The expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone – better known as ULEZ – has once again become the centre of a political firefight in national politics.
Following Labour’s narrow defeat by just 500 votes in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, ULEZ has re-emerged not only as a Conservative-Labour battleground but as an internal dispute within the latter party’s ranks.
Some Labour voices have readily blamed London Mayor Sadiq Khan for pushing ahead with the ULEZ expansion despite mixed public opinion.
Party leader Keir Starmer is said to have asked the mayor to “reflect” on the expansion. He even said in a speech at the recent National Policy Forum that “we are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet”.
Supporters, however, are confident that Londoners back cleaner air, net-zero initiatives and ULEZ.
However, public opinion on the ULEZ expansion is less than clear-cut, with polls showing a wide range of net support figures.
So what does the capital really think? City Monitor has examined the available data and consulted a polling expert to shed light on the policy that may turn the 2024 mayoral race into a retrospective referendum.
What do polls say about the ULEZ expansion?
One of the major sticking points in the ULEZ expansion debate is that proponents and opponents alike claim to have London on-side, often citing polling as their proof.
City Monitor has looked into four major polls that are often cited in news, opinion pieces or public discussion – carried out by YouGov (on behalf of the Greater London Authority Conservatives), Redfield and Wilton, Transport for London and More In Common.
There are general commonalities. For example, inner London and more affluent respondents are more likely to be in favour. But there is overall a noticeable disparity in the core question posed to Londoners: do you support the ULEZ expansion?
In the TfL poll, we see a net support of +8, followed by +5 for Redfield and Wilton, but -7 for More in Common and -17 for the YouGov poll.
According to Robert Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University, the reason for the spread can be explained by “question-wording effects”, also known as “priming”. This is when the framing of the question affects the responses it garners.
As Ford explains, “support is higher when ULEZ is asked about in isolation or framed in terms of pollution reduction".
“Support is lower when the framing specifies costs to drivers and even lower still when costs are paired with the claim that this is just to raise money for TfL.”
Does ULEZ expansion polling affect the public?
Priming is a “pretty standard” feature of single-issue polling in Ford’s view. It can be a powerful tool for creating desirable responses that align with the source of the surveys.
For instance, the most negative poll was commissioned by the GLA Conservatives – Sadiq Khan’s direct opponents – and the most supportive was carried out by TfL, the organisation administering the policy.
It is easy to see then how polls, even if responsibly carried out, can affect the views of respondents and then in turn those who are presented with the results as evidence.
But aside from responsible, albeit primed, surveys, others used in public opinion measurement fall well below that line.
One poll conducted by a net-zero solutions business and supplied to City Monitor was described by Ford as “a meaningless jumble of responses” that “can’t really be interpreted coherently”.
This kind of polling compounds the existing issues by introducing unreliable data that has the potential to cloud rather than elucidate the situation.
What was the outcome of the ULEZ expansion consultation?
Often cited to Khan’s detriment is the 2022 ULEZ expansion consultation, in which Londoners were invited to share their views on the plans.
The consultation revealed that 59% of respondents said that the proposed ULEZ expansion should not be implemented at all, rising to 70% in outer London and falling to 24% in the existing ULEZ boundary.
The consultation results fed into the scheme’s opposition. Conservative MP for Dartford Gareth Johnson said that it was a “sham” and that “the mayor’s decision does not reflect what people have told him”, while the Telegraph accused Khan of manipulating the results.
Despite the clear disproval among consultees, it is important to note that unlike polls, which are designed to be a representative sample of the demographic, consultations are open to anyone inclined to make their opinions known.
This active participation means that consultations are more likely than polls to reflect the views of those most invested – often negatively – than the views of the general population.
As such, the consultation was not necessarily a barometer for Londoners so much as a means of exploring the reasons behind the views of those most and least in favour – which the full report delves into in detail.
Do Londoners support the ULEZ expansion?
With a spread between polls and a consultation that does not represent London as a whole, the question still remains as to what the city thinks.
One thing is abundantly clear: outer London is less supportive than inner London, but even then, polls do not uniformly show that the areas not yet included are overall against it.
According to Ford, public opinion appears to fall into fairly even thirds based on the available polls: “[The results] would suggest there's a solid third who support ULEZ regardless of framing, a solid third who oppose it regardless of framing, and a third in the middle who can be swayed somewhat by how the issue is presented.
“Focusing on pollution reduction adds six points of support relative to neutral questioning, framing around costs to drivers adds six points to opposition relative to neutral, and framing as both costs to drivers and claiming this is just a revenue-raising device adds 19 points to the opposition.”
Ford concludes, “I think the safest way to interpret all of this is to say Londoners are pretty evenly divided on the ULEZ idea.
“There is a big Labour-leaning camp who firmly support, a big Tory-leaning camp who firmly oppose and a big chunk in the middle who can be somewhat swayed by the arguments.”