You Deserve Better


A few responses to Blaise’s recent hustings event have questioned our party’s commitment to clean air by highlighting that we are opposed to the current expansion plans for ULEZ, the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone.  I thought it would therefore be really good to review this particular policy and our own stance on the proposed expansion.

What is the ULEZ?

The Ultra-Low Emissions Zone is a London-wide restriction on polluting vehicles operating within certain areas of the city.  Importantly, this isn’t an outright ban, but instead a daily charge for using such a vehicle within the zone of operation.  As such, it is often seen as a tax on those who need to use polluting vehicles as part of their job, e.g. most self-employed handymen drive a “white van” which is unlikely to qualify as ULEZ exempt.

The goal of ULEZ is to improve air quality within the affected boroughs. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state emphatically that this is a laudable goal and one that we as Liberal Democrats all wholeheartedly support.

What Doesn't Help

I’m going to be really blunt here, but comments about how we want kids to die really aren’t helpful at all.  For example:

Tweet saying "So @BlaiseBaquiche wants asthmatic kids to die"

Clearly this is utter nonsense, as anyone who even peripherally knows Blaise would immediately conclude.  In fact, Blaise supports cleaner air for the whole planet.  His chosen day job involves trying to get climate activists in front of wider audiences, and he is one of the most committed environmentalists I know.

His and my objections to the ULEZ expansion are not about votes, they are about fairness.  In this example, we can employ my usual approach, namely the veil of ignorance.

The ULEZ of Ignorance

Using this thought process, we can imagine a situation where we have two people, one who relies on their van to make a living and one that doesn’t.  We don’t have any information in this problem about probabilities or numbers, we just know that we will be stepping into the shoes of one of these people and we need to design a system that is fair for everyone no matter where we end up.

Under the current ULEZ expansion, it is clear that the first person benefits to at least some degree.  Less traffic on the road and lower levels of air pollution.  Without question, we would be happy to find ourselves in that person’s shoes.

The second person is where the proposal falls apart.  In this case, our lives are negatively affected in a very significant way.  Such an individual doesn’t have a choice as to whether they keep up their job, so this ends up being an additional charge on the business.  They will still be driving just as much and polluting just as much, but they will be paying £12 a day for the privilege of working in their existing profession.

This may not sound like much, but the figure being bandied around at hustings was an average of £4,500 a year per person working.

It is worth taking a step back at this point and thinking about what this would mean.  It means that all our plumbers, electricians, builders, handymen, gardeners, carers, delivery drivers, etc, would be hit with a charge for doing their jobs that would not apply to the first person.

You could argue that this is fair because the heaviest polluters should pay the most to help clean up everyone’s air, and at first that seems like a decent argument.  The problem is that we all benefit from what those people do.  In the last year alone, I have had electricians, gardeners, builders and delivery drivers come to my door.  Many, possibly even most, of those drove vehicles that would not qualify for a ULEZ exemption because the larger cargo vehicles rarely do.

So the question really is this: given person 1 benefits from non-ULEZ compliant vehicles, is it fair that only person 2 pays the price?

If you genuinely have no idea which side of this particular argument you will fall on, I genuinely do not see how you could be happy with the idea of putting all the financial burden onto person 2.  The thought experiment shows that there would be little impact to that cohort’s usage, but they would be hit with a large bill every year simply for doing the jobs that keep us all going.

Wacky Alternatives

It’s very easy to criticise someone for a simplistic view that has to be contained in a short sound bite.  Hence the nonsense Tweet above that Blaise wants kids to die.  Clearly that’s not true, and clearly it is a deliberate ignoring of all the nuance surrounding this particular issue.

There has been some sound about how Blaise is opposed to clean air, which is ridiculous.  The counter example I gave was that air would be noticeably improved in Hillingdon by banning all cars and vans.  Clearly this is utterly unworkable and would lead to misery, so is opposing this wacky suggestion an opposition to clean air?

No, obviously.

Instead this is an admission that this laudable goal of clean air is not an absolute “we must do this at all costs” goal, but rather a goal that we should always have in mind, but we need to make gradual progress towards it without hamstringing our day to day lives.

Real Alternatives

Clearly banning all cars and vans is not a workable idea, so what might we do as an alternative?  Some ideas:

  • Improved scrappage scheme in terms of value paid for trading in.
  • Improved scrappage scheme in terms of eligibility for the scheme in the first place.
  • More incentives for buying clean vehicles, including EVs and hybrids.
  • More low-cost charging points across London.