Something quite strange happened in London last month – the Conservative Party won a by-election. It was very close, just a few hundred votes in it, and it was Boris Johnson’s relatively safe old seat of Uxbridge. But still, it was a surprise because the Tories couldn’t be more unpopular in the capital if they outlawed alcohol and privatised the air that Londoners breathe.
So, how did they win? By campaigning against the drive by London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, to clean the city’s polluted (if still free) air. Khan has created a so-called ultra low emission zone in central London, within which older, heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to operate. His intention is to expand the zone out into the suburbs, including Uxbridge, and right across the city.
Given that the country is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, taxing high-polluting vehicles in the capital seems like a very modest step. But it’s been deemed too big a move, and too fast, by Labour bigwigs, who have asked Khan to rethink the policy.
Looked at from a limited perspective – that of winning the next election – it’s a test of idealism against pragmatism. But from a slightly wider perspective – saving the planet – it’s a test of pragmatism against burying our heads in the sand. Well, it turns out that the view from beneath the sand looks increasingly attractive to political leaders, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shaping to backtrack on green commitments, and Keir Starmer terrified of losing votes if Labour sticks to its claimed convictions.
If Khan gives in to his boss, it will be not only a major step backwards in combatting pollution and climate change (as Europe records record temperatures yet again), but also another demonstration of just how fragile and powerless local democracy is in the UK. In London, for example, most of the major decisions that concern the city are either determined by national government or the 33 borough councils by which the city is divided and ruled. The mayor is in most respects little more than a figurehead.
Getting anything done is an opaque process that encourages local nimbyism (not in my backyard) and national grandstanding, but seldom has the best interests of the city as a whole at heart. Thus, one thing everyone across the political spectrum is agreed upon is the need for more housing, particularly in the capital, where house prices and rents are extortionate and key workers are often forced into interminable commuting.
It’s been estimated London needs to build about 85,000 homes a year to solve its housing crisis. In recent years, the rate has been between 15,000 and 25,000. Yet plans to build more houses routinely fall victim to local boroughs, which cave in to protest groups complaining about the effect of more homes on their neighbourhoods.
The curious thing is often the most vocal nimby activists are also strong supporters of migrants – both legal and illegal – and are not infrequently Remainers, who would like to see free movement of Europeans to the UK again.
But where is everyone supposed to live? The answer, it appears, is somewhere else. Anywhere. There’s plenty of space. Just not here. Between the inner-city metropolitans with their desire for higher immigration but tendency to protest against any housing developments near them, and the suburban addiction to older polluting cars, the city is fast taking up residence in cloud-cuckoo land.
If we continue to welcome new arrivals but don’t allow them homes, and boast of addressing climate change while dragging feet on the most basic initiatives, London is going to find itself accelerating backwards into the future.