OPINION - Ulez day one: breathe easy

 (Jeremy Selwyn)
(Jeremy Selwyn)

The extension to London’s Ultra low emission zone (Ulez) came into force today. It represents a victory for Sadiq Khan, air quality campaigners and really anyone with lungs, particularly small and growing ones.

This newsletter has never pretended to be neutral on the issue. Not simply because air pollution contributes to the premature deaths of thousands of Londoners each year. This is about self-preservation – I don’t own a car and live on a busy road. So, I should be happy, right?

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the story of Ulez extension – which includes the near-total opposition from the Conservatives, the growing hostility of the Labour Party, the legal efforts of local councils and the (at times) unhinged anger of motorists – bodes ill for the future.

In Sadiq Khan, London has a mayor who not only decided to do something bold, but has a benign enough electorate which means he can afford to do unpopular things while still winning re-election. But Ulez is such low-hanging fruit.

It is not even a new concept – the initial scheme has been in place since 2019 (and first proposed by Boris Johnson). The vast majority of cars are already Ulez-compliant. While London has a pretty good public transport network, certainly relative to other parts of the country.

And yet, this has been a difficult heave. Which leads me to wonder: how we will prepare for the more difficult challenges posed by climate change? From clamping down on fossil fuel subsidies to retrofitting old buildings. How do we balance economic needs and societal fairness with decarbonisation? Ulez is not the last environmental tradeoff we will encounter this century.

It seems we have come to hate two things: the way things are and change. We know that nitrogen dioxide damages our organs while carbon emissions are making the planet warmer, narrowing the habitable zone on the only known life-supporting rock in the visible universe. At the same time, we hardly seem willing to adjust our behaviour. Install a heat pump? No thanks. Take fewer flights? I’m good. Eat less meat? What is this, fascism?

Getting to 29 August 2023 and Ulez expansion day is a real achievement of both public policy and of politics. I wouldn’t want to take a win and call it a draw. But it does not fill me with confidence that we have the arguments, cross-party alliances or fiscal support in place to do the more difficult things.

In the comment pages, Matthew d’Ancona warns that Labour may come to regret ruling out wealth taxes. Daniel Freeman makes the right-wing case for Ulez. While Joe Bromley says the one-night stand is a casualty of the cost of living crisis, but proffers advice on how to cope.

And finally, as fights and heckling hit two West End shows, are audiences out of control? Londoner’s Diary goes deep cover.

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