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Stephen Fisher analyses public attitudes towards environmental policies in light of the debate prompted by the Conservative Party’s by-election win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He suggests that green policies must be well-designed to avoid the perception of unfairness and public backlash.

Over the last couple of weeks MPs from both major parties have been openly debating their own party’s climate policies, leading to various announcements of reviews of environmental proposals. This week, for example, the government announced plans to grant more than a hundred new oil and gas licences and, by watering down reforms to the carbon market, made it cheaper to pollute in the UK than in the EU.

All this has seemingly been sparked by a narrow Conservative win in last month’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. That surprising result has widely been attributed to the planned expansion of London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) this month, but what does it really tell us about the extent to which environmental policies in general should be overhauled?

Labour’s 7-point swing in Uxbridge, if repeated as national level at a general election, would been enough for a minority Labour government. Yet this is less than half of the 16-point swing towards Labour in recent national polls, enough for a comfortable majority, and less than a third of the 24-point swing to the party in the Selby and Ainsty by-election, held on the same day, which would give Labour a huge majority. The Uxbridge result could, then, indicate some weaknesses in Labour’s current position, or suggest that there is a pathway for the Conservatives to minimise their own losses and prevent a Labour majority.

First, however, we do not have sufficiently detailed survey data to be sure if this is the case. Second, it seems that the result of this by-election was down to specific local issues- particularly ULEZ. There were other factors, but the environmental initiative probably was the main reason the swing in Uxbridge was not bigger.

Although ULEZ was established while Boris Johnson was London Mayor, the plan to expand from Inner to Outer London is due to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Conservative politicians across the city have been opposing expansion, and the Uxbridge Tory candidate was no exception. Steven Tuckwell said stopping the expansion was his main aim and attributed his victory to voters agreeing. ULEZ was the issue mentioned most by voters to journalists covering the campaign. Turnout was also markedly higher than average for a by-election, and the fall in the Conservative vote was much lower in Uxbridge than it was at the two other by-elections held the same day, suggesting that the focus on ULEZ mobilized Conservatives who might otherwise have stayed at home.

The tricky question is what to read from that at national level. Gross generalisations about public hostility to all environmental protection measures are clearly unwarranted. People care about clean air – the primary aim of ULEZ – and the environment more generally. Ipsos recently found 77% of voters say they are concerned about climate change.

But it has long been known that general concern about an issue does not necessarily translate into support for relevant policies. For climate change, in general, subsidies are popular while taxes and bans are unpopular. Recent polling by YouGov for the FT finds that little over a quarter of people support introducing carbon reduction policies that impose additional costs on ordinary people.

On the specific question of ULEZ expansion, Redfield & Wilton found that people in Outer London were split 39% in support and 39% opposed. But when given the choice, only 31% of Outer Londoners wanted ULEZ expansion, 34% chose the status quo, and 26% wanted ULEZ ‘scrapped entirely’. This means that 60% of Outer Londoners are against expansion.

But why is there a large majority of Outer Londoners against ULEZ expansion when only less than half of Outer Londoners own a car, and amongst those who do, only one in ten vehicles will incur the charge? This means that close to half of Outer Londoners oppose expansion even though they will not have to pay the charge.

Income possibly plays a role here. Those with older cars liable for the charge are typically poorer than average. There could, therefore, be some public anger towards the ‘injustice’ of sanctioning poorer voters, without the resources to upgrade their vehicles (even with the scrappage scheme), for driving older cars. The combination of a regressive tax and new charges for common place activities is perhaps particularly problematic.

Moreover, ULEZ charges are concentrated on a small section of the population while doing nothing to discourage most trips by car in London.

Similar schemes have suffered public backlash in Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester, leading to delayed implementation, as in various French cities. With the expansion date fast approaching, it was hardly surprising that a low-stakes by-election in one of the most car-owning parts of London should have become focused on ULEZ.

While some aspects of dissent towards ULEZ were specific and local, some were generic. There may well be similar public anger towards other environmental policies if not well designed. Banning new gas boilers, for example, is likely to cause serious problems unless the technologies, pricing, subsidies for insulation and fitting services are adequate for people to be happy to get a heat pump when they need to replace their boiler. Otherwise, there is a risk of many households being left without central heating, unable (through cost and/or lack of availability) to replace a gas boiler that cannot be repaired. Here and elsewhere, there are difficult policy making challenges.

The voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip have reminded politicians to take those challenges seriously. But they have not called for a halt to all efforts to tackle pollution and climate change.

By Stephen Fisher, Professor of Political Sociology, University of Oxford.

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