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Regit report: Web of falsehoods and exaggerations from Sadiq Khan undermines support for Ulez

By Tom Gibson | August 29, 2023


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The expanded Ulez has been set live as of today (29th August) and we make sense of the statistics so you can decide if the expansion is the right thing to do

Regit report: Web of falsehoods and exaggerations from Sadiq Khan undermines support for Ulez

The expanded Ulez has gone live as of today, 29th August, and now covers Greater London – a 1,569km square area that houses almost 9 million people.

The introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003 covered a 22km square area within the London Inner Ring Road and was the first of many steps that led us here.

Over that time there’s been a huge number of claims and counterclaims to either support or oppose the idea of an expansion.  

The expansion of London mayor Sadiq Khan's ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) scheme was met with chaos on its first day. Furious protests erupted outside No 10, while traffic cameras were either smashed or vandalized with spray paint.  

You can check your car's ULEZ status here: https://www.regit.cars/check-ulez

London's pollution problem

Since the 1800s there’s been an unwanted synergy between London and pollution. Charles Dickens regularly referred to it in his novels and there were at least 4,000 deaths as a result of the Great Smog of 1952 when Londoners died because of air pollution that caused lung infections - cruelly blocking their airways.

And although vehicles have got cleaner over time, few would argue against creating cleaner towns and cities - and cars certainly have a role to play in that.

But the manner in which London’s City Hall decision-makers have gone about the expansion has caused huge controversy, with some groups taking the law into their own hands and vandalising some of the £15m worth of Ulez cameras that were ordered before the public consultation had taken place.

Are 4,000 people dying in London each year because of poor air quality?

Khan has said on numerous occasions that the expansion is necessary to tackle London’s “toxic air” and “save lives” and has repeatedly used an alarming statistic that air pollution in London causes “4,000 premature deaths a year” - although this is less than the figure he quoted in 2016 of “nearly 10,000” fatalities.

But is it true that 4,000 people are dying each year because of air pollution?

Well, if you dig into his own research, you’d find it difficult to definitively say ‘yes’.

The 4,000 deaths per year figure comes from the Imperial College London’s environmental research group – a group the Mayor has given a whopping £800,000 of public money to over the last two years.

The research – which was commissioned by The Mayor’s office and hasn’t been peer-reviewed - analysed particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide in London and stated that these pollutants cause “the equivalent of between 3,600 to 4,100 deaths” a year.

There’s a few reasons why using this relatively alarming statistic is particularly misleading in the context of Ulez.

Particulate matter in the UK is typically released by burning wood and coal in domestic fires and stoves, with road transport responsible for only about 12% of emissions.

Nitrogen dioxide, on the other hand, is largely pumped into our air from power stations and other industrial machinery, with around 25% of outputs coming from road transport.

Both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide pollution carry serious health concerns and we should certainly be trying to reduce the amounts of both in our air but it shouldn’t be portrayed – even if it hasn’t been specified – that 4,000 deaths per year can be prevented by expanding Ulez when the data regarding air pollution tells a different story.

How the ‘4,000 figure’ is being misrepresented

But that isn’t where experts and analysts have the biggest issue. That comes with how the simplified figure of 4,000 deaths is being misrepresented.

The Mayor’s own research paper explains that between 61,800 and 70,200 “life years” — effectively life expectancy — are lost each year.

The team at Imperial College London then converted this drop in life expectancy to “equivalent deaths” using a formula established by the Government to make the concept of “life years” more understandable - and landed on 4,000 deaths per year.

Another way of presenting the same data is that each Londoner is losing 2.5 to 2.8 days of life expectancy each year. Not ideal – but not quite the same as 4,000 deaths per year.

And when you put that figure next to The Office for National Statistics data that shows expectancy will grow by 49 days a year over the next 25 years, critics could argue the effect of air pollution in London lowers the growth rate to 47 days.

But none of this should dissuade motorists from choosing cleaner vehicles if they can.

The science behind clean air and its benefits to health are also clear but for many – and typically the most vulnerable in our society – upgrading their vehicle isn’t an option at the minute and nor is paying a £12.50 per day surcharge for going about their business.

Khan has also played down the amount of people who will be hit by the charges, stating that 90% of vehicles in Greater London are compliant but research conducted by the RAC, which obtained figures from the DVLA, showed around 25% of vehicles don’t meet Ulez standards.

Thinking of swapping your car for a ULEZ compliant one? Find your next car using Regit's used car service.

The Mayor came under pressure from Sir Keir Starmer to relook at how Ulez was being expanded and, at the beginning of August, opened up his £2,000 grant to all Londoners where previously it was only open to child benefit recipients, low-income and disabled people were eligible for scrappage grants.

Is the Ulez expansion worth it?

But is the cost of all of this worth it? Well, the jury is out and it will be interesting to see the data over the coming months and years.

Last year the Mayor’s office commissioned a report to examine the impact of expanding Ulez.

The report stated the extension will reduce both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide levels this year – with concentrations of particulate matter dropping by 0.1% while nitrogen dioxide levels will fall by 1.4%.

The same report also examined the Mayor’s 38 collective expansion objectives, covering the environment, people and the economy, and it stated that extending Ulez would have a “disproportionate financial impact” on those with low incomes, young families and disabled people.

Across the 38 objectives, it was reported that the expansion would generate a positive result in five cases, in 11 cases the impact would be neutral and in 22 cases the impact would be negative. It also stated the expansion would have no impact on reducing carbon emissions.

Striving for cleaner air is undoubtedly a priority for the majority of us, but as with every political decision, it's hugely important the public are presented with the actual facts to help forge opinions. Unfortunately, seemingly all of our political parties are unable or unwilling to avoid spin and exaggeration.

So, where do you sit on the expansion? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts and will publish a selection in our newsletter next week.

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