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Tories Will Keep Fighting Labour On ULEZ Despite High Court Defeat

London Mayor Sadiq Khan (Alamy)

6 min read

The Conservatives will continue to attack the Labour Party over the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) despite the High Court ruling on Friday morning that London Mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to expand the daily charge to the outer reaches of the capital is legal.

Tory MPs said being defeated in court does not mean that the policy is "right" and that they will continue to push back on it in the run-up to the next general election.

Judges ruled on Friday that Khan had not acted beyond his powers or failed to carry out sufficient consultation by extending the pollution-fighting measure across Greater London, meaning he can go ahead with the contentious planned expansion of ULEZ at the end of August. 

The unsuccessful legal challenge was brought by Tory-led London councils Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon, as well Surrey County Council, and comes amid a wider row over ULEZ triggered by the Tories' shock victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.

ULEZ, which Khan stresses will help save lives in London by significantly improving air quality, came to dominate the campaign in west London earlier this month. Conservative activists framed a vote for their candidate Steve Tuckwell as a way of expressing opposition to the daily £12.50 charge for non-compliant vehicles, and both the Tories and Labour agree that it played a key part in helping Tuckwell defeat Labour's Danny Beales with a thin 495 majority.

The surprise win in Uxbridge defied most expectations and gave Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a slice of good news on an otherwise miserable night, which saw the Conservatives surrender huge majorities in Yorkshire and Somerset to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. 

Speaking following Friday's High Court ruling, Tuckwell made clear that Conservatives in London would not put aside the ULEZ issue despite the failure of the Tory-led legal challenge.

"Uxbridge and South Ruislip sent Mayor Sadiq Khan a clear message last week – halt your ULEZ expansion," said the new MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Susan Hall, the Tory challenger to Khan in London's 2024 mayoral election, said: "While it is a shame the High Court did not find the ULEZ expansion to be unlawful, there's no denying that Sadiq Khan’s plans will have a devastating impact on families and businesses across the city."

James Sunderland, the Conservative MP for nearby Bracknell, said the High Court dismissal of the legal challenge does not make Khan's decision to expand ULEZ "right".

Sunderland, whose seat borders Greater London, told PoliticsHome: "Finding the ULEZ extension to be legally permissible does not make it right. This is nothing more than a cynical tax grab upon hard-pressed families at a time when they can least afford it."

Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP for South Thanet, said Khan was "condemning many lower paid and retired motorists to huge new tax charges" at a "time of severe cost of living pressures".

Mayor Khan stresses that nine out of ten cars used in outer London will not be charged because they are already ULEZ compliant, and argues that drivers who do pay the daily fee or upgrade their cars to be compliant will help reduce the number of people who die prematurely as a result of poor air quality, which he says is currently at around 4,000 a year.

"This landmark decision is good news as it means we can proceed with cleaning up the air in outer London on 29 August," Khan said. 

"The decision to expand the ULEZ was very difficult and not something I took lightly and I continue to do everything possible to address any concerns Londoners may have.

"The ULEZ has already reduced toxic nitrogen dioxide air pollution by nearly half in central London and a fifth in inner London. The coming expansion will see five million more Londoners being able to breathe cleaner air."

Khan added that he has listened to Londoners' concerns about the financial impact of ULEZ by deciding to expand the scrappage scheme to help more households and businesses upgrade to compliant vehicles. Now, all families receiving child benefit plus London businesses with up to 50 employees will be eligible for support worth thousands of pounds.

Conservative party winning candidate Steve Tuckwell and Labour candidate Danny Beale (Alamy)

The mayor has come under pressure from Labour leader Keir Starmer to consider further ways of mitigating the costs of ULEZ following the party's loss in west London, which somewhat overshadowed their seismic victory over the Conservatives in the Selby and Ainsty by-election on the same day. It triggered a row within the party over whether Khan should think again on ULEZ to prevent Labour suffering similar defeats in the capital's outer suburbs at the next general election, which is expected to take place some time in 2024.

Starmer and Khan have urged Sunak to invest government money in the scrappage scheme, arguing that while ministers have contributed millions of pounds to Bath, Bristol, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Birmingham to boost similar schemes, London has received nothing.

A shadow minister told PoliticsHome: "Labour will have a lot of tough decisions to make in government, whether on clean air, clean water, energy costs or climate or issues which intersect across these. This measure is a tough choice but will save lives and the mayor is doing what he can to mitigate the cost – but the government should have done much more."

Another Labour MP acknowledged, however, that the party had encountered a "comms issue" on the subject and that "fear of ULEZ and the reality of it are two very different things".

The result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip has led to a row within the Conservative party, too, with some MPs in the right of the parliamentary Tory party claiming that the shock victory is evidence that the government should relax its plans to achieve net zero by 2050.

Rachel Wolf, who co-authored the party's successful 2019 general election manifesto, warned the Prime Minister that net zero is supported by all voter groups that he risks "overinterpreting and misinterpreting" his surprise victory in west London earlier this month.

Wolf said diluting net zero or pandering to sceptical Conservative MPs will not boost the Tory party's electoral prospects. "They should not be filling the airwaves as net zero sceptics, which some people want them to do, as that is not going to help them," she told PoliticsHome.

Daisy Powell-Chandler, a seasoned electionists strategist who worked for former Tory PM David Cameron, echoed Wolf, telling PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that Westminster needed to "calm down" after the by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

She warned the government it would be "completely nutso" to water down the net zero pledge to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030, as called for by some Tory MPs.

"It would be absolutely batty to invest a whole load of the government's money, our money, in persuading battery manufacturers and battery storage plants to come here, only to then say, ‘oh yeah, but we're not going to make it compulsory for people to drive electric cars’, it would be completely nutso," she told the podcast.

Additional reporting by Tom Scotson and Nadine Batchelor-Hunt.

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