Bexley and Bromley councils are threatening legal action over plans to extend the ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) across London.
Drivers whose vehicles do not meet modern pollution standards will need to pay £12.50 to enter Greater London from August 29. The zone was introduced in central London in 2019 before being extended to the North and South Circular roads in October 2021.
Parts of Greenwich and Lewisham are already covered by the scheme, but all of SE London will be inside the zone from the summer.
The two Conservative councils are vehemently opposed to the scheme, which they say will disproportionately impact residents who live in areas with poorer public transport services than inner London boroughs. Rail services through both boroughs were reduced last month by Southeastern, which is run by the Tory government.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has said that the expansion is needed to “tackle the triple threats of air pollution, the climate emergency and congestion”. He has promised better bus services in outer London, although there has been little detail about his plans. Frequencies are still being cut in some areas, including reducing the Bexleyheath-New Eltham B13 service from four to three buses an hour from Saturday.
Colin Smith, the leader of Bromley Council, said: “The decision to blatantly ignore a significant majority opinion of Londoners who responded to TfL’s consultation exercise, based on the highly questionable, selective and incomplete findings of a research paper commissioned by TfL themselves, simply cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged.
“To that end Bromley Council, along with Bexley, Harrow and Hillingdon are currently examining the legal basis of the decision and have now formally served a pre-action protocol letter on the Mayor’s office and TfL seeking further information to demonstrate the lawfulness of the decision they have made.”
He added: “The ‘scheme’ isn’t actually about air quality in the final analysis. The stealthy, unstated and cynical intention remains, under the guise of ULEZ, to erect a network of traffic cameras across the whole of the capital which can then be used at the flick of a switch to introduce road price charging for all.
“Whether that is a good thing, or bad thing, clearly depends on your point of view, but it should at least be fully debated and publicly scrutinised as a policy initiative in its own right, rather than slyly slipped in through the back door under a false agenda as a fait accompli.”
Smith said that Bromley, which covers a number of rural areas to the south of the borough, “already has amongst the cleanest air in London”.
Research from Imperial College London released by City Hall last year found that air pollution is reducing less slowly in outer London – whose boroughs include Bexley and Bromley – than inner London, which includes Greenwich and Lewisham.
Khan has floated the idea of road pricing as a way of battling congestion, although has no firm plans to introduce such a scheme. Its advocates come from across the political spectrum, from the Green Party to the free-market Adam Smith Institute, which says that it should replace fuel and vehicle excise duties.
A Bexley Council statement said the expanded ULEZ would “stand to cause misery and chaos for residents and visitors to the outer boroughs”.
It added: “Until they have seen compelling evidence to the contrary, it remains the councils’ position that the scheme will not translate successfully to outer London boroughs and that the negative impact to local households and economies will far outweigh the negligible air quality benefits.”
In a consultation into expanding the scheme held last year, more individual respondents opposed a London-wide charge, although there have been accusations that a pro-driving campaign group attempted to manipulate the consultation, which the group denies. City Hall says its own polling found that most Londoners backed the expansion.
When the ULEZ was first expanded in 2021, City Hall said that 92 per cent of vehicles passing through the area did not have to pay the charge. Scrappage schemes are launching at the end of the month for drivers on low incomes, sole traders and charities.
Khan is not the first London Labour leader to clash with SE London’s outer boroughs on transport policies. In the 1980s Bromley won a court case against Ken Livingstone’s plans to slash bus and Tube fares, with one of its arguments being that the Greater London Council’s Fair’s Fare policy offered little to its residents because they were not served by the underground.
Greenwich’s Labour council has long supported a London-wide pollution charge, with town hall leaders being uncomfortable with the current border slicing through the borough.
But the opposition Conservatives oppose the scheme altogether, with leader Matt Hartley saying Labour councils should be “ashamed” of themselves for backing the scheme. “There are far better ways to improve air quality than spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a vast camera network,” he said in November.
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