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Do journalists know what matters?

Something can affect ordinary people even if the media thinks it shouldn’t

Artillery Row

Over the last couple of weeks, various members of the media establishment (journalists, pollsters, wonks and otherwise) have been getting their heads around the Conservatives’ by-election win in Uxbridge. Although the most obvious reason for this marginal victory was the party’s objection to ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zones, which will be extended to outer London this month), some politicos speculated that there were other explanations — anything but admit that ULEZ mattered to people, whose views deserve to be heard.

Take George Eaton of The New Statesman, who tweeted, “Since 9 out of 10 cars seen driving in outer London will not be affected by Ulez, I suspect a significant number of voters wrongly *believed* they would be charged.” Clearly he felt, as militant Remainers did after the Brexit vote, that the public “didn’t know what they were voting for”. Another piece argued that “the Uxbridge story signals a new stage of national politics that demonises environmental policies”, crudely presenting anti-ULEZ sentiment as right-wing and easily preyed upon by populists. John Burn-Murdoch, Chief Data Reporter for the FT, warned “Don’t let the ULEZ chatter mislead you. The British public is much more supportive and united on Net Zero policies than the public in peer countries”, conflating anti-traffic policies (of which there are many) with those of Net Zero (of which there are also many).

Instead of offering intelligent analyses of the situation, these individuals and others exposed themselves as proud ignoramuses, oblivious to the plight of huge numbers of “ordinary” people (only ordinary because they do not spend their lives online) who are economically crippled by Khan’s anti-car policies. Never mind that NHS workers, self-employed traders and other hardworking folk are now, if they don’t have a ULEZ-compliant car, scrambling around to find £12.50 each day. The Twitter Elite don’t want to know. With most able to work from a laptop, they generally like the idea of car-free spaces. They buy into simplistic takes about ULEZ and LTNs, such as claims that they protect the burning planet and “save lives”, as Khan regularly argues.

The reality on ground is far more complex and troubling than the media establishment realises. If they spoke to people affected by anti-traffic schemes, they would realise that the matters at hand go much further than ULEZ and LTNs, with voters worried about everything from 20 mile per hour zones, pay per mile (which some expect to be introduced to make up for the loss in fuel duty, as petrol and diesel sales start to decline), parking costs and changes to bus lanes. These are just some of the topics that I have heard about when I asked drivers what car issues bother them.

Anti-traffic schemes undoubtedly have inflationary effects

Even on ULEZ and LTNs, journalists aren’t being completely accurate in their reporting. For instance, Eaton’s assertion that over nine out of 10 car drivers would be unaffected by ULEZ was challenged in the High Court last month. The claim was made by the Mayor and Transport for London, and it triggered a complaint from the UK Statistics Authority in June. It turned out that the data was based on 106 cameras in outer London (compared to over 1,100 in inner London, which is smaller) and “does not seem to be supported by the available evidence”.

Even if the data had been accurate, it’s worth adding that ULEZ impacts people irrespective of whether their own vehicle is compliant or not. In February this year, a plumber told me that it would cost “£40,000 if not more” for him to upgrade to the ULEZ equivalent of his current van (moving from a Volkswagen Transporter T5.1 2013 diesel with a Euro 5 engine, to a Euro 6 engine). When traders are forced to spend these sorts of sums on punitive policies, inevitably they have to recuperate costs elsewhere — normally through the consumer. Anti-traffic schemes undoubtedly have inflationary effects, though no one really knows by how much — not least because the media isn’t scrutinising them enough.

The same inflationary impact is true for LTNs. Although the media portrays them as idyllic zones, where children can play freely, large numbers of people experience a different reality. Perhaps the second-worst affected group, after the vulnerable and those with mobility issues, are self-employed traders, who are liable to lose work when areas are gridlocked in the name of environmentalism. In 2021, I spoke to one freelance courier (delivering food and medicine) who told me that, thanks to LTNs, the amount of time he spent on the road had gone from five hours per day to eight to nine. He has been losing £40 or £50 daily.

These anecdotes are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-traffic policies, which are ultimately an affront to democracy. Vast swathes of the electorate haven’t so much been “overruled” as surprised to find LTNs, ULEZ and everything else sprung upon them. They were never asked if they were okay with these schemes, and no one was willing to listen when they subsequently said no.

Plenty of the Twitter Elite purport to care about poverty; the news often covers food banks, debt and otherwise. Recently people were outraged when Keir Starmer said he would keep the two-child benefit cap. There’s little discussion on the factors pushing families and others towards such hardship in the first place, though. Rather than holding Khan to account and combing over anti-traffic policies, the media are too invested in having car-free streets. Ross Lydall, City Hall Editor and Transport Editor of The Evening Standard, called Khan’s policy “the bravest” thing he’d done as Mayor. With a little more objective analysis and emotional detachment, he’d find “callous” is the right word.

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