Sadiq Khan’s Sympathy Bid Amidst ULEZ Controversy

Izzy Humphreys for Distilled Post

Despite being officially announced in November of last year, the Ultra-Low Emission Zone expansion has received heavy news coverage recently, particularly surrounding public sentiment towards the plans, and this has interestingly coincided with Sadiq Khan’s appearance on popular podcast, The Diary of a CEO. 

Whether this is just a coincidence or a tactfully timed attempt to win back public favour, it has certainly drawn more attention to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) controversy and brings up some interesting questions surrounding the place for politicians in popular culture.

What are the expansion plans and why?

After the initial establishment of the ULEZ in 2019, it was first expanded in October 2021 to include all areas within London’s North and South Circular Roads, as well as Central London. Plans for its second expansion were first announced in March 2022, after a published report indicated that car travel in London would need to decrease by 27% for the city to reach its climate goals.  

From 29 August 2023, the new ULEZ area will include the entirety of London, meaning anyone driving a non-compliant vehicle into the city will have to pay a £12.50 charge or face a further increased penalty fine.

Khan has developed a £110 million scrappage scheme to help get polluting vehicles off the road by issuing grants to low-income Londoners to assist with the costs of replacing their vehicles.

London air pollution levels reportedly break UK legal and WHO limits for NO₂, and the ULEZ expansion is estimated to save 27,000 tons of CO₂ in outer London and reduce NOₓ emissions by 10%. Polluted air has been shown to stunt the lungs of children, contribute to serious illness and prematurely kill around 4,000 Londoners every year.

What has the reaction been?

The ULEZ expansion has been met with a lot of opposition, with a survey showing that 82% of drivers disagree with Mr. Khan’s plans.

There has been heavy criticism that this will hit low-income Londoners and commuters from Greater London the hardest, as the expansion will target those that cannot afford to replace their vehicle, don’t have access to the scrappage scheme and cannot access the necessary public transport alternatives.

Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Harrow and Hillingdon are strongly opposed, and Sutton, Kingston and Richmond along with Barking, Dagenham and Redbridge have criticised the scrapping scheme as inadequate compensation. 

RAC has also stated their concern for drivers of non-compliant vehicles amidst the current cost of living crisis, particularly since the average cost of purchasing a compliant vehicle in London is £15,000, of which up to £5,000 only could potentially be covered by the scrappage scheme.

Some have also noted the profit that TfL (for which Sadiq Khan is the acting Chair) stand to make. The previous expansion was estimated to generate £2 million a day, and whilst this expansion is not estimated to make as much, a significant uptake for TfL will still be seen. Some of those in favour of the expansion have also been critical, claiming it is a less fair method of reducing pollution since drivers are charged a flat rate regardless of how little they drive in the ULEZ. Road user charging has been proposed as a more reasonable alternative, but the Mayor has suggested this could still be years away from development.

Appearance on The Diary of a CEO

Mr. Khan made an interestingly timed appearance on The Diary of a CEO in late January. Among topics like knife crime, Grenfell and women’s safety, the Mayor was asked by host, Steven Bartlett, what he was most proud of achieving during his time as Mayor of London. To this, Mr. Khan’s immediate response was air quality, noting that in two years they have managed to reduce toxic emissions by half. 

The episode was also heavily littered with insights into the Mayor’s personal life and moments of seemingly genuine emotion, during which one can’t help but feel sympathy for Mr. Khan. 

With the episode airing on 26th January amidst some intense resistance surrounding ULEZ that has been building for some time, one can’t help but question the timing. Is it a coincidence, or could it be a tactically timed sympathy bid and opportunity to emphasise his ‘wins’ as Mayor to boost his character during a time where his popularity is waning? 

Mr. Khan wouldn’t be the first serving politician to dip their toe into the pop culture world in an attempt to win back some respect from the public. Though vastly different situations, Matt Hancock’s controversial appearance on I’m A Celebrity last year was a blatant attempt to humanise himself after a string of poor decisions that left him less than popular with the public. And back in 2012, Nadine Dorries pioneered this trend of serving MP’s appearing on reality TV with her unfavourable stint on the same show.

These MP’s will commonly justify these appearances by claiming they are doing it to raise awareness for important issues, but to most it isn’t anything more than a self-indulgent and shameless attempt at regaining public favour. It is not a politician’s job to entertain, it is their job to serve, which is why the increasingly blurred lines between politician and pop culture figure suggest an alarming future for British politics. Especially if the consensus amongst MP’s appears to be that an appearance on a podcast or a reality TV show is enough to negate the consequences of what may prove to be a harmful decision to the very people they are meant to protect.