Road User Charging Schemes

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Monday 26th June 2023

(8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon (Orpington) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for leading the debate.

At the outset, I have to say that I fully support the sentiment of both the petitions we are discussing today, but I will primarily speak to the petition that refers to a desire to amend the GLA Act 1999 to remove the Mayor of London’s power to impose road user charges. The issue has been brought into very sharp focus by the Mayor of London’s decision late last year to move forward with the expansion of the ultra low emission zone to the Greater London boundary, a policy that I have spoken about in the House a number of times.

My Orpington constituents are part of the London Borough of Bromley, which will be impacted by the decision. My constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to the expansion of ULEZ, which they see quite rightly as a tax-grabbing scheme to fill the holes in Transport for London’s finances. Moreover, it is a tax-grabbing scheme misleadingly dressed up as an environmental measure. Despite a growing clamour and loud discontent, the Mayor is continuing with its implementation. Indeed, he has effectively made a mockery of the public consultation on his plans by ignoring the fact that it showed that over 60% of those consulted were against the scheme, including 70% of those living in outer London.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that TfL began ordering hundreds of the number plate recognition systems required for the expanded ULEZ in April 2022, a full month before the public consultation even started. Documents obtained by the London Assembly Conservative group show that the Mayor’s office, having been briefed that the vast majority of consultation responses coming in were opposed to the expansion, then attempted to influence the outcome by targeting an advertising campaign at particular groups of people who were more likely to respond favourably. There also appears to be a strong indication that City Hall attempted to suppress responses from certain individuals in order to make the outcome appear closer than it was.

It is completely clear that the Mayor was never interested in any opinion that did not concur with his own, including that of my constituents. Time and again, he has shown himself to be entirely unrepentant in his determination to impose prohibitively high extra costs on Londoners. Orpington simply does not have the public transport alternatives that exist in central London. We do not have the tube. We do not have trams. We have a bus network that is far from comprehensive and is unreliable. We have country lanes, farms and hedgerows. It is a vast place, and people need their cars to get around.

My inbox and postbag have been full of messages from people who are desperately worried because they own a non-compliant vehicle and can afford neither the daily charge nor the cost of a replacement vehicle. For some, the expansion will simply mean that they are not able to drive any more. Indeed a TfL-commissioned report by the consultancy firm Jacobs, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), was published in May 2022 and warned of a disproportionate impact on low-income households due to their lesser capacity to switch to a compliant vehicle and/or to change mode.

The Labour party likes to hector everybody about the cost of living, but this scheme is by one of their own Mayors and it will hit people on low incomes the most, because they are more likely to have an older vehicle. Elderly constituents have written to me distraught about how they may no longer be able to go out and do their weekly shop or see family and friends because they cannot afford to drive their cars. They are terrified of isolation. They have survived the pandemic, but they may not survive this.

Single traders have told me that they will no longer be able to operate. Social care workers have told me that they will have to leave the profession. My local higher education college has told me that the impact on large numbers of their staff will be devastating. I must agree with small business owners, who are rightfully complaining that after the pandemic the ULEZ charge is a crippling additional cost they do not need at this time. Restaurants and venues within the ULEZ will see a reduction in footfall. The Mayor clearly fails to grasp that a painter and decorator or a builder or tree surgeon cannot take their tools up and down escalators and compete for space on public transport.

To add insult to injury, the scheme may close businesses in Orpington. One of my constituents recently told me that he will have to give up his business, because if he is forced to buy a new vehicle or pay £12.50 every day, it will no longer be viable. That is the reality of the situation—businesses closed, family visits severely restricted and workers worse off. All of that is about to be imposed by the Mayor of London at a time when the cost of living is increasing. That arrogance and total disregard for the great difficulties that will be imposed on less affluent people are driving my constituents to despair, and the scheme is entirely unnecessary.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he share my surprise that, when challenged in the London Assembly on the issue, a Labour member responded to those worried about the cost of living by saying, “Go and buy a new car; it will only cost £3,000.”?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I would like to say that I am surprised by that answer, but I am afraid that I am not. It comprehensively shows the lack of grip from some of the people making the decisions that we are talking about. I remind Members present that every single member of the Labour group on the London Assembly voted in favour of this when they had the opportunity to stop it, as did every member of the Liberal Democrats group and every member of the Green group.

The Mayor’s own independently produced “London-wide ULEZ Integrated Impact Assessment” states:

“The Proposed Scheme is estimated to have a minor (NO2) to negligible (PM2.5)…impact on exposure to air pollution”.

