ULEZ sign in Catford
The current ULEZ zone slices through Greenwich borough

853 exclusive: Greenwich Council failed to send a letter to Sadiq Khan requesting more help for local drivers to deal with the forthcoming ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) expansion – despite putting it on social media the night before City Hall announced an extension to its scrappage scheme.

Instead, the council – which has been accused of taking part in a “cheap stunt” – claims its Twitter post counted as a letter to the mayor because it mentioned his username.

Council leader Anthony Okereke, and his deputy, Averil Lekau, posted an “open letter” to the London mayor on the evening of May 31 asking for more help for local people “struggling with the financial costs of buying or retrofitting their vehicles, such as parents or carers”.

Their letter, which was largely identical to one sent by another Labour borough the previous day, followed similar requests from a number of councils affected by the expansion of the anti-pollution scheme, which is due to take place in nine weeks’ time.

Just eleven-and-a-half hours after Okereke and Lekau’s “letter” was posted on Twitter, Khan announced changes to the scrappage scheme. But no such letter was received by City Hall, this website has found out under freedom of information laws.

Greenwich Council tweet screen grab
The “open letter” was posted to Twitter but not actually sent to the mayor

Drivers whose vehicles do not meet modern pollution standards have had to pay £12.50 per day to travel between the South and North Circular Roads – an area covering only part of the borough of Greenwich – since October 2021. City Hall says that ULEZ – which initially began in April 2019, only covering central London – has had a “transformational” impact on air quality.

From August the zone will cover nearly all of Greater London, including all of Greenwich – a move that is backed by doctors and air pollution experts.

While the initial expansion to cover Labour-dominated inner London passed off with relatively little controversy, the extension to the fringes of the capital – where boroughs are mostly Conservative-controlled – has been seized upon by Khan’s opponents in the media and politics.

ULEZ protest poster in Dartford
Opponents say that ULEZ expansion will penalise people living just outside London

A legal challenge brought by Tory councils, including Bexley and Bromley, will be heard next week. They claim the scheme exceeds Khan’s powers and does not account for the interests of those living just beyond the capital’s borders.

Many in the Labour Party have also voiced fears that help for those affected does not go far enough during a cost of living crisis. And while the Westminster government is funding scrappage schemes for much smaller “clean air zones” in other English cities, the capital’s programme is being funded by London council tax and TfL fares. Erith & Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare, whose entire constituency will be brought into the zone, voiced her worries about the expansion in a radio interview in February.

At the end of May, a number of Labour boroughs also came forward to ask Khan for changes in the scrappage scheme in what appeared to be a co-ordinated action. They included Enfield and Hounslow, who sent letters to Khan on May 30.

Anthony Okereke
Anthony Okereke’s letter to Sadiq Khan was posted on social media, but not sent to the mayor, unlike other Labour boroughs Credit: Greenwich Council

Khan had been expected to announce changes the next morning during a phone-in on BBC Radio London, but this did not happen.

Then at 6.33pm on May 31, Greenwich Council tweeted an undated “open letter” from Okereke and Lekau asking for changes, tagging in the @mayoroflondon account. “In recent weeks we’ve heard from many constituents who do not meet the criteria and are struggling with the financial costs of buying or retrofitting their vehicles, such as parents or carers,” they wrote.

But the duo only had to wait until 6am the next morning to get their wish when the BBC confirmed that Khan was making changes to the scrappage scheme after all.

Letters produced by Greenwich and Hounslow councils
Following the same road: Greenwich’s letter, not sent to Khan, was largely identical to the one which Hounslow Council remembered to send to the mayor

However, while City Hall had received letters from other borough leaders, Greenwich’s was not among them.

One of those letters the mayor did receive was from Hounslow Council’s leader, Shantanu Rajawat, and deputy leader, Katherine Dunne.

Greenwich’s unsent letter was almost identical to Hounslow’s, with both boroughs telling Khan – whose Silvertown Tunnel road project has caused uproar in Greenwich over pollution worries – “your leadership on cleaning up our air has been exemplary”.

A notable difference was that Okereke and Lekau called for more discounts for specialist fleet vehicles – last year it was revealed that the council had 25 vehicles which did not meet ULEZ standards.

It is unlikely that Khan would have seen the “open letter”, as the mayor receives hundreds of abusive messages each day via his @mayoroflondon account, much of it racist or Islamophobic abuse. “Some politicians use me as clickbait,” Khan said in an interview earlier this year.

Sadiq Khan is unlikely to have seen Okereke and Lekau’s open letter (photo: Scottish Government via Creative Commons)

Matt Hartley, the leader of Greenwich’s Conservative opposition – who has campaigned against the expansion of the zone – raised his own suspicions on the morning of Khan’s announcement.

He told 853: “The revelation that the Greenwich Labour leadership never even sent their ‘open letter’ to Sadiq Khan shows this episode up for what it was – yet another cheap political stunt.

“As much as they might attempt to obscure this, the truth is that Labour councillors in Greenwich have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ expansion from the very beginning – irregardless of the damage this £12.50 daily charge will do to those on low incomes.”

“People in places like Eltham, New Eltham and Mottingham feel completely abandoned by their Labour council on ULEZ expansion. And they won’t be taken for fools by this kind of performative political gimmick.”

Silvertown Tunnel rotation chamber
Sadiq Khan is also responsible for the Silvertown road tunnel, which many fear will increase pollution in parts of Greenwich borough

Greenwich Council did not say why the letter was not emailed to Khan, and nor did it say why it was strikingly similar to one sent by another Labour borough. The council also declined to say if it knew that the changes to the scrappage scheme were coming the morning after it sent the tweet.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich is committed to tackling climate change and strive to improve air quality in the borough. As we stated in our letter high levels of air pollution disproportionally affect vulnerable communities with black and low-paid Londoners more likely to live in areas with the worst levels of pollution,” a spokesperson said.

“However, we understand that many of our businesses and residents would benefit from a review of the ULEZ eligibility criteria for its vehicle scrappage scheme. Like many other boroughs such as Hounslow, we are in support of widening the scrappage scheme, and wanted to publicly write to the Mayor of London to urge the change which we did via our open letter that the Mayor was copied in to. We had already made our very valid concerns known privately to TfL on April 27.

“We are happy the decision has been taken to expand the scheme however we are still keen to see further changes. It’s crucial that the government also supports the scrappage scheme in London as it has done elsewhere in the UK.”

  • Greenwich councillors are tonight set to pass a Labour motion that is critical of Khan’s Silvertown Tunnel – a road project the council had backed under its previous three leaders, but has long been opposed by air pollution experts. They will call for the tunnel, which will have a dedicated lane for HGVs and buses, to prioritise public transport and cycling.