‘Blade runners’ fight back against controversial ULEZ scheme in London

‘Blade runners’ fight back against controversial ULEZ scheme in London

A highly controversial scheme aimed at reducing car use in central London was expanded to cover the entire city at the end of August.

While some welcomed the extension of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which aims to curb congestion and air pollution by making drivers of certain vehicles pay a daily fee, extreme opposition is gathering steam.

Among the many peaceful protestors, some have begun tearing down, vandalising and even stealing the cameras that make sure motorists are abiding by the rules.

They style themselves "Blade Runners" after the classic dystopian film, with hardline activists driven by conspiracy theories and rampant misinformation.

Using the pseudonym Ben MacMillan, one saboteur told The Daily Express newspaper what makes these attacks unusual is that they aren't undertaken by young people or gangs of activists.

"It's mostly people in their 40s and pensioners," he told the paper. "I get old ladies asking me how to destroy the cameras. They're going around London with garden shears. These are normal people who work normal jobs, have businesses, families."

Despite the illegality of the acts, most of the so-called Blade Runners have managed to avoid being caught by authorities, with only a tiny number charged so far.

At the beginning of September, it was estimated that around one in four ULEZ cameras had been damaged or removed – a statistic reflecting the magnitude of opposition to the scheme.

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A police officer watches vehicles arriving with anti-ULEZ and Sadiq Khan protest signs attached to their back doors - SOPA Images via Getty

The vandalism has prompted London Mayor Sadiq Khan to roll out a fleet of enforcement vehicles to catch those flouting the rules.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these teams have been targeted too, with the tyres of some vehicles slashed.

ULEZ, launched in April 2019, was controversial from the off.

The scheme means drivers of petrol cars manufactured before 2006 and diesel vehicles made before 2015 have to pay £12.50 (about €14.80) to drive anywhere within the Greater London area of around 9 million people.

Defenders say it has helped clean up London’s air, reduce unnecessary deaths from pollution and help promote cycling.

Khan has tried to reassure residents that it is for ordinary peoples' benefit and not, as a growing number seem to believe, a restriction on their basic freedoms.

Pollution levels in inner London are 21% lower than they would have been without the ULEZ, according to a February 2023 report from the Mayor's Office.

Each day, 74,000 fewer polluting vehicles are seen driving in the zone, a cut of 60 per cent since expansion in October 2021, it added.

Transport for London (TfL) estimates around 90% of vehicles currently on the road are compliant. TfL also says there is financial help available to those who are in possession of a non-compliant vehicle and cannot afford a new one.

ULEZ  first was applied to inner London but extended to the entire capital this August. Ahead of this move, YouGov found 47% of Londoners supported the then-impending enlargement, compared to 42% who opposed it. 11% didn’t know.

One critic of the scheme is Lois Perry, director of CAR26 – an organisation which bills itself as against ‘Climate Analysis Reason’.

"ULEZ seeks to change behaviour, away from personal freedom. It's regressive as it hits those with older cars. It's clearly a revenue grab and not even about clean air. It helps Khan sell his new book and boost his future ‘green’ career," she told Euronews.

“It’s a tax on the poor but, more importantly, it's an attempt to crush personal freedoms including freedom of movement."

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Smoggy city - London is well known for its high levels of air pollution - John Keeble/Getty Images

However, Perry, like many others, agrees the actions of the Blade Runners are a little extreme.

“Protestors who damage property are going a step too far. It sets a bad precedent. We'd be more sympathetic to people putting bags over cameras”, she explained.

Alternative solutions Perry suggests are “signing petitions, demonstrations, supporting campaigners, writing to MPs and voting”.

London's air pollution problem is notoriously severe. According to a 2022 report, it caused 1,700 hospitalisations in the UK capital between 2017 and 2019.

Other research has found that toxic air has contributed to the premature deaths of thousands of Londoners in recent years.

In 2013, 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died after suffering 25 emergency hospital admissions in the previous three years. In 2020, she was reportedly the first person in the world to have air pollution cited as a cause of death.

Yet, many anti-ULEZ protesters and campaigners claim London’s air is entirely clean - and that the scheme is simply a sign of corruption on the part of Sadiq Khan and his supporters.

These are largely baseless accusations.

One 64-year-old part-time bakery worker told AFP he believes Khan is expanding the scheme “because he needs the money”.

“They don’t know how to manage their budget so they make us pay,” John Davis, a 66-year-old retiree told the French press agency. “They use pollution to take money from the poorest,” he said, while paradoxically claiming “pollution does not exist".

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London's mayor Sadiq Khan has borne the brunt of much of the anti-ULEZ rhetoric and aggression - Leon Neal/Getty Images

Detractors say it’s a way to control people's movement and that its timing is disastrous, imposing new costs on drivers while the UK struggles through a major cost of living crisis.

In June 2023, a video detailing how to remove ULEZ cameras to resist the “globalist sh*t c***s” went viral on Twitter and fringe Telegram channels, earning millions of views collectively.

In the clip, a man claims to have taken down several cameras and instructs others how to do so in “under a minute” using everyday tools.

“This is our country, we’re taking it back," he says.

The Conservative government have scorned the scheme, attacking Khan from the centre-left Labour Party for allegedly putting it in place.

This is despite the fact it was first launched in 2014 by then-London mayor and future Tory prime minister Boris Johnson.

There have been countless protests since ULEZ’s inception, with Londoners and outsiders alike marching on parliament, holding signs reading slogans like: “Khan = Liar” and “Khan must go”.

Some have even called him a “dictator”, suggesting the implementation is part of a sinister plot – supposedly connected to the increasingly popular concept of 15-minute cities – to turn London into a "net zero prison" with the introduction of "climate lockdowns".

Perry also suggests the move has nothing to do with improving air quality, and that Khan’s choice to “send motorists into the Underground [the city's train system] where pollution levels are high” makes little sense if clean air is the aim of the scheme.

Labour leader and supposed prime minister-in-waiting Keir Starmer criticised Khan over ULEZ after their party narrowly failed to win a by-election in Johnson's former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, whose residents are now newly included in the zone.

ULEZ was widely seen as a wedge issue that tipped the vote in the right-wing party's favour.

Starmer asked Khan to "reflect" on his decision to extend the ULEZ, saying it had "without doubt" cost Labour the seat.

The Conservatives' margin of victory was a mere 495 votes.

Sitting Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government have widely denounced the ULEZ expansion, a real worry to environmental defenders ahead of next year’s general election.

Khan is determined to press on. He maintains ULEZ project has a “proven track record” and the extension will allow “five million additional Londoners” to breathe “cleaner air”.