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Local politicians lead opposition to ULEZ expansion

In the first part of her four-part series on Barnet’s views on the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone, Maya Sall talks to an MP and a councillor who think it is a mistake

Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers at the head of group of protestors opposing the ULEZ expansion in New Barnet
Theresa Villiers leads a protest against the ULEZ expansion in May – (Credit – Office of Theresa Villiers MP)

On the 29th August London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is going to expand to cover outer London

Introduced to inner London in April 2019, the aim of ULEZ is to improve air quality by reducing the number of old and more polluting vehicles on London’s roads. 

The southernmost neighbourhoods of Barnet are already part of inner London ULEZ but soon the scheme will encompass all four corners of the borough. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to people across Barnet, investigating how the ULEZ expansion will impact lives, livelihoods and living conditions and, in this four-part series, I will tell you what they said. 

Despite vocal opposition and a by-election defeat in Uxbridge, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has held fast on his pledge to expand ULEZ. In this first article, I talk to some of the local politicians who are spearheading the campaign against.

Theresa Villiers, Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, and a former environment secretary in Boris Johnson’s government, has been one of the loudest voices in opposition, leading a public protest in her constituency, while also bringing forward a bill in parliament designed to grant central government the power to overrule the mayor and halt the scheme. 

“Public transport isn’t the easiest way to get around”

I spoke with Villiers earlier this month. She explained her concerns about the effects of the expansion on less well off constituents: “I believe it is wrong to impose these new charges on the suburbs at a time when the cost of living has increased significantly, and has left a lot of people struggling.”  

She also expressed worries over the impact of ULEZ on public services: “In outer London, our public services often struggle to recruit the people we need… particularly our care sectors. Many care workers depend on their cars … and public transport isn’t the easiest way to get around.” 

Villers explained that, alongside her campaigning against ULEZ, she is working to improve public transport in her constituency. Having previously campaigned to restore the 84 bus route, she has now set her sights on bringing back the 384 and lobbying for a more frequent service on the Northern Line.

And despite her opposition to ULEZ expansion, Villiers made it clear that she does believe air pollution in Barnet is a problem explaining: “as I’ve said many times, including in the House of Commons, it is important that we deal with air pollution and its negative health impacts.” 

She talked repeatedly about ‘hotspots’ in Barnet where air pollution is worse – without directly specifying which parts of the borough she was particularly concerned about. When pressed on this, she said: “I think we need to improve air quality right across the borough”. 

Villiers also spoke at length about the need for a scrappage scheme, which she described as “very positive in helping people make the transition between older to newer vehicles.” 

But when asked if amendments to the mayor’s scrappage scheme – beyond those recently announced – could win her support for the expansion, she said that an additional problem was that motorists were not being given enough time to find replacement vehicles: “the key here is moving to cleaner vehicles, the question is how you do it and the pace at which you do it.”

“Pollution is less than in central London”

Critically, the MP pointed to research commissioned by TfL that she said shows the ULEZ expansion “is not going to be effective on cleaning up air quality” stating that the introduction of a zero-emission bus fleet and a better scrappage scheme would be more effective, as “in the suburbs, the overall level of pollution is less than in central London.”

This belief in better air in the suburbs was echoed byanother local opponent of the expansion, Barnet Vale Conservative councillor David Longstaff. He told me that air quality in his ward was good because it “backs onto green belt fields and open land.” 

Longstaff was also dubious about the impact air quality has on our health: “a lot of what has been said is based on the fact that one person died in 20 years.” 

This is a reference to the 2020 coroner’s ruling that “air pollution exposure” was one of the causes of the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013. 

“We live in a democracy”

Cllr Longstaff was one of those in attendance at the anti-ULEZ protest organised by Villiers in New Barnet in May. While the attendance at the protest highlighted the concerns of local residents about the expansion, it has received at least much coverage for the presence of some protestors promoting “conspiracy theories”

Photos of the individuals holding the placards “Stop The Toxic Air Lie” have been well documented in the press, with Villiers herself having posted the photographs to her social media channels. 

Cllr Longstaff denied having seen the placards. Villiers, however, defended their presence, saying: “with a public protest like that, inevitably you’re going to get a gathering of people with different views”, before reiterating her commitment to cleaning up London’s air.

When I asked whether she was concerned that her campaign had attracted the attention of those with opinions that are dangerous to public health, Villiers replied: “We live in a democracy, people are allowed to hold dissident views on these kinds of issues… I wouldn’t necessarily agree with them, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be allowed to express themselves.”

This is the first part of a four-part series on Barnet’s perspectives on ULEZ expansion. The next part will be published on Thursday 24th August. 

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