Ulez ought to be end of devolution

Tom Harris

At times like these, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the whole point of devolution was that it would empower local people. But the signature policy of London’s devolved mayor – the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – has not only provoked extreme anxiety and anger among residents in London’s outer boroughs, and a feeling that Sadiq Khan has ridden roughshod over their objections. It has resulted in an unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience by local authorities refusing to facilitate the new scheme.
Indeed, the policy has not only been blamed for the failure of Labour to take Uxbridge in the recent by-election, but may also come to be seen as the beginning of the end for devolution itself. Let’s set aside the disastrous social and political divisions that devolution has wrought in Scotland. Can we honestly say that in England it has succeeded in advancing the last Labour government’s aims of bringing power back to communities? Or, indeed, of making politicians more accountable to the voters? The thinking was straightforward, but also simplistic. Powerful, locally elected mayors would be democratic by virtue of their having been elected. Therefore everything that followed from that election, whatever policy the incumbent chose to pursue, would be democratic, too.
The Ulez debacle shows the clear limits of this idea. People will argue the pros and cons of the scheme. Those who object to it cite the cost to ordinary workers, the uncertain evidence used to justify it and, of course, the seeming inability of London’s mayor to view criticism of the project as anything other than a conspiracy theory. But it has also exposed huge flaws in the way that devolution works.
There is the serious democratic deficit Ulez has created. More than one million motorists living outside London may face the daily £12.50 charge if they enter the city. Many will work or shop regularly in London, but live outside its borders. Accordingly, they have no way of holding the mayor to account for a policy that may cost them and their families dear. What do the champions of devolution have to say to that?
Then there is the chaotic clash of wills between different local authorities, with nobody seemingly able or willing to resolve them. Most of the councils surrounding London, confident of their own democratic mandates, are point blank refusing to install cameras or warning signs for motorists heading into the city.
In doing so, they are putting a question mark over the feasibility of the whole Ulez project. These might be dismissed as minor concerns when set against the supposedly enormous benefits of devolution. Its supporters regularly raise the spectre of big, bad, unaccountable Westminster as a slum-dunk argument for the supremacy of devolved government. But does anyone really think the SNP in Scotland or Khan in London have been significantly more responsive to the views of their voters than have the parties in Westminster? Have they been noticeably more willing to take responsibility for their failures? Or have they, instead, chosen to shift the blame for them onto the Government? In this case, the Government chose to rant and rave about Ulez expansion, but lacked the stomach to override Khan’s plan and prevent its imposition. With the notable exception of the use of Section 35 powers to quash Nicola Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, this follows a pattern of British ministers not wishing to rock the boat in Scotland and Wales, fearful of bringing down the ire of devolved politicians.
But when governments fail to rein in the excesses of the devolved authorities, they are letting power slip away, leading to a considerably less united Kingdom. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against an elected House of Lords is that it would create an unwelcome democratic rival to the Commons. Yet politicians seem to think nothing of setting up similar potential conflicts every time they vote to install a new metro mayor.
Britain right now does not have a strong international reputation for being particularly well run; in what way does the increasing number and powers of devolved mayoralties, and the consequent rise in policy clashes and court battles, help to restore it? It’s time to call a halt to the entire devolution experiment before it further damages our country.