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Clean Air Zones

Making sense of public opinion on clean air zones

16 November 2023

Public opinion on clean air zones and liveable neighbourhoods can sometimes appear to be contradictory. If clean air zones acquire the reputation of being unpopular, this is likely to prevent the ‘quiet majority’ who support them from making their own voices heard.

Public opinion on clean air zones and liveable neighbourhoods can sometimes appear to be contradictory.

On the one hand, there are clear indicators of (moderate) public support:

  • The unexpected (and narrow) ‘hold’ by the Conservatives of the Uxbridge by-election in July 2023 was widely interpreted as a referendum on the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). But a week before the election, a Redfield & Wilton poll showed more Londoners supported the expansion than opposed it, as well as other policies favouring pedestrians and public transport.
  • Back in 2016, ahead of the implementation of the original ULEZ, surveys suggested 76% of people wanted to bring their cities in line with European limits on air pollution.
  • Surveys often find little difference in support for congestion charges between frequent drivers and the general public.
  • Polling in the summer of 2023 by Ipsos found more people support (43%) than oppose (33%) making it harder to drive by car in some areas to encourage more walking and cycling.
  • The most recent Climate Barometer tracker data (October 2023) shows that overall public support (38%) continues to outweigh opposition (27%) for low traffic neighbourhoods. However, this pattern is reversed for Conservative voters and opposition is most pronounced among Conservative MPs.

However – and in common with the siting of energy technologies or new housing – support for policies at a general, abstract level can’t be automatically assumed to apply in specific local circumstances.

There are signs of coordinated opposition to liveable neighbourhoods, sometimes linked to groups promoting conspiracy theories. This can create a skewed sense of perspective, with loud/local opposition then mistakenly conflated with national public opinion.

But there are also genuine questions and concerns held by different constituencies in cities around the country – and although media opposition has tended to come from right-leaning outlets, these questions and concerns are held by voters across the political spectrum. How people travel in their local area is understandably something that many people have strong views about. Creating and supporting processes that ensure these concerns are listened to at the earliest possible stage remains the most effective way to develop policies that alter these behaviours.

Leading questions?

As well as the conflation of national and local opinion, some of the differences between polls on this topic stem from people being asked very different questions.

Some polls – including those which seem designed to amplify or exaggerate differences in public opinion – describe vague policies that will levy daily charges for regular road users (when, in fact, only a minority of vehicles incur charges in clean air zones). Others make it clear that only certain vehicles incur charges: opposition is much lower when the specifics of the policies are made clearer.

This isn’t just a methodological question about which wording most accurately captures public opinion. It matters because how we form our beliefs is so heavily influenced by our perceptions of what others believe.

If people believe – as MPs do – that the public is far less supportive of onshore wind than it really is, this can have far-reaching consequences. In the same vein, if clean air zones acquire the reputation of being unpopular, this is likely to prevent the ‘quiet majority’ who support them from making their own voices heard.

The latest from the Clean Air Zones timeline:

Climate Barometer Tracker 15th November 2023

Tracker data: Public supportĀ for low traffic neighbourhoods is higher than MPs’

The latest Barometer tracker data (October 2023) shows public support for low traffic neighbourhoods is higher than opposition, although the difference is only 10 percentage points, and the pattern is reversed for Conservative voters.

Public support (39%) is higher than that of MPs at only 23%, and support is particularly low among Conservative MPs, likely reflecting the widespread belief that the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was the reason for the unexpected Conservative ‘hold’ at the Uxbridge by-election in July 2023.

As with differences between public and MP opinion seen on onshore wind, and to a lesser extent solar power, it is important that where public support exists (as it does on onshore wind, solar and clean air zones), this support is seen, acknowledged and acted on by political representatives.

Opinion Insight 23rd October 2023

What explains the drop in Welsh support for 20mph speed limits, shortly after their introduction?

Polling for WalesOnline by Redfield & Wilton shows a sharp rise in the proportion of people opposed to the new ‘default’ 20mph speed limits introduced on certain roads in Wales (where ‘cars mix with pedestrians’).

Although introduced primarily for road-safety reasons, lower speed limits are one way in which air pollution from road traffic can be reduced, and 20mph limits are typically a feature of cleaner-air campaigns.

Support in Wales has dropped across the board, but especially among Conservative voters following intense opposition by the Conservative Party (including organising a petition against the new law)

This pattern is in contrast to the typical ‘Goodwin curve‘ of initial (pre-implementation) opposition softening into majority support once the new rules are in place.

The strength of opposition from Conservative politicians in Cardiff suggests – as with the opposition to clean air zones seen among Conservative MPs in Westminster – that the opposition is partly about creating a political dividing line.

But with a significant percentage of the Welsh public currently in opposition to the scheme, winning over the ‘Persuadables’ is more important than ever – something which ACT Climate Labs has issued recent guidance on around transport policies.

Whilst the change may not currently be popular, driver behaviour showed immediate signs of positive change, with average speeds dropping in the first week of the policy’s implementation.

  • Source: Redfield and Wilton
  • Author: Redfield & Wilton Strategies
  • Date: 18th October 2023
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