Tony Devenish: “London needs an EV revolution, not more punitive road charges”

Tony Devenish, Conservative London Assembly Member for Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster, has his say on the recent ULEZ expansion.

If we are going to tackle air pollution and cut the capital’s carbon emissions, the Mayor of London needs to treat motorists as part of the solution, not the problem. That means helping Londoners to ditch their older, polluting cars and switch to electric vehicles. For all of Sadiq Khan’s triumphalism, the expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will not kickstart the electric vehicle revolution London needs.

ULEZ is a deeply regressive tax that hits those who can least afford the charge the hardest. For some Londoners, the expansion of the daily £12.50 charge will have been the catalyst for their decision to buy a cleaner vehicle. Some will no doubt grin and bear it after calculating that they can afford to take the hit. But many others will be trapped with a driving bill they can’t afford with no way to switch vehicles.

While Transport for London provided £61 million in scrappage schemes ahead of ULEZ expansion, this support was woefully inadequate. The two schemes that offered scrappage grants for vans and heavy vehicles were closed in the middle of the pandemic due to a lack of funds. This left small businesses and sole traders with no help as the ULEZ expanded despite 38,000 non-compliant vans and lorries driving in the zone each day.

The remaining scheme to help low-income and disabled Londoners scrap cars and motorcycles only paid out to a third of applicants. Of the nearly 20,000 people asking for help, less than 6,900 received a scrappage grant. Worryingly there are only funds to help 1,000 more drivers meaning thousands of Londoners will be left with no support to scrap their cars. Worse still, this scrappage scheme is also far too narrow. It only offers grants to people on certain benefits, making thousands of working families who can’t afford the charge or a new vehicle ineligible.

That’s why my Conservative colleagues and I called on the Mayor to invest £50 million from City Hall’s business rate reserve into scrappage schemes. That’s enough to reopen the suspended schemes for vans and heavy vehicles and offer grants to Londoners who earn less than £30,000 – as Birmingham City Council does. This sizeable investment would scrap thousands of non-compliant cars, clean up London’s air, and help struggling Londoners avoid the charge.

Sadly, the Mayor has so far ignored our plea for greater investment in scrappage schemes. Without additional scrappage scheme investment, Khan is missing an opportunity to help Londoners buy electric vehicles. ULEZ expansion only encourages Londoners to ditch older vehicles for newer petrol and diesel options. Had the Mayor listened to our calls to delay his plan to expand the charge up to the North and South Circulars until next year, more Londoners may have been enticed by electric vehicles. Especially if the Mayor offered scrappage schemes that encouraged people and businesses to ditch fossil fuels.

Instead, the Mayor rushed through ULEZ expansion with City Hall offering little or no help to switch vehicles only three months after coronavirus restrictions ended. With no time to recover from the pandemic, let alone prepare for the charge, many cannot afford a new electric car over a cheaper second-hand petrol or diesel vehicle. And the few that are considering the switch face a year-long wait due to a global shortage in semiconductors.

But the big reason why ULEZ will not deliver an electric vehicle revolution is simple: the Mayor has failed to invest in electric infrastructure alongside the expansion. It took Transport for London three years to install 300 rapid charging points. Now estimates show 4000 will be needed by 2030 when the UK will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. While some boroughs like the City of Westminster, which has installed 1,095 charging points, are ploughing ahead, City Hall is falling behind. London as a whole may be ahead of the country with a third of charging points, but it is miles behind where it needs to be.

At COP26 in Glasgow, Sadiq Khan rested on his ULEZ laurels after being proclaimed “king” by other city Mayors. No Londoner wants to watch their Mayor take an international victory lap when our city is so ill-equipped for the next generation of vehicles. What Londoners want to hear is the Mayor’s plan to make the capital the first electric global city. ULEZ will not deliver it. It may clean up our air, but only on the backs of the poorest in London. And it won’t help people ditch fossil fuels. It’s time for the Mayor to develop a plan to use ULEZ revenue to deliver an electric vehicle revolution – for everyone, not just those who can afford it.