At the Trinity furniture shop, staff and service users revealed the issues important to them. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue
When Boris Johnson’s parliamentary career ended in disgrace, the former prime minister needed replacing as an MP. The resulting Uxbridge by-election has seen more attention than usual, not just because of its departing MP, not just because of a possible momentous swing to Labour, but because it has become a battleground for a contentious clean-air policy: Ulez.
The Ultra Low Emissions Zone, a £12 daily charge for driving certain polluting vehicles, is set to expand to outer London, including the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which sits at the end of the Metropolitan line in zone 6 of west London.
Both Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell and Labour hopeful Danny Bealeshave come out against the move. Outside Uxbridge tube station, conspiracy theorist Piers Corbyn, also running in the election, is handing out posters reading: “Vote Piers Corbyn/ DEFEAT ULEZ.”
It’s taken over the conversation. Even the new Barbie film has been dragged into the discourse, with the Conservatives forced to recant a claim that Barbie’s car wouldn’t be Ulez compliant. Thursday is being sold as the Ulez election.
Alongside the expansion’s impact on businesses – the Big Issue has previously reported on how Ulez may affect charities, small businesses, and disabled people – much is made of the potential effect the charge will have on those struggling to get by.
So what do those with a first-hand insight into the challenges of life in the area for the most vulnerable think?
Charity leaders and service users who spoke to the Big Issue ahead of polling day on Thursday acknowledged possible problems with the Ulez, but said they had bigger issues.
And they had a few things to say about eight years with Boris Johnson as an MP.
‘Ulez, for us, is not a priority’
Vicky Lechuga is the centre manager of Hillingdon Women’s Centre, which offers a range of support and advice for women in the constituency. The expansion of the Ulez didn’t feature in the issues she thought were most important for the Uxbridge by-election.
“Ulez, for us, is not a priority. And the campaigns are using that a lot, because it is a big noise. It is more a campaign tool than an actual necessity,” she said.
“In most of the cases, because I’ve seen some of these parties who are talking about other issues, but the main focus is on Ulez.”
Instead, funding, housing, and prioritising tackling violence against women and girls were the most meaningful issues for Lechuga.
“We are covering a big gap with the most vulnerable people, and obviously we don’t have the funds to do it, so we have to be scratching everywhere to get the money to continue providing our services,” she said.
A lack of safe and affordable housing for women in dangerous situations was putting them at danger, she added.
“Housing, the lack of housing is a real issue. I can tell you, most women coming to the centre are victims of domestic abuse. They are about to become homeless and they don’t have money to feed their kids. That’s a profile that we have.”
Lechuga acknowledged Ulez is an issue for some vulnerable women – who relied on a car to move around, for independence, and to get their children to school.
“I guess it is still relevant for some specific women. I know women who have a car, and that is the only way they can move around with their children, or that is the only way they can get to work. These are very vulnerable women, women who have no good income. Therefore, it’s gonna be impossible for them to get a new car, to move around,” she said.
“But, I should say, that is a minority of our service users. For the women coming to our service, Ulez is not going to be a priority.”
As the manager of a prominent organisation helping women in the area, you might expect Lechuga to be well acquainted with the local MP. They might even have helped the women’s centre out of a tight spot or two.
Lechuga described Johnson as “inexistent”, adding: “ I have no idea what he was doing. I’m going to be honest, I have never seen him around, other than walking Uxbridge high street. Never heard of what he was doing, never heard of him talking to the community, I have never been approached by him at all.”
She said: “I don’t know how many times we tried to contact him and send messages for specific petitions for things we needed, and we never got any response from him.
“There was like a void, because he was doing other things.”
“It’s going to hurt a lot of people if it does come out, but it is not all about Ulez”
A short walk from Uxbridge high street is Ossulton Court, a newly-built almshouse providing accommodation for pensioners who would qualify for universal credit.
The 524-year old Uxbridge United Welfare Trust charity also provides grants to the most needy of Hillingdon, and owns commercial property and flats around the town to generate its income.
