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Tories accused of hypocrisy in Ulez row after call to extend congestion charge

Ministers have been accused of hypocrisy in claiming Sadiq Khan expanded London’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) to raise revenue after it emerged the Department for Transport urged the mayor to extend the city’s congestion charge for the same reason.

On the first day of Ulez covering every London borough there was renewed bickering between the Labour mayor and the government, with Khan castigating Mark Harper, the transport secretary, for what he called factual mistakes after the pair crossed paths at a TV studio.

Harper and Rishi Sunak have sought to present the extension of the £12.50 daily charge for the most polluting vehicles as part of a “war on motorists” by Labour, amid a wider ditching of green policies after the Conservatives’ unexpected win in July’s Uxbridge byelection, a constituency affected by the extension.

In a round of media interviews on Tuesday, Harper argued that the expanded zone, which came into force at midnight, would have minimal impact on air quality.

“It’s not about air pollution, it’s about a money-raising exercise and this is absolutely not the time to be putting all those costs on hard-pressed and hardworking Londoners and those in the area outside London,” he told GB News.

Khan, who was also touring TV and radio studios, told BBC One’s Breakfast: “I just bumped into Mark Harper as he was leaving the studio and I think he made a couple of factual errors, which is really worth me clarifying.

“If this was about making money, I’d have acceded to the demand from the government to expand the congestion charge much wider than it currently is. That would have been a cash grab, but I said no.”

This was a reference to a letter in October 2020 from Grant Shapps, part of a trove of correspondence between the then transport secretary and Khan uncovered by a freedom of information request.

Amid exchanges between the pair about central government funding for Transport for London during Covid, Shapps urged Khan to maximise income from the low emission zone, a separate and longer-standing charge for heavily polluting commercial vehicles, and from the congestion charge, a levy on most vehicles in central London at busy times.

“Given the significant rise in congestion in inner London, we also propose the extension of the central London congestion charging zone to cover the same area as the ultra-low emission zone and at the same time, October 2021,” Shapps wrote.

This would have involved significantly expanding the congestion charge, as far as the North and South Circular roads, the boundaries of Ulez after its initial expansion in 2021.

A source close to the London mayor said: “The hypocrisy of the Tories in attacking Sadiq is staggering. Not only have they directed numerous other UK cities to introduce clean air zones, but they actually asked the mayor to introduce a massive expansion of the congestion charge, which would have cost every single driver of a non-electric car in inner London £15 a day.”

The prime minister’s official spokesperson dodged a question on Shapps’s letter, pointing reporters to Harper’s words about it: “The transport secretary was asked similar points this morning around these sort of claims about previous communication of previous secretaries of state. He was clear that the expansion is a decision made solely by the mayor of London.”

Khan also reportedly confirmed plans to charge all non-electric cars driving into central London had been shelved.

Proposals outlined in the mayor’s 2018 transport strategy for a “zero emission zone” in the heart of the capital have been dropped, the Financial Times reported. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told the paper: “TfL continues to support boroughs who wish to implement zero emission zones in their local areas.”

With the Ulez expansion now in place, Khan and his team will hope the furore around the plan will subside, despite what are likely to be repeated attempts by Sunak and Harper to maintain the row.

While there have been significant worries about the charge among some people in outer London boroughs, where public transport is less dense and car use is greater, it remains to be seen how extensive any public opposition will be.

In a much-advertised protest by anti-Ulez groups a noisy crowd carried a cardboard coffin bearing a sign saying “Democracy” to the gates of Downing Street, but little more than 200 people took part.

Among them was Nigel Farage, whose Reform UK party vehemently opposes green measures. Its candidate for London mayor, the fuel prices lobbyist Howard Cox, has promised to not just reverse the Ulez expansion but abolish the entire clean air zone.

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