The anti-Ulez vote helped Tories win in Uxbridge but has pro-car agenda run out of road?

<span>A damaged Ulez camera in Uxbridge on 14 June.</span><span>Photograph: Andy Hall/the Observer</span>
A damaged Ulez camera in Uxbridge on 14 June.Photograph: Andy Hall/the Observer

Six weeks may be a long time in politics, but for pedestrians trying to cross the dual carriageway to get to the shops and library on Yiewsley High Street, it feels even longer.

The traffic lights here haven’t been working since 3 May, when they were vandalised by anti-Ulez protesters. It’s a side-effect of the self-styled blade runners’ attacks on the cameras on top of the traffic lights put there to monitor cars as they come in and out of London’s ultra-low ­emission zone in Uxbridge.

“The batteries on the temporary lights keep running out,” says Frank Leahy, one of the partners at FLC, a car dealership on the corner of the intersection. “Then nobody knows who can go. It’s dangerous. You get skip lorries flying through.”

Leahy isn’t a fan of Ulez, like plenty of voters in this west London constituency. Uxbridge and South Ruislip used to be Boris Johnson’s patch, and after the disgraced ex-prime ­minister stepped down as MP the ensuing byelection saw the Conservative candidate win by 495 votes.


The surprise result reset ­political thinking about green issues. Rishi Sunak began talking about a “war on motorists”, while Labour scrapped its £28bn green investment pledge in February and Keir Starmer told London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to “reflect” on the policy.

It’s still a big issue, along with crime, for Jackie Masterson-Bird, whose partner has to pay £12.50 every day to drive his diesel car to work in Guildford. She hates the vandalism and risk to pedestrians but thinks the solution is to get rid of Ulez. “I just feel for the people with older cars who have to pay to go and do the shopping,” she says.

But while she voted for the Conservatives’ Steve Tuckwell in the byelection, he cannot rely on her support this time around. “Maybe we need a total, total change,” she says, unsure of what that means. “If anything, I may go Reform. I really don’t know though.”

And green issues are still important to her. A short walk past the traffic lights is Colne Valley regional park, crisscrossed by the River Colne and River Fray with Little Britain lake between them. It’s a nice place for a walk, but this year has often been inaccessible because the Fray has burst its banks. “As a kid you could swim in there and feed the ducks – people used to fish,” she says. “I went there three weeks ago to walk the dog and it was completely flooded. I didn’t even get out of the car.”

So were the parties right to dial down their green policies? Khan was re-elected with a substantial majority and little change in his vote share in the outer London boroughs with the strongest anti-Ulez feeling. And here in Uxbridge, Labour is expected to ­comfortably end Tuckwell’s brief time in parliament.

Oliver Lord, the UK head of the Clean Cities Campaign against pollution, said: “It certainly seems that the focus on Ulez was a political gamble that didn’t pay off. There was a lot of blatant scaremongering. The decimation of local journalism meant people were getting a lot of their information from social media.”

The byelection “definitely led to a timid manifesto from Labour”, he added. “It states that cars remain by far the most popular form of transport. They may be the most used, but a lot of people in this country are forced into using their cars.” In some parts of England, bus services have lost half their provision since 2011.

But Lord is pleased about Labour’s commitment to phase out new ­petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and improve electric vehicle charging infrastructure. “The discussion around rail reform … the talk about a long-term transport strategy – I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Also optimistic is Paul Foley, a ­former civil servant who liked John Randall, the Conservative MP here until 2015, when he was replaced by Johnson. Foley lost faith “when that clown took over”.

“I was appalled by that man and everything he stood for,” he says, and is unimpressed with Johnson’s replacement.

“Tuckwell is fixating on a chip shop,” he adds, referring to the Conservative candidate’s campaign to bring fish and chips to Uxbridge town centre five years after apparently voting against planning permission for one when he was a local councillor.

“It’s like Yes Minister,” says the 57-year-old, referring to an episode with Jim Hacker’s campaign to save the British sausage from Eurocrats, which turns out to be aJohnsonian Euromyth. Foley is a Ulez fan and says the air quality is better now, although he doesn’t see it as a big issue. “We need a change,” he says. “Labour, 100%.”

For other voters in Yiewsley High Street, Ulez and green issues are not a priority. Vida Amos, who works in customer service at nearby Heathrow, is a loyal Conservative voter and her main concern is “gender issues”, although she doesn’t like Ulez and believes the climate crisis is a hoax.

Related: Ulez: what is it, how much does it cost and why is it so controversial?

Arthur Farrow, a retired organic chemistry lecturer, will vote Labour because of the cost of living crisis and “the consequences of the ludicrous Brexit”. He is in favour of Ulez. “Unless you’re driving a traction engine from the 1920s, you’re not affected,” he says. “I have a 15-year-old Skoda, which is no problem at all.”

Younger voters here are also making up their minds. Josh Frost, a 22-year-old cricket coach, is worried about the economy and thinks Ulez feels like an extra tax. “We’re struggling with what’s happening on our own streets – we need to look after ourselves,” he says. He’s edging towards voting Liberal Democrat. Josh Blake, an 18-year-old PE teacher, is also leaning Lib Dem, and is similarly unhappy about Ulez, although the cost of living is his main issue.