London’s traffic cameras are under attack. Police say hundreds of license plate-reading cameras have been damaged, disconnected or stolen by opponents of an anti-pollution charge on older vehicles that comes into force across the metropolis on Tuesday.
The vandalism by vigilantes calling themselves the Blade Runners shows that emotions are running high over the city’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).
“The cameras are going to keep coming down,” predicted Nick Arlett, who has organised protests against the clean-air charge and says he neither condones nor condemns the sabotage “People are angry".
Moves in the UK to cut air pollution and reduce car use have become a political flashpoint.
Supporters say cynical politicians and conspiracy theorists are exploiting opposition to the plans. The Conservative government has attacked London's vehicle levy, leading to allegations it is backing down on green pledges.
London's plan, known as the ULEZ, levies a 12.50 pound (about $16) daily charge on most gas cars and vans built before 2006 and on pre-2015 diesel vehicles. Introduced in central London in 2019, it was expanded in 2021 to the city’s inner suburbs.
From Tuesday it covers all of Greater London, including the sprawling outer suburbs where more than half the city’s 9 million people live.
Mayor Sadiq Khan says the expansion means “5 million more Londoners being able to breathe cleaner air".
But it has drawn intense opposition from some suburbanites, who say it punishes working people amid a cost-of-living squeeze that saw inflation top 11 percent late last year as food and fuel prices soared.
Outer London has higher levels of car ownership and less public transit than the city center.
The anti-pollution levy shot up the national political agenda in July when the governing Conservatives unexpectedly won a special election in the outer London district of Uxbridge by campaigning against the levy introduced by mayor Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party.
Since then, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has asked for a review of Low Traffic Neighborhoods — often locally controversial zones where cars are banned from some residential streets — and slammed Labour as hostile to motorists.
Sunak’s government says it remains committed to banning the sale of new gas and diesel cars by 2030 and reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Labour was rattled by the Uxbridge result, despite its big lead in opinion polls nationwide. Party leader Keir Starmer urged London’s mayor to “reflect” on the ULEZ expansion.
Khan refused to delay, but expanded a scrappage program that offers London residents up to 2,000 pounds ($2,500) to replace old vehicles. Opponents say the money is nowhere near enough.
“I recognise there are some Londoners with genuine concerns,” the mayor said. “My job is to try and address those concerns, and I have been doing that.”
The air in London, a city once nicknamed the Big Smoke, is getting cleaner, though the impact of the ULEZ is debated.
A 2021 study by Imperial College London suggested the zone had a relatively small effect on air pollution in the 12 weeks after its central London launch.
But research published by the mayor’s office in February found that emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides were 26 percent lower in the ULEZ area since 2019 than they would have been without it, and emissions of particulate matter were 19 percent lower.
“We know that low emission zones work,” said Simon Birkett, director of campaigning group Clean Air in London, arguing that “big problems need big solutions.”
ULEZ opponents include trade unions and ordinary Londoners, but backers of the plan say some of the protests are being drummed up by extremists. Khan told radio station LBC last week that opposition had been “weaponised” by “people who believed in conspiracy theories.”