My tips for Boris

On climate change

Author: Zac Goldsmith   |  

For the first time in British politics, a mainstream candidate for high office, Ken Livingstone, put climate change at the heart of his campaign. Yet, against expectations, he lost. But while it has been said that majoring on green issues was partly the reason, I believe it was his approach to environmentalism that turned people off.

By reducing the complex environmental challenges we face to the single issue of carbon, the mayor lost sight of the broader environmental concerns of ordinary people. He understood the fundamental importance of climate change. But because he failed to link it to people’s lives, there was a backlash.

The congestion charge, for instance, was undoubtedly brave, but it attracted criticism. Not even the mayor’s own agency, Transport for London, claimed the charge would cause significant reductions in CO2. What began as a solution to congestion and emissions soon took on the appearance of a punishment.

If instead, the mayor had guaranteed that all of the money raised would be invested in alternatives to the car, and if he had applied the increased charge only to cars bought after its introduction, then people would probably have accepted it.

So the first advice I have for the new mayor, Boris Johnson, is that his green policies must be congruent with people’s real lives. He must develop an environmentalism that actually resonates.

Congestion and rising emissions can both be tackled in ways that add to, rather than detract from, our quality of life. Take dedicated school buses, for example. Nearly a fifth of all traffic on the roads in the morning is accounted for by the school run. In North America, more than half of all children travel to school by bus. We need a similar programme in London.

The new mayor should also make use of the Thames. It is the equivalent of a six-lane highway running through the middle of London but has been scandalously underused for both freight and passengers. An improved river service could be funded by cancelling the wholly unnecessary motorway-style bridge Ken Livingstone proposed to build across the Thames at Thamesmead, saving £400m and enormous amounts of new car traffic.

We cannot significantly reduce emissions without also addressing the issue of energy – how we use it and how it is generated. A pound invested in energy efficiency buys seven times more energy solution than a pound invested in nuclear power. For example, we know that retrofitting old homes could lead to a 60% reduction in CO2 from the housing sector by 2050.

Livingstone had what he called a “major programme” for the subsidised retrofitting of homes and GLA buildings, but the domestic element of this was worth a couple of million pounds at most; not enough to do more than a fraction of homes, and the “subsidised” price charged was often higher than the usual market rate.

Johnson needs to expand both the domestic and the institutional aspects of the programme – which can be self-financing, over time, through lower energy bills – and work out how the domestic element can be leveraged.

Livingstone did useful work on the hugely important technology of decentralised energy, power generated in mini power plants close to where it is to be used, allowing the heat involved in the process to be captured and saving up to two-thirds of all electricity lost by complicated long-distance distribution networks. These kinds of systems already flourish in other parts of the world, notably the Netherlands.

London should also adopt a version of the highly successful German system of paying homeowners for energy that they return to the grid, which makes microgeneration an investment decision, not an ethical one. A single town in Bavaria with 200,000 people generates more solar power than the whole of the UK.

These are key issues. But, as ever, an environmental policy that focuses only on carbon can often deliver anti-environmental consequences. A policy, for instance, that makes it harder for people to park on our high streets often simply diverts customers to nearby supermarkets with their ever-available free parking. The effect is the erosion of the very shops that help to define our communities, and the new mayor must create a more level playing field between small traders and large operators. Either parking regimes should be relaxed for town-centre parking or, less likely, imposed for out-of-town and superstore parking.

The death of our independent retailers is a growing problem. In the past six years, London is estimated to have lost more than 7,000 of them. But is also an area where Johnson can introduce significant policy change.

For example, he has real power in strategic planning. He can impose a pan-London ban on any further large-scale shopping centre and supermarket development, since it creates enormous demands for car and HGV transport, as well as undermining the viability of traditional high streets. Sub-post offices are the cornerstones of many shopping parades, so Johnson must go through with his legal challenge to post office closures.

The mayor should also, as far as he can, impose a presumption against change of use – from pubs or small shops to residential, for instance. As a landlord and a service provider, he must end discrimination against small shops. Where developments may not fall within his “strategic” powers, the mayor should consider sponsoring local referendums to exert pressure on councils and the dreaded planning inspectorate.

Food is another issue that combines quality of life and the environment. As we know, poor diet is a factor in rising NHS expenditure and probably even in antisocial behaviour and crime. If our schools had a bias in favour of sustainable local produce, we’d see the market flooded with good quality food. We’d also see a significant reduction in the amount of fuel used to ship and fly food around the world.

However, the sad truth is that every one of these policies risks being for nothing if we continue to pursue Livingstone’s crazy population growth objective. In the medium term, Livingstone envisaged a city of 8-8.5 million people. The effect of this increase will be felt in many ways, not least housing. At the moment, this pressure is increasingly being relieved by building over suburban gardens, classified by the government as mere “brownfield” land. The latest figures show we are losing the equivalent of an area twice the size of Hyde Park. The reason we’ve seen the immigration of hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans is that our own people lack the skills we require. Developing London’s existing human potential must be the right way forward.

London’s problems should be seen in a wider context. We have allowed a disproportionate amount of economic activity to become centralised in and around London, which adds to the pressure on housing, even while other parts of the country are experiencing the emergence of ghost towns. The alternative is better transport links across the country to enable businesses to flourish throughout. Britain has less high-speed rail infrastructure than Belgium, and dramatically less than France. The new mayor needs to lobby with all his might for the construction of reliable and effective links between our cities.

Far from being marginal, the environment is the Clapham Junction of politics: a place through which many mayoral priority lines run, from housing to employment to crime. By driving forward this agenda, Boris Johnson can answer Londoners’ longing for a better quality of life. London may be a much richer city than it was, but it is also a less happy one. Any mayor who changes that will truly be worthy of re-election.

This is an edited version of an article appearing in The Million Vote Mandate, a report published by Policy Exchange and Localis

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