Asthma UK ranks Bromley and Havering as the second and first boroughs, respectively, in terms of the cleanest air quality in the capital, so why should my constituents have the ULEZ imposed on them in this way? Improving air quality sounds great on paper and might earn the Mayor of London brownie points from rich Labour donors who finance anti-democratic pressure groups such as Just Stop Oil, but the reality is that the scheme will change little in terms of air quality.

Devolution, as personified in the form of elected metro Mayors, has created a form of electoral dictatorship in certain regions of the country. Most metro Mayors have almost no elected scrutiny of their actions and no local checks on their power. The London Assembly has done valuable work in scrutinising the Mayor, but in practice it is a toothless tiger in terms of its ability to check his power. The expanded ULEZ will do little to improve air quality, but it is likely to go ahead because the Mayor and local authorities have the power to create clean air zones even if they are flawed. That power needs urgent review.

Section 143 of the GLA Act 1999 appears to offer hope to my constituents, because on the face of it the section gives the Secretary of State for Transport the power to direct the Mayor of London with regard to his transport strategy under certain conditions. However, I am aware that Department for Transport lawyers apparently see that as a grey area. So let us put the issue beyond doubt and do the right thing: let us agree with the petitioners and seek to remove the power of Mayors and local authorities to unilaterally impose these charges.

--- Later in debate ---
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for the way he presented the petitions. I totally agree with everything that has been said by my Conservative colleagues, and I do not want to be too repetitive. I will emphasise some really important points, not least of which are that this ULEZ expansion was not in the manifesto of the Mayor of London, that the consultation showed overwhelming opposition to it, and that, according to his own integrated impact assessment, it will do nothing to tackle air quality.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss
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In 2020, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), a deputy chairman of the Conservative party, said:

“I fully support the Mayor’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and its planned extension. The majority of car journeys in the Two Cities are not made by local people. They are travelling through, ruining our air quality.”

Why does the hon. Gentleman think she said that? How can he say that the Conservative party does not support ULEZ?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am very happy to help the hon. Lady figure out what London looks like. Its geography comes from the two cities. The Conservative party did support the inner London low emission zone, but it does not support the greater London low emission zone, which applies to my constituency.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss
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She is the deputy chair of your party!

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I have long been opposed to ULEZ.

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the inner London ultra low emission zone is contained in the congestion charging zone, which has a massive surplus of public transport alternatives and demonstrably worse and less clean air than outer London? That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) was in favour of it while she was leader of Westminster City Council and why it was supported when it was initially consulted on under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson by the GLA Conservative group.

Outer London is completely different. It does not suffer from the same bad air or have the public transport alternatives. That may help the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) to understand why there is a very big difference between the inner London ultra low emission zone and the outer London ultra low emission zone proposed by the Mayor.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Characteristically, and as a former member of the London Assembly, he is absolutely right. Indeed, I imagine that our hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) may have been less supportive at the time if she had known that, only a few years later, the Mayor would be looking to cut the historic No. 11 bus route out of central London and her constituency.

Richard Holden Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Richard Holden)
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I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend. I just thought it would be worth reflecting on the quote given by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson. Back in 2020, there was no proposal from the Mayor of London to expand ULEZ to the Greater London boundary, so whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), who is not present, was saying in 2020—I am sure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) let her know that she was going to mention her in Westminster Hall—was not in support of whatever Mayor Khan has put forward. It was not anything about what is being debated today because that was not the ULEZ proposal of Mayor Khan at the time. That is largely the point of some of the petitioners who have been in touch about today’s debate.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. We are not under any real time pressure, but can I remind right hon. and hon. Members that interventions should be short and to the point? They are gradually getting longer and longer.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Thank you, Mr Stringer. I will quickly move on then, and just say that the Minister is absolutely right.

Like other colleagues, I have seen at first hand in my postbag the local, organic opposition to ULEZ continue to grow—not just from my own petition, which is continuing to grow by hundreds of signatures every week, but from the very real stories that we are receiving from constituents about how expansion of ultra low emission zone will impact them. In Carshalton and Wallington alone, it is estimated that 30% of all vehicles will be deemed non-compliant; that means that roughly 30,000 cars will not be deemed compliant if the expansion goes ahead. How many people will be impacted by that? How many families? How many small businesses? How many pensioners? How many charities? These are real concerns voiced by real people, yet how are they portrayed? How are they dealt with? The Mayor of London, seemingly deaf to these concerns, labels them wackos, nutjobs and conspiracy theorists—and that is when he is not too busy trying to sell his book or going around the world advertising marijuana farms.

