Making ULEZ more acceptable: learning about ‘Just transition’

Posted on 11th August, 2023

This is Blog No 38


The ULEZ saga continues.


In the aftermath of the Tory euphoria, and Labour’s disappointment at the Uxbridge by-election, Sadiq Khan has discovered a previously overlooked money tree at City Hall and extended the scrappage scheme.

Many people will say ‘Well done’ and conclude that the democratic process has done its job.

Public not happy; decision-makers respond, and although it does not meet all the objections, enough done to mollify a sufficient number of those who were unhappy to take the heat out of the situation.


The Politics of Consultation works in a similar way. Consult stakeholders. Find out what they regard as most objectionable. Mitigate … and move on. Job done.


This cynical but depressing pattern of behaviour is a lot better than decision-making without listening to anyone. But it risks leaving everyone dissatisfied and in the context of current challenges and the quest for better public participation and engagement – misses the opportunity for better outcomes and a stronger commitment to democratic processes.


This is because of the need for Just Transition.

At its heart. all it means is that as we make changes – we should do so in a way that is fair to everyone. So, behaviour changes such as that desired by the Mayor of London – that we stop using the most polluting vehicles – need to be implemented fairly. That is why he succumbed to pressure and addressed one of the glaring unfairnesses of his scheme – the inadequate help given to those who need to change their cars.


However, beware. The term is prone to two serious problems.


The first is Transition to …what…?’

  • For some radicals, their goal – and a perfectly legitimate one – is to move to what they regard as a ‘fairer’ society. This might embrace income redistribution, public ownership, universal application of human rights, extended roles for the State – even global geopolitics. Much of the climate justice movement pursue a vision whereby advanced western economies transfer significant resources to those countries most impacted by climate change. In its local context the ‘transition to a fairer world’ would therefore lead to a conclusion that Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ scheme is not ‘just’ because, for example, every motorist pays the same; it is regressive and until it penalises those with higher incomes or most assets there is no ‘just transition’. Not everyone will share that view!

The second is ‘Who decides what is just?’

  • In principle – we all do. Everyone has a different idea of what is fair. Presumably, those from the Labour Party who may have leant ever so gently on Sadiq Khan two weeks ago would have believed that maybe it wasn’t quite right to leave significant numbers of impacted motorists with only the help offered by the original scheme. They would also inevitably have been making a political calculation of what would have been necessary to affect the climate of opinion.
  • And this is where we encounter the problem that public opinion is fickle and much influenced by media – both traditional and online. Just consider how the BBC’s coverage of the individual who was falsely imprisoned for 19 years and who feared being charged for prison’s bed and board made an entire nation feel this was ‘unfair’.  And it undoubtedly was … Other issues, however, are less clear cut. Is it fair to require hard-pressed families to spend thousands on changing their boilers? Is it fair to provide cancer sufferers with free care through the NHS, but sufferers from dementia have to sell their houses to pay for their care? That this long-standing matter has still not been addressed just proves that the sense of ‘unfairness’ has still not quite cut through to the general public; no by-election has yet turned on the specific issue. Ask a dozen people, and you may have a dozen views of what, in public policy, is 'fair'.

On this analysis, I arrive at three fundamentals that should influence anyone who organises public engagement and consultation in the coming months and years.

  1. By all means use the term just transition but be careful with it as it means too many different things to different people. Avoid using it broadly. Focus on providing as fair a path as possible to achieving specific short term goals. The technical term is ‘framing’. In the case of ULEZ, maybe the frame of reference is ‘How fair is the scheme for those who need to change their cars.’ Or maybe ‘How fair is the scheme for out-of-area commuters?
  2. This is about winners and losers, which have always existed, and which emerge in the majority of important policy decisions. This is why stakeholder mapping is fundamental, and why every major decision – whether preceded by consultation or not – needs to be able to answer the question ‘Who is most hurt by these proposals?.’ That, in turn, should trigger research into the circumstances of different types of ‘losers’, the extent of their loss, the range of predicted experiences and, of course, the most likely forms of mitigation. It is the role of Impact Assessments to publish such an analysis – and subject it to scrutiny.
  3. A well-constructed consultation provides the opportunity to discover what is considered to be fair. One of the weaknesses of the ULEZ consultation – which, in many ways was quite good – was that its scrappage question merely asked respondents to indicate how important it was for them – i.e. the respondent. There was little opportunity to find out if people felt that the scheme overall was fair. No space to say – “Although I’m all right, Jack, I feel that to be fair, Mrs Smith who commutes from outside London should be given two more years to change her car”. Or “To be fair, people with this or that disability should be given a five-year exemption.”

Why is all this important?


Because net zero and other imminent pressures on governments – local and national – will oblige us to confront the public with unpalatable choices. ULEZ is just the start.


It is, however, a timely object lesson, teaching us that Just transition matters, and that it is not for decision-makers to decide unilaterally what they deem to be fair.

Instead, they should use consultation constructively to tease out the public’s priorities and preferences regarding ‘fairness’. It will make the transition easier to manage.


And, in any event, it is the right thing to do.


Rhion H Jones  LL.B



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Great piece Rhion but I think you’ve missed an aspect of just transition, that which relates to the disproportionate impact of, in this case, poor air quality on poorer communities ie those living in HMOs and other high density communities.