Just before the Uxbridge by-election in July, Labour candidate Danny Beales – who went on to lose by 495 votes – made a curious admission. He said he had a change of heart on fully backing the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) due to the strength of opinion he encountered knocking on doors around Hillingdon.
Despite this rethink, it was the backlash against ULEZ that many give as the reason the candidate fell short at the ballot box and the Conservatives retained the seat, even with the cloud of Boris Johnson’s chaotic departure hanging over proceedings.
What this whole saga shows is simply how potent anti-ULEZ sentiment is in some pockets of London, with Hillingdon being home to some of the most passionate voices of dissent. Take Harefield, a small village with a highly respected hospital and no direct transport links to other areas of London making ULEZ’s presence more than a nuisance to many living there.
Hovering on the edge of open countryside, signs warning drivers that they are currently in the ULEZ are plastered everywhere. Perhaps this is a precaution for people who could be fooled into thinking that the village sits outside London and as an act of reinforcement, the signs showing that ULEZ is here to stay to members of a population vehemently opposing it.
And those against it are taking action. Cameras have been cut down, tipped over, covered and otherwise obstructed.
Bringing up the topic in any local café, pub or shop on the tiny High Street is guaranteed to spark a lengthy and opinionated conversation with business owners and customers being affected. Tushar Gupta, who manages the café We Love Coffee, has personally been hit in the pocket
Mr Gupta, who has been driving from his home in Langley to Harefield for four years, said: “I sold my car and I had to buy a new one. I didn’t want to.
“I had an old diesel, it was ok, it did the job. I drove it 16 miles a day, to and from work. But I had to sell it, I didn’t have a choice.
Mr Gupta said he had to spend more on a new car than some people because he needed it to be big enough to transport items for his business between the café and his home and because he was illegible for the scrappage scheme.
“The car is for business and I don’t live in London so I don’t get into the category for the scrappage scheme,” he added.
The topic of ULEZ is like blood in the water to people in Harefield, with Mr Gupta’s account prompting residents coming in for a lunchtime coffee to give their two pence on the matter. One resident launched into the conversation, saying: “I don’t know anyone that thinks ULEZ is a good idea.
“In [other parts of] London, there is a bus or a train every minute, everywhere you go. There is nothing here. The local supermarket here is in Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire.
“It is about a three to four minute drive from here but it’s all country roads. There are no pavements, you wouldn’t be able to walk there, there are no buses, no public transport. My kids went to school out in the counties, there is no way I could have got them there without driving.”
The resident added she fears what will come next after ULEZ. She said: “It’s never going to stop here. We all know it’s going to be pay-per-mile next. Look at how much money they spent putting all those cameras up, you think [Transport for London] put all of those up for a few non-compliant cars? Of course not.”
Talk quickly turned to efforts by insurgent anti-ULEZ activists, something that Mr Gupta says ultimately hurts the taxpayer who effectively pays to repair surveillance equipment when it’s damaged.
However, the resident was more radical, saying she had been on ‘super secret’ Facebook pages that share information on how to disable cameras and pass around intel. “There are ways of doing it [that don’t damage the cameras],” she said.
“One person put a garden refuse bag over the top of it so it just sat all day with that over it so it couldn’t film anything but then they came and took it away. There is one at the bottom of the hill that has been sawn off, and that’s happened twice. Somebody put a big load of porridge over the top of one. Honestly, the response has been brilliant.”
Kim Banner, another of We Love Coffee’s customers, lives just outside the zone and says she is currently playing a cat-and-mouse game with cameras. She told Local Democracy Reporting services there is currently a vandalised ULEZ camera near where she lives but wouldn’t give the location because she ‘doesn’t want to flag it’ in case it is repaired.
She added that ULEZ has meant Sadiq Khan has lost her vote “100 per cent” at the next mayoral election. She said: “I tell you what Labour have knocked their chances of winning a [General] Election now. As much as I hate the Conservatives, I’m voting Conservative again just to make sure they [Labour] don’t get in.”
Just down the road, The Harefield is home to a friendly atmosphere and design that you expect to find at a country pub, complete with a large group of rowdy ramblers. Karoline Parks, who pulls pints and keeps locals in check, says she is frustrated with the way ULEZ has been handled.
“It’s just robbing people that can’t afford new cars otherwise they would have one already,” she said. My husband had to change his car. A 20-year-old Volvo ‘02 plate, immaculate, not a thing wrong with that car at all.
“We didn’t qualify for the scrappage scheme at the time. So we got £400 for it as scrap and then had to spend £5,000 on getting a compliant vehicle, nowhere near the calibre of the old one. And we had to take out a loan to get it as well.”
The bartender says that the sudden change to the scrappage scheme rules is a kick in the teeth for someone like her who missed out on a significant amount of support due to timing. “No one knew it was coming,” she added. “Of course, it’s frustrating.”
She was one of the thousands of people who showed up in Central London to protest ULEZ’s expansion, attending marches on three separate occasions. However, she said she knew, even at the time, that it was unlikely to change the Mayor’s mind.
Karoline says ULEZ has cemented her as a third-party voter. She told LDRS that she always voted Tory until Boris Johnson took power but would never give Labour her vote. “I still use my vote but I’ll vote for someone else like the Green Party or even the Lib Dems, the sit on the fence Liberals, but I wouldn’t go with either of those two [Labour or Tory] – you can see what they have done to us already.”
One of her big concerns is for workers at the local hospital. She said: “We’ve got Harefield Hospital and on our little Harefield in Your Heart Facebook page there are nurses living in Buckinghamshire who drive in and have been getting clobbered every single day [by the £12.50 charge], or by buying a new car which I’m sure they can afford on a nurses wage.”
Karoline says the fact the hospital workers, patients and visitors could all be penalised for travelling from outside London to places like Harefield Hospital and nearby Mount Vernon Hospital proves that there’s been “no heart or soul given to this, it’s pure greed”.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) took a trip to the hospital, only a five-minute walk from the village’s minuscule town centre. Despite catching many doctors and nurses in the canteen, it was clear the strength of feeling about ULEZ was not so strong amongst hospital staff as it was in Harefield at large.
None of the people LDRS spoke to said they had been directly impacted with most having compliant cars or opting to take public transport. Senior nurse Diogo Gomes commutes from High Wycombe to the hospital but says his car was already ULEZ compliant.
He did say that if his car hadn’t been compliant his attitude towards ULEZ would have been “completely different” but added he thinks the policy is probably a good thing overall. Another member of staff Rachel Stewart, a nurse for eight years, agreed ULEZ hasn’t been an issue for the majority of colleagues. She said: “I manage about 50 people and only one has said it has affected them and she’s buying a new car.”
The Mayor has previously emphasised the policy is not anti-car, and Transport for London (TfL) data has suggested that nine out of ten cars seen driving in Outer London on an average day are ULEZ compliant.
Mr Khan has also said that he has listened to the “genuine concerns” from Londoners over the scheme. As a result, as of August 21, every driver who lives in the capital and owns a non-compliant car is now eligible to apply for a £2,000 scrappage grant from City Hall. You can do so here.
TfL previously explained the location of the proposed ULEZ border was chosen to provide drivers with options to turn off if they do not wish to enter the zone. The authority also noted that an existing low emissions boundary for heavy vehicles has been in place where the ULEZ boundary is due to be expanded to since 2008.