Opposition to ULEZ Has Grown in London, But Plurality Still Support The Scheme

September 12, 2023
R&WS Research Team
Cities & Urban Life | London | London Mayoral Election 2024 | Sadiq Khan | Transport

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In June, just three months ago, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies found a majority of London voters in support of the existence of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in London and a clear plurality in support of its then still-to-be implemented expansion.

At that time, voters in outer London were evenly split, with an equal 39% each in support of and opposition to the expansion of the zone. However, those who opposed the expansion were more likely to say they strongly opposed it, suggesting a critical asymmetry.

Since that poll, the policy has faced a relentless campaign against it, beginning in earnest with the victorious Conservative Party candidate Steve Tuckwell’s attribution of his narrow by-election victory in Uxbridge & South Ruislip to voters’ opposition to the policy.

For a thoroughly demoralised Conservative Party, lacking a proper governing agenda or electoral platform and standing twenty points behind Labour in the polls, this result provided a momentary reprieve. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak embraced the pro-motorist agenda, taking to the front page of The Telegraph to announce a review of purportedly ‘anti-car’ policies.

Feeling the pressure of the moment, Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting, and the defeated Labour candidate himself then urged Sadiq Khan to rethink the expansion of the ULEZ to the outer boroughs of the city, leaving the London Mayor as virtually the only prominent senior politician publicly in support of the policy.

The expansion of the zone was finally implemented on 28 August, with the Government’s attempt to block the change being farcically thwarted by their own lawyers who deemed the expansion to be in compliance with (and, indeed, encouraged by) the Government’s own policies. Street demonstrations and hundreds of acts of vandalism against ULEZ cameras have since followed.

In a poll of Londoners conducted last week for The Times and Times Radio, our first in the capital since the Uxbridge by-election and just a week after the implementation of the ULEZ expansion, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies find that more Londoners still support than oppose the existence of the ULEZ, but that support has notably dropped and opposition has correspondingly risen since June. Perceptions of the ULEZ’s effectiveness and purpose have also worsened.

Altogether, a plurality of 44% of Londoners now say they support the existence of the ULEZ in London, against 33% who oppose it, for a net level of support of +11%. Support is down 14 points since June (when a clear majority of 58% of Londoners were in support of the scheme), while opposition has risen nine points in the same period of time. Net support for the existence of the ULEZ has therefore fallen 23 points.

Meanwhile, 39% of Londoners now say they support the expansion of the ULEZ to outer London, while a virtually identical 38% are opposed to the expansion. Net support for the expansion (now +1%) has thus dropped 14 points from June, when 47% of Londoners supported the then yet to be implemented expansion, against 32% who opposed it.

In outer London, where the expansion has taken place, 45% oppose and 32% support the expansion. By comparison, as previously mentioned, equal percentages of voters had supported and opposed the expansion in June.

Altogether, this polling contrasts strikingly with the national picture. In comparison to the +11% net support in London, 36% of voters across Great Britain, a plurality, oppose the existence of ULEZ in London. A near-identical 35% of British voters support the scheme’s existence in London.

Critically, 43% of voters across the country oppose the expansion of ULEZ to outer London, against just 28% who support it—a possible explanation for why Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting have taken a different approach to Sadiq Khan, despite being party colleagues.

In addition, perceptions in London of the effectiveness of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone and its actual motive have clearly changed for the worse in the last three months.

42%, down from a majority of 52% in June, say the introduction of ULEZ has reduced the level of air pollution and increased air quality in the capital while a plurality (45%, +9) now think the introduction of ULEZ has made no difference to air pollution or air quality in the city.

Similarly, the percentage of Londoners who believe the primary purpose of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone is to reduce air pollution is down sharply from 58% in June to 44% now. By contrast, the percentage of those who believe the main purpose of the scheme is to raise tax revenue has risen by 13 points, from 26% in June to 39% now.

Clearly, Sadiq Khan has done a poor job of defending the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone against an onslaught of opposition. As a consequence, his own net approval rating in London has fallen 22-points from +27% in June to +5%, and he now leads Conservative Party candidate Susan Hall by a single point, down from an 8% lead over a generic Conservative candidate in June.

However, it is worth noting that a plurality of Londoners are still in support of the existence of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, that Sadiq Khan’s net approval is still positive, and that he still leads Susan Hall in Mayoral Voting Intention, albeit by a very narrow margin.

There is good reason to believe, furthermore, that opposition to the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone and its expansion will dwindle over time, as has been the case with its comparable predecessors: the LEZ, the ULEZ within its earlier boundaries, and the Congestion Charge.

Indeed, just 20% of Londoners who are familiar with the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone say they have learnt about the scheme through personal experience, against more than half who have learnt about it through social media (57%) and television news (56%). Only 5% say they have learnt about the ULEZ primarily through their own personal experience.

This figure is roughly in line with Transport for London’s estimate that only 10% of vehicles in outer London are non-ULEZ-compliant.

And yet, as many as 36% of vehicle owners in outer London believe that they would have to pay the £12.50 daily charge if they were to drive in the zone. 

Therefore, as more and more Londoners experience (or, rather, do not experience) the scheme first-hand, it is plausible to believe that opposition to it will fall.

At the same time, Sadiq Khan’s insistence that few people will have to pay the charge could make those individuals who do have to pay it feel unfairly targeted, with their unaddressed grievances eliciting sympathy from those unaffected, much like Gillian Keegan’s claim last week that most schools are unaffected by the RAAC crisis failed to reassure the general public.

Perhaps, the London Mayor should have instead pursued a more ambitious but more fairly distributed policy, such as the pedestrianisation of central London, a policy that a plurality of Londoners has consistently supported, including in this latest poll (45%).

Moreover, the London Mayor could have done more to explain how much public funding and public space has gone towards supporting motorists, beyond the scrappage scheme for those affected by the daily ULEZ charge.

While it is clear that support for the policy has dropped over the last few months, it is still too early to declare Londoners’ views on the expanded Ultra-Low Emissions Zone as settled. Time, including increasing familiarity and experience with the zone’s new boundaries, will tell if opposition to ULEZ will continue to grow or if the current downward trajectory will be reversed.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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