the usual dynamic of voters protesting the government. This strategy won’t work at a general election, when the party will be asking for a fifth term in government. Senior Conservatives must resist calls to ditch conservative environmental policies.


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