Dominic Gilham, the charity’s chief executive, wasn’t convinced Ulez should be so high up the agenda in the Uxbridge by-election.
“Obviously everyone should say something like it’s the amount of pounds and pence that are in their pocket every day, and how a government either nationally or locally can affect that. The safety on my streets, and then the education of the youngsters, those would be the most important things for me,” he said.
“Whether they’re the most important framed questions in this by-election, you know they’re not. All the parties bar one are against Ulez. But no MP can stop Ulez, because it’s a GLA, London mayor deliverable policy. MPs don’t have anything to do with that whatsoever.”
None of the residents at Ossulton Court had cars, he said, and so wouldn’t be affected by any changes. Boris Johnson, Gilham added, had helped get the new almshouse built, when its century-old predecessor was knocked down and redeveloped during the pandemic.
“Boris put the last slate on this brand new building, he did the topping out ceremony,” Gilham said.
“He was involved in the discussions we had with the local authority regarding getting approval, because we knocked down a listed building in a conservation area to build this brand new building, because the listed building didn’t work, it didn’t have step free access for people when they became immobile. So he saw that, and he was very helpful for that, and he’s come along many times.”
Resident Norma Gapper and her daughter, Angela Beston, sat in the almshouse’s tea-room, agreed that the constituency faces bigger challenges than the expansion of an emissions reduction measure.
“It all seems to be about Ulez Ulez Ulez,” said Beston
“It’s going to hurt a lot of people if it does come out, but it is not all about Ulez”, she said, adding her car will be okay anyway.
“Housing is the biggest thing, it’s the same everywhere.”
Norma, who lives in one of the 20 flat in the building, added: “We used to have police walking through Uxbridge, that’s all you ever saw.
“People want to feel safe when they go out at night time but you are not getting that”
She said: “There used to be youth clubs. If they had youth clubs they could go there.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was a rare sighting. “The only time I’ve seen Boris is when there is some kind of election going on,” said Beston.
‘It might stop customers coming in, but we can work things out’
On the other side of Uxbridge town centre is the Trinity furniture store, run by the local Trinity Homeless Projects charity.
Johnson’s first engagement as an MP, back in 2015, was to support the charity. But in the years since, things have changed in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
“I’ve lived in Hillingdon all my life, and I do think the police presence has definitely gone down in recent years. Our police stations, we’re losing them,” said Sam Piwowar, a resident community coach.
“I personally think everyone has their own reasons for wanting different things, cost of living, affordable living, Ulez – it doesn’t affect me but I know it affects 10 other people that I know,” said Claire Sullivan, who works on the charity’s resource team.
“For me the main thing is crime and safety in the local area, letting people feel safe, that I can walk the street at 10 o’clock at night and not have to hold keys in my hand.”
Along with the charity furniture shop, Trinity operates a range of accommodation to help people off the streets. For residents living there, a greater police presence can make a difference, said Piwowar.
“If they’ve got anything that’s going on for them, it might be something they want to broach. They don’t feel comfortable going into a police station about something, but if they see a local PCSO that they know has been into one of your houses in the community, they might have the confidence then to go ‘well I can approach that person, I can have a conversation with them’. So I think it’s really important.”
Neither the charity nor residents in its accommodation – cars are often the first thing to get given up when financial difficulties hit – would be affected by the Ulez expansion.
“We’re lucky our vans are Ulez compliant, but what if they weren’t,” asked Sullivan.
Almost all diesel vans made after 2016 and petrol vans made since 2007 are compliant, and micro-businesses and charities can get a grant of between £5-9,500 to replace non-compliant vans.
“We’ll help any staff in any way if they are affected, but we’re not in that massive way affected by it. It might stop customers coming in, but we can work things out.”
On Johnson, Sullivan added: “When Covid kicked in we were one of the top boroughs for reducing homelessness, and he did thank us for the work that he did. We’ve always made sure that we’ve kept in good relations with whoever is running the local council, and also the local constituency.”
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