Air quality is a life or death issue for Londoners

Today’s environment strategy is the first step in making Sadiq Khan’s green ambition for London a reality – and there is not a garden bridge gimmick in sight, writes Leonie Cooper AM

Boris Johnson’s mayoral policies were rarely dull. From the two hundred million pounds garden bridge to the ‘much needed’ Thames cable car (used by just four regular commuters a year after opening), the former mayor could certainly garner headlines.

Yet for all his public relations charm, Johnson left a city with deep challenges, his gimmicks a distraction from the real problems elsewhere. Nowhere is this more true than for London’s environment, with toxic air quality, the loss of green spaces, noise pollution and an over-reliance on fossil fuels. While the former mayor extolled the virtues of the madcap ‘Boris island’, Londoners were dying because of air pollution. What is more, not only did Johnson ignore the issues of the day, but he also failed to future-proof the capital, with increasing demand from a growing population and the effects of climate change both unplanned for.

Sadiq Khan’s new environment strategy is therefore much-needed. By providing a clear, integrated plan, it is anathema to the stunts and gimmicks that Johnson stood for, exactly what is needed to transform London’s environment for the better. For the first time the document brings together different environmental concerns – from parks to noise pollution – to set out a vision of London’s future environment. This document does not sit on its own either, but is part of a whole tranche of reports that will feed into the new London plan, and therefore the DNA of the city. As the document explicitly acknowledges: action on the environment will ‘require a joined-up approach across a range of different policy areas’.

What plans the strategy makes are, by and large, practical, ambitious and clear. As significant contributors to London’s air pollution problem, the pledge to lobby for controls on emissions from construction machinery and river traffic is welcome – as is the consideration of an air quality building standard. Few headlines will be won with the promise to take into account the full economic value of green infrastructure, but this pledge should allow green spaces to be promoted through the planning system. The section on waste meanwhile introduces measurable targets, both for the city overall and individual waste authorities, providing a clear yard-stick for success.

It is not just the pledges that the plan makes that are important, but the language it uses too. At SERA we campaign for a better environment not just for the environment’s sake, but because it is intrinsically linked to public health, quality of life, prosperity and jobs, all themes which the strategy touches on. Far from the likes of Donald Trump’s ‘Pittsburgh, not Paris’ rhetoric, the environment strategy recognises that climate ambition is in the interests of Londoners, reducing the risk of future climate impacts and improving the city’s energy system at the same time.

There will, predictably, be areas of debate. Some may question ‘Energy for Londoners’ and the precise way forward. Yet even here an element of caution can be welcomed, especially when contrasted to the ‘announce first, think later’ strategy of the previous administration. Johnson repeatedly rushed into big announcements and huge expenditures with barely a memo of a plan. Millions were lost as a result. With the potentially huge scale for a London energy company, a little longer planning and consideration might therefore be welcomed – although its ambition and intention must not be lost as a result.

Time will, as ever, be the true judge of this strategy. But by providing a long-term, positive vision for the capital’s environment that aims to serve Londoners, not newspaper front pages, this is the first step in making Khan’s green ambitions reality. With the likes of air quality a life or death issue for Londoners right now, that could not be more welcome.

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Leonie Cooper is an executive member of SERA – Labour’s Environment Campaign, and City Hall Labour environment spokesperson. She tweets at @LeonieC

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