TfL ULEZ: Did the Conservative government tell Sadiq Khan to expand the emission zone to all of London?

The claims largely revolve around a letter from government to the mayor in May 2020, which says TfL agreed to “widen the scope” of the ULEZ.
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Following the narrow Conservative victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, questions have been raised online about the relationship between the party and London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

The scheme, which mayor Sadiq Khan is intending to expand to cover all of greater London on August 29, has been highlighted as a potential reason behind Labour‘s loss.

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Once expanded, anyone driving a non-compliant vehicle in greater London will be liable to pay a £12.50 daily charge. The mayor says the move is key to cleaning up the capital’s air, though concerns have been raised by anti-ULEZ campaigners about its implementation during a cost-of-living crisis.

According to TfL data, 90% of cars seen driving in outer London are already compliant.

Steve Tuckwell, the successful Conservative candidate, ran a primarily anti-ULEZ campaign, which is seen to have been his winning ticket - this despite Labour’s Danny Beales also stating he is against the expansion, .

Since the result, some supporters of the zone’s expansion have decried the Conservatives as hypocrites, partially because the initial ULEZ covering central London was drawn up by previous Tory mayor Boris Johnson, but also because of a letter from the Department for Transport (DfT) to Transport for London (TfL) sent in May 2020.

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In it, the government stipulates proposals must be brought forward “to widen the scope and levels” of the ULEZ charges, as part of its first emergency funding deal during the pandemic.

But what does the letter really mean, and does it highlight hypocrisy within the Conservative Party?

The new Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP Steve Tuckwell (r) with prime minister Rishi Sunak (l). Credit: Carl Court - Pool / Getty Images.The new Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP Steve Tuckwell (r) with prime minister Rishi Sunak (l). Credit: Carl Court - Pool / Getty Images.
The new Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP Steve Tuckwell (r) with prime minister Rishi Sunak (l). Credit: Carl Court - Pool / Getty Images.

What do the TfL funding agreement letters say?

Sent to Mr Khan on May 14 2020, the letter outlines the “extraordinary funding and financing agreement” between the DfT and TfL due to the dramatic impact of Covid on the authority’s finances.

Addressing a funding shortfall of around £1.6 billion between April 1 2020 and October 17 2020, the funding is to ensure TfL “can continue to provide essential public transport services and support the economic restart”.

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The letter includes a series of agreements around service levels, to which TfL must adhere.

These range from agreeing Covid communication messages between DfT and TfL, pushing forward an “ambitious” active travel plan, providing regular updates on the absence rates of staff, and “the immediate reintroduction of the London Congestion Charge, LEZ and ULEZ and urgently bring forward proposals to widen the scope and levels of these charges, in accordance with the relevant legal powers and decision-making processes”.

It is important to note that the letter, and so the agreement, is dated May 2020, prior to Mr Khan’s previous extension of the scheme from central London (the Congestion Charge zone) to inner London (inside the North Circular and South Circular roads) in October 2021.

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London.Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Pride In London.

This becomes increasingly relevant when looking at what subsequent funding agreements include. For example in the following letter, sent on October 31 2020, the only reference to the ULEZ is that TfL/the mayor “maintains commitment to the decision made by the Mayor on 6 June 2018 to create a single larger ULEZ bounded by the North Circular and South Circular Roads with the extension coming into effect as planned on 25 October 2021”.

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And in the next agreement between TfL and the government, outlined in a letter dated June 1 2021, former transport secretary Grant Shapps writes that “should the Mayor choose to amend his existing plans to extend the ULEZ boundary from 25 October 2021 these will have to be paid for without recourse to Government funding and without recourse to additional borrowing, savings, service changes or deferrals”.

“Additional income streams for any such increases will need to be identified and shared with Government,” he adds.

The only time the forthcoming expansion to cover all of Greater London is referenced in any of the communications is in the letter foir the most recent funding settlement, dated August 30, 2022. In it, Mr Shapps, at this point still the transport secretary, notes Mr Khan’s intention to consult on a London-wide ULEZ “for introduction in 2023, to improve air quality in London”.

He continues to write that while TfL has estimated the scheme will cost £250 million, the grant funding from government “should not be used to cover the costs of your policy decisions to charge road users, and therefore if you choose to implement this scheme or other road user charging options, you must fund them through alternative sources available to you”.

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The funding agreement included in this letter is to run until March 2024, with no further correspondence included in TfL’s funding letters library. And so, based on this, it appears as if no requirements were put on the mayor by government to roll out the ULEZ as planned on August 29.

Sadiq Khan after by-election

Despite the Tories losing two other by-elections last Thursday (July 20), the party retaining Uxbridge and South Ruislip has seemingly garnered the most attention.

Senior Labour figures, including deputy leader Angela Rayner and leader Sir Keir Starmer, have publicly called on the mayor to “reflect” on the ULEZ expansion.

Mr Khan has said he still intends on continuing as planned, though it is understood he is in “listening mode” regarding ways to lessen the financial impact on those with non-compliant vehicles.

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He has received support from some in London politics, including the Labour Westminster councillor Max Sullivan, who has written to Sir Keir describing his comments as “supremely disappointing”.

The mayor is currently awaiting a High Court judgement into the legality of the expansion, after five Conservative councils launched a judicial review into the scheme.

A decision is expected by the end of the month.