Where do my constituents go for help? The Mayor is not helping them—the Conservatives are the only party opposing the expansion—so what about their local council? Behind all the smoke and mirrors is the inescapable fact that the Liberal Democrats have been consistently pro-ULEZ. That dates back all the way to 2020 when it was actually a Lib Dem Assembly member who berated the Mayor for not introducing a whole-London ultra low emission zone. Then, closer to home, a Lib Dem Assembly member has welcomed the expansion of ultra low emission zone as “right and necessary” and Sutton’s Lib Dem councillors have been voicing their support for the expansion of ULEZ to our roads for years. One went so far as to state boldly on social media that

“Yes we are in favour of ULEZ”

and voted down a motion moved by the Conservative group on Sutton Council to call on the Mayor to drop it. Even now, even when they are trying to claw back some kind of credibility, they can still only go as far as to say that they want a delay. Well, a delay is not good enough. The only acceptable thing to do with ULEZ is to scrap it. I am looking towards the Opposition Benches: it does not surprise me that it is not only the Labour party who are not here, but the Lib Dems, too.

It is incredibly heartening to see Conservative colleagues working together across London and outside of it, and I congratulate the five Conservative-run councils that have brought forward this proposal. However, having heard your warning about this matter being sub judice, Mr Stringer, I will not go any further than that.

We are not only dealing with constituents who are frustrated and worried—worried to their wits’ end. There are also other groups and sectors who I fear have been left out of this conversation. One is charities—for many charities, buying a new ULEZ-compliant vehicle would be tantamount to financial ruin. I believe that speaks volumes about the weaknesses identified in the heavy-handed approach to ULEZ that has been adopted. Tens of thousands of Londoners, including many people in Carshalton and Wallington, will receive no help from the Mayor of London’s scrappage scheme and, as we have already heard, the scheme is not nearly enough even for those who do qualify. Many Government Members have long argued for a broader and more holistic approach, rather than the current scheme.

That goes back to the crux of the issue. The Mayor of London seeks to punish people for being unable to afford to upgrade their vehicle instead of encouraging people to have a greener lifestyle. Instead of spending millions of pounds on ULEZ enforcement cameras, he could have invested that money elsewhere—for example, on expanding London’s green bus fleet; improving the connectivity of outer London boroughs; beefing up the scrappage scheme; fixing the massive failures in his solar panel roll-out; or bringing back the boiler scrappage scheme that the last Mayor had in place.

Take Carshalton and Wallington as an example. Like the borough of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), we have a terrible public transport accessibility rating for a London borough: it is just 2. We do not have the tram, the London overground or the tube; we have bus networks and a limited number of national rail networks. As my hon. Friend said, those are often unreliable.

The expansion of the tram to Sutton was scrapped by this Mayor and yet he has the audacity to say that he will somehow improve the public transport network, which, in our case, is a super-loop bus that already exists and has a limited number of stops. How can my constituents get to work, visit friends and family, and go about their daily lives if they cannot afford the £12.50 daily charge and there is not a sufficient public transport network in place? The short answer is that they will not.

Rather than encouraging people to take action through proactive means, the Mayor has decided to go with the heavy-handed approach of slapping hardworking Londoners—the least well-off in our communities—with an arbitrary fee just to leave their driveways. That is not the way to do things, so I urge the Government to consider again the petitioners’ asks. We cannot allow this ULEZ expansion to go ahead.

--- Later in debate ---
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Holden
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There have been no recent proposals from the Opposition Front Bench when it comes to actual cash. We have just approved a new plan of £500 million supporting bus services across the country, and a £2 fare cap. That is money that we have put in to support fare schemes in the combined authority areas, which I know Labour mayors up and down the country like to take credit for. That is money that the Government have been investing right across the country, whether in Greater Manchester or Greater London.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Does the Minister share my confusion that Labour’s argument for ULEZ, advanced in this place and in our local areas, is that local authorities have been forced to do this, and that they do not want to? That is not what the Mayor of London is saying. The Mayor of London has written a whole book about how proud he is of the ultra low emission zone. Does my hon. Friend think that is really the best that Labour can come up with?

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Holden
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I tend to agree with my hon. Friend. The Mayor put the idea of an expanded ULEZ in his manifesto, but it was not the expanded zone that we see today, which was only delivered by the votes of the Labour party, the Lib Dems and the Greens in the London Assembly. They voted to extend it right to the outer borders of Greater London, rather than what the Mayor of London had proposed in his manifesto.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough shouted at me from a sedentary position that whatever we are providing for the bus sector is still not enough. I would love her to tell me how much more we should put in. When I speak to Labour politicians at the moment, none of them can tell me. They have no plan. They are just an opportunistic Opposition. This Government have put more than ever before into the bus network. We have capped prices for working people, which is something the Labour party never did when it was in office. Right up and down the country we have put in the new bus service operators grant of 22p per kilometre, which now includes electric buses—something that was not the case just a few years ago. We remain committed to an end date for non-zero emission buses, and that consultation will be reported on soon.