Active travel as a political football - what does the 'war on cars' mean for London and cycling?
The recent Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, caused by ex-Prime Minister (and ex-London Mayor and active travel advocate) Boris Johnson stepping down from his seat, appears to have triggered both a lurch away from climate and active travel action in The Conservative Party in London and nationally, and a crisis of confidence in The Labour Party. Why? And what does that mean for London?
The Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election saw an extremely ‘safe’ Conservative MP seat, vacated by Johnson, returned to Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell, with a 495 vote majority over nearest rival Labour’s Danny Beales. The same day, two other by-elections outside London saw bigger swings away from the Conservative Party.
The result was that media and both Conservative and Labour candidates blamed the upcoming ULEZ expansion to cover all of outer London including the constituency as a key element in Labour’s ‘failure’ to swing the seat. Following this, senior Labour politicians, up to opposition leader Keir Starmer, attacked the ULEZ expansion and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, with Starmer urging him to “reflect” on the result. Simultaneously, senior Conservative politicians up to PM Rishi Sunak mooted an explicitly and increasingly bold series of pro-car policy measures.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper had already said prior to the by-election that the latest round of active travel funding in England would not include Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). Following the by-election, Sunak and Harper followed this with a “review” of LTNs and their efficacy from the DfT (it is unclear if this is referring to the existing DfT review of LTN evidence led by Professor Rachel Aldred that was ironically already attacked for pro-LTN bias), with Sunak even attacking “anti-car schemes” more generally, and supporting driving, sitting in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover car.
This rapidly escalated to rumours of rollback on 20mph zones and limits as well as LTNs, a delay on phase out of sale of new petrol and diesel cars, currently set for 2030, and other ‘Net Zero’ plans and policies. Sunak appears to have denied the phase-out will be delayed, but has repeatedly queried Net Zero policies and progress in more general terms. This culminated in “hundreds” of new oil and gas drilling licences being granted by Sunak, to widespread condemnation, including by environmentally-minded Conservatives including former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore and former Climate Minister Zac Goldsmith. Sunak continues to preside over an effective near ban on onshore wind rollout, and claims that the newly-granted licences would delivery ‘energy independence’ have been widely derided.
As above, at the same time, high-level talks between Sadiq and Starmer were needed to patch over a rift in the Labour Party between those apparently convinced that ‘climate-friendly’ policies in a cost of living crisis are voter-unfriendly and those who are convinced that action on climate is needed coherently and urgently. In the middle of this, and despite ongoing incoherence over the Silvertown Tunnel, The Evening Standard highlighted that to most Londoners, this increased Sadiq’s likely standing, going so far as to call him a “conviction politician“.
Following hot on the heels of the result also, Sadiq and TfL won a decisive court victory against four London councils (Bexley, Bromley, Harrow and Hillingdon) and Surrey County over ULEZ expansion, with the judge dismissing their grounds. And then followed that with an announcement, presumably motivated by Starmer’s intervention and the Uxbridge results, of a further £50m to extend the existing ULEZ scrappage scheme to be available to all Londoners, not just those on “Child Benefit or certain low income or disability benefits”, from 21 August 2023.
It is also worth noting in all the reaction to the by-election result from both main parties seems out of all proportion with current party polling nationally and in London, and against all the current survey results on such issues. Indeed, even taking the constituency in isolation, there was not only a highly significant swing in the by-election away from Conservatives in one of the safest seats in the country, but also both Labour and Conservative candidates were anti-ULEZ meaning there was no likely candidate for anyone who favoured ULEZ expansion to support, and turnout overall was far lower (as it usually is for by-elections) than previous elections.
There is a clear hardening of policies and platform in The Conservative Party against progressive, environmental and active travel policies and approaches currently – and it is widely held that this approach will continue, possibly accelerate, in the run up to the London Mayoral and England General Elections next year. The London Mayoral election is set for May, and the General Election date is yet to be announced, with pundits suggesting it could happen at the same time as the Mayoral election or later into the autumn.
On top of the court action by four London Conservative councils, Sadiq’s key rival for the next mayoral election, Susan Hall, the London Conservative candidate, has a fairly clear history of opposing cycle schemes and has said she intends to remove the ULEZ expansion on “day one” if elected. Similarly, Sunak nationally is now set to use not just Net Zero but other ‘culture war’ wedge issues to attack Labour. In turn, some Labour politicians – most visibly Starmer currently – are clearly trying to avoid being associated too closely with such progressive policies, while others such as Sadiq are clearly aiming to ‘brave it out’ out of moral conviction and/or conviction that voters in their areas agree with such an approach. Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the ‘floor’ are urging rapid and bold action on active travel and climate regardless.
Across London as a whole, surveys and polls put Sadiq out in front and show overall popularity for LTNs and ULEZ remaining fairly firm. LCC is currently planning its activities around the Mayoral election in London in May 2024, but from our Climate Safe Streets campaign it is surely very clear already where we stand in all this: it is our belief that it is imperative that every mainstream political party and politician in London acts with urgency and boldness on climate, on active travel and on cycling specifically. Words aren’t good enough, particularly when those words are contradictory or undermined by other pronouncements. Action is what’s needed and what we believe politicians will and must be judged on.
We believe there is a huge and growing body of not just evidence and government and regional guidance, but best practice also, that demonstrates the following:
All of this means that we urge every politician in London and beyond to get serious on climate and cycling action – to not make active travel a political football and to be honest with the public about action, even to work to understand and embrace evidence and best practice instead of continuing to advance policies that clearly cannot deliver progressive change that is much needed.
Our latest Climate Safe Streets report lays out the commitments made at not just Mayoral level but for every London Council, nearly all of whom have declared climate emergencies, and the actions we are asking them to take now, fast. We urge all of London’s politicians to “reflect” on it and act now. Because not only does London and the planet deserve action, but the signs are voters won’t support those who don’t take such action.
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