CAZ: The local election issue that unites Tories and conspiracy theorists
One anti-ULEZ group is linked to Vote Leave digital strategist Thomas Borwick, while others platform climate denial
“Sadiq Khan thinks you’re all far-right conspiracy theorists and Covid deniers!”
This was the opening gambit from Conservative London Assembly member Peter Fortune as he bounced onto the stage at an anti-ULEZ protest in Trafalgar Square on 15 April. ULEZ, or the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’, is a scheme to charge people who drive the most polluting vehicles through London. Similar rules exist elsewhere in the UK, with councils in Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester implementing their own ‘Clean Air Zones’ (CAZ).
The mostly middle-aged crowd responded with a resounding chorus of ‘boos’. In March, London mayor Khan had publicly dismissed the anti-ULEZ movement as “joining hands with…conspiracy theorists and the far right”, much to the outrage of organisers, who insisted they were just “normal people”.
Opposition to the scheme has become a key battleground in parts of the country gearing up for local elections at the start of May.
Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Mark Hudson, a former civil servant from Birmingham, ran on such a platform in last year’s polls.
Speaking to openDemocracy at the London protest, Hudson said his objections to his own local CAZ had been ignored by both Labour and Conservative councillors and that he no longer felt there was a party he could vote for. He stood as an independent in 2022, but blamed his lack of any party backing or attendant infrastructure for the fact he came second-to-last with 485 votes.
Hudson objected to the CAZ on the grounds that he believed it was poorly managed and would funnel traffic out of the city centre and into smaller neighbourhoods. The scheme in Birmingham has come under fire on several occasions, primarily for the fact that it has been forced to refund more than 50,000 people whose fines were deemed incorrect. Other objections we have seen in online anti-ULEZ groups include someone being penalised for driving through the Bristol CAZ 37 seconds after their payment for the day had expired (a day is counted from midnight to midnight) and vehicles being subjected to different pollution standards in different cities.
The original ULEZ, which was established in London, was created as an extension of the capital’s Congestion Charge scheme, which charges drivers £12.50 a day if their vehicles do not comply with emissions targets. Then-mayor Boris Johnson praised the scheme in 2013 and committed to implementing ULEZ by 2020.
But in 2019, with Sadiq Khan now mayor of London, the Tories changed their tune. Even as transport secretary Grant Shapps told Khan that funding for Transport for London would be wholly contingent on the ULEZ expansion, Conservative-run Facebook groups paid for numerous ads presenting the scheme as a Labour-imposed tax on the poor. One such group, ‘STOP ULEZ’, appeared small and relatively innocuous, but its bio revealed it was “run by Kanto Systems Limited on behalf of 3rd Party Ltd”.
Both Kanto and 3rd Party Ltd are owned by Thomas Borwick – digital strategist for Vote Leave and the Conservative Party as well as being the chair of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservatives. Borwick has since been accused of using 3rd Party to engage in election interference after boasting that he could create “unknown online campaign groups to ‘split the vote’ of Conservative opponents”. Prior to this, Borwick worked for Cambridge Analytica and, following the company’s collapse, hired two of its data scientists to run his newest company the College Green Group, which currently runs four all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) including one tackling “environmental, social and governance” issues.
‘STOP ULEZ’ has been dormant since 2021, but other Conservative-led groups are still running anti-ULEZ ads on the platform and Conservative local election candidates in Greater Manchester and Newcastle are now campaigning to end CAZ schemes in their own areas.
Tory candidates in Newcastle present the scheme as a Labour failure in posts ahead of the May election. “In Newcastle more and more residents are switching their vote to Conservative because they are sick of the war on drivers,” reads one, “not to mention the CAZ fines that Labour will not rule out extending to private vehicles.”
But in fact Newcastle’s CAZ was implemented by the Labour local authority in 2021, despite the council leader’s own misgivings, after the Conservative government gave it an order to bring down illegal air pollution levels on Tyneside.
Similarly, in Greater Manchester, where all ten councils voted in favour of introducing a charging CAZ, Conservative candidates are now standing against it, promising to “protect” residents from the charges – even in Bolton, a council that is Tory-led. “The CAZ in this form is currently unviable and would hit businesses hard, at a time when they need our support most, as we build back better from the pandemic,” one Facebook post by Bolton Conservatives reads.
Neither of the Conservative groups in question responded to our request for comment.
Prior to the pandemic, STOP ULEZ and other Conservative-led groups were at the centre of anti-ULEZ sentiment, but in the last 18 months another ideology has taken hold.
In 2021, brewery owner Alan Miller and alleged Formula 1 marketing scammer David Fleming formed the Together Association. Ostensibly created to resist lockdowns, vaccine passports and digital ID, the opaquely funded enterprise has the support of a number of well-known right-wing figures and ex-Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen. As the effects of the pandemic have lessened, Together has latched onto anti-net-zero campaigning, perhaps as the next part of its plan to operate as a “shadow cabinet”.
Ahead of the Trafalgar Square protest, Miller wrote for the Telegraph criticising the net zero target, and labelling so-called 15-minute cities (a planning model that suggests vital services should be no more than a quarter of an hour by foot or bicycle from any person’s front door) “the dungeons of state control”. Stating that he has encouraged local residents and businesses across the UK to “hold councillors and MPs to account”, he wrote that some of them were now standing as independents in the upcoming local elections.
Carbon dioxide is not a threat… the ultimate goal is control and will lead to 15-minute cities where they can surveil everyone
Many join groups like Together and similar online communities seeking answers to genuine questions, only to be bombarded with conspiracy thinking and anti-science “solutions”. In the largest anti-ULEZ Facebook group, for example, these take the form of pseudo-legal advice against paying fees and climate denial. This was demonstrated at the Trafalgar Square protest, when we asked people what they thought the government should be doing about climate change if not creating ULEZ and CAZ schemes.
One man told us that he would only believe in climate change when he “saw it with [his] own eyes”. Another said: “Carbon dioxide is not a threat… the ultimate goal is control and will lead to 15-minute cities where they can surveil everyone.” Telling us he would be voting for the right-wing populist Heritage Party, he also claimed that “Ukraine actually invaded Russia to start the US’s war against Russia”.
Even those who were agreeable to the idea of climate change revealed a fear of being “shoved into tower blocks… so they can use ID cards to monitor you and charge you for where you’re walking”. Keen to say that they were not conspiracy theorists, many appeared to have been exposed to conspiracies for so long that they now accepted them as fact.
Many Tory candidates in local elections have also latched onto the concept, campaigning to end both CAZ/ULEZ schemes and 15-minute cities as a combined issue. In February, MP Nick Fletcher took it one step further, telling Parliament he did not support the “international socialist concept” of 15-minute cities as they would “cost our personal freedom”.
Anti-socialist rhetoric eventually makes its way into many conspiracy groups and can be a way-in for those further to the Right.
London-based hot-rodder Nick Arlett has been part of the anti-ULEZ movement for some time and his group “Action Against ULEZ Expansion” co-organised the Trafalgar Square event. A photo on his Facebook page shows him alongside Fortune and others, making fun of the idea that the groups had “aligned with the far right”. Browsing his profile, however, openDemocracy found an Islamophobic meme, a post repeating a conspiracy theory about the supposed genocide of white people, and a bizarre photo showing off a novelty Hitler money-box he found “hiding in the cupboard”.
The Environmental Research Group has established that some 4,000 London deaths could be attributed to air pollution and that measures like ULEZ could increase average life expectancy by six months.
By aligning with groups like Together, some Conservative candidates appear to be encouraging people to act against their own best interests.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
We’ve got a newsletter for everyone
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.