More than half of the east London council's dominant Labour group have taken a very public stand against the borough's Labour Mayor
Thirty-two Newham councillors, more than half the total number, have signed an open letter calling on the borough’s Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz to reconsider a new emission-based parking permit scheme introduced yesterday. The councillors say their inboxes have been “overwhelmed” by concerns about the charge and note that the council’s own consultations have shown a large majority of residents are against the scheme.
“With job losses and furlough, many [residents] now rely on food banks and Universal Credit to survive,” they write. “Residents need a council that will stand by them, not imposing regressive and unfair taxes. We believe that air pollution is a serious issue that must be tackled, but these charges will not resolve air quality issues in the borough”.
All of the 32 councillors are Labour members – as is every councillor in Newham – and their action is a significant revolt against a policy backed by a Labour Mayor.
Under the new scheme, Newham residents pay an emissions charge when they renew their annual parking permit based on their vehicle’s tax band. A council spokesperson said it had been “subject to extensive consultation with residents and members over the last year, and has been passed by both the cabinet and full council” and James Asser, Newham’s lead member for environment, highways and sustainable transport, says: “The pandemic has highlighted the effect poor air quality has on public health. Those with underlying respiratory illnesses have been the most vulnerable to the most severe outcomes of Covid-19 infection.”
However, former cabinet member John Gray, one of the signatories of the letter, told On London that although he is “a passionate advocate of emissions-based charging” and believes “we’ve got to do something about reducing pollution,” he believes “the world has changed” since the council’s present budget was agreed last February, before the pandemic took effect, and that many residents cannot cope financially with an extra bill from the council.
Gray says “102,00 Newham residents are on furlough and/or Universal Credit, and there’s tremendous poverty, especially after housing costs”. He claims he has “never been lobbied so hard by residents” over an issue in his ten years on the council.
Newham has previously been one of only two London boroughs which does not charge residents for their first vehicle permit. Very low emission vehicles in Vehicle Excise Duty bands A-B will still incur no charge. But a vehicle in bands G-I, such as a 1.4 litre 2017 VW Golf, falls into Tier 3 of the Newham system, meaning a permit for a first vehicle costs £80, while a band L-M vehicle, such as a 3 litre Grand Cherokee Jeep, is in Tier 5, costs owners £160.
The basic cost of permits for second, third and additional vehicles per household remain unchanged, but they are also subject to an emissions charge on a slightly more steeply rising basis than for the first vehicle. In light of the pandemic, the council has announced a one-off 20% discount on the overall cost of the first resident permit per household. Its website states that even without the discount, charges are cheaper than neighbouring boroughs’ and are in the bottom 50% of all London boroughs, taking account of higher levels of hardship in Newham.
Gray suggests “a need to compromise – you need to have a look at getting rid of the anomaly that the first permit is completely free. We can achieve a lot of what we have to do in a different way,” he says. But Asser argues that, “Just last month, in a landmark ruling, a coroner found that air pollution was a contributory factor in the death of nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah [in Lewisham] and this highlights that we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to protect our communities and improve our air quality.”
The councillors who’ve signed the open letter are drawn from a mix of factions within Newham’s entirely Labour council chamber. Gray, who is campaigning for changing Newham’s governance system from the mayoral system to a council leader and committee model in the borough’s referendum on the issue scheduled for 6 May, says lobbying the Mayor via a letter “is unusual” but that “circumstances justified bringing it to the fore”.
He adds that the way the group agreed a collective line was “an example of councillors working collectively and appropriately, acting in the interests of people who elect them”. Another signatory, Royal Docks councillor Pat Murphy, who been chosen as the group’s spokesperson on environmental issues – a role he previously held as a cabinet member under Newham’s previous Mayor, Sir Robin Wales – says councillors opposed to the scheme had been on the verge of issuing two separate letters, but that he had argued they should join forces behind a single one.
The same group appears to have come together around the issue of Mayor Fiaz’s proposed abolition of Newham’s “Eat for Free” universal free school meals provision for primary pupils, which is currently being consulted on with a deadline of 17 January for responses.
Murphy points out that the parking permit charges don’t impact on non-resident drivers using trunk roads across the borough, such as the A12 and A13, and that they weigh more heavily on poorer residents, for example by exempting people with driveways, who he says are more likely to be comparatively well off. In the context of lockdown, he says a car is “the safest form of transport – an emergency form of transport. We need to come up with something that doesn’t penalise the poor and that helps the environment,” he says. He is discussing alternative ideas to the scheme with an Extinction Rebellion member.
Forty-six per cent of Newham households own a car, according to TfL’s 2019 London Travel Demand Survey, based on 2015-18 figures – above the 40% Inner London average but below the 56% average for the capital as a whole. A British Heart Foundation study in February 2020 named Newham as the most polluted local authority in the UK, with an annual average of 13.0 micrograms of PM2.5 particulate pollution per cubic metre – above the World Health Organisation’s 10.0 micrograms/m3 danger level.
The FAQs about the new permit scheme on the council’s website note that Newham has “the worst air quality in the country” with pollution from vehicles equating to ninety six people dying prematurely each year, and that it has the highest number of children admitted to hospital due to asthma-related conditions. Air pollution from London City Airport in Royal Docks, and the proposed Greenwich-Silvertown road tunnel are major topics of controversy in the borough.
Mayor Fiaz has been approached for comment about the councillors’ letter and will be issuing a statement in due course, the council says.