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Sadiq Khan, Don't Forget About London's Growing Sustainability Issues

04/05/2016 09:28

Tomorrow (Thursday) Londoners will go to the polls and elect the UK's capital next mayor. And earlier this week I wrote about an encouraging new report, by the think tank Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR). The report outlined how London could establish itself as a global green city.

Ending London's Tory rule

The Labour candidate Sadiq Khan will be getting my vote. And according to the latest poll, he looks set to be London's next mayor and thereby ending eight years of Tory rule. I very much hope he has read the IPPR report, and that he will take the recommendations seriously. I believe that Khan does get it, but I have yet to see him championing green policies as high up on the agenda as I believe he should. However, I'm pleased he has already taken onboard one idea outlined in the report. It is the idea of creating a London energy company to help accelerate deployment of renewables as well as controlling energy bills, which in the capital are the highest in the UK. Frankly, it is embarrassing that London is the area in the UK with the lowest installed capacity of solar energy. This has to change, and I believe Khan can drive that change as he fundamentally believes in a clean energy future and in tackling climate change.

Why is solar failing in London?

But we must first look at why solar is failing in London. I believe that part of the reason for the low uptake of solar and other renewable technologies, as well as the failure to make homes more energy efficient, is the dominance of rented accommodation. Londoners living in rented accommodations should be able to demand that landlords install renewable technologies on their properties and make them more efficient. At present renters have very little say at all, not least when it comes to demanding upgrading in the property they live in., on top of that Londoners pay some of the highest energy bills in the UK. This could partly be solved by aggressively making homes more efficient, and by generating more energy on site through renewables. Khan will have a tough job on his hands as the UK government is shelving initiatives for building zero or low carbon homes as well as cutting renewables subsidy schemes.

And after years of setting tougher standards for building new homes by previous Labour governments, these are being dismantled year by year by the Conservative government. However, Khan could start by following the example of the French capital, Paris, which has decided that all new buildings must have rooftop solar installed on them. If Paris can, so can London. Furthermore, tougher regulations must be imposed on landlords, who should no longer enjoy a free ride. They should be required to make their homes as efficient as technology allows, and also be required to install renewable capacity on homes where possible.

Furthermore, Khan should understand the huge benefit to many Londoners from community energy schemes. And he should throw his weight behind umbrella initiatives like Repowering London. They are doing incredibly important work on building community owned renewable energy projects for Londoners who need them most. And schemes like Brixton Energy they provide valuable education on energy saving and renewable energy, and thereby provide unique opportunities for those people who have benefitted.

New housing, but not at any cost

There is a great demand for new housing in London. This has been one of Khan's key focuses and so it should be, but not at any cost. First, it is important that London's greenbelt should be protected from development. Instead, we should be looking to develop brownfield sites. And we should be building upwards instead of enlarging London. By doing that you would also increase efficiency and reduce stress on the London transport network. Before you get all nervous and start thinking about a Manhattan high-rise style scenario - this is not at all what I'm suggesting. But for too long London policymakers have been reluctant to build upwards, however, this is now slowly starting to change. One example is shared ownership schemes, which are starting to grow in the capital. This should be carried out to a much larger extent. Not only would that give Londoners a higher chance for home ownership, but it would also make those homes more efficient. However, to achieve this it is important to ensure that these developments are done to the highest standard, and the latest low carbon technology is used. In his thirst for new homes, Khan must not overlook this crucial fact.

A plan for pedestrianisation

Last year, before the Labour mayoral candidate was decided, I joined the campaign of transport expert, Christian Wolmar. Sadly as we know, he did not get the nomination. But he did manage to focus the debate on some key sustainable transport issues. He championed ideas such as pedestrianising Oxford Street. Because of Christian Wolmar, this has gone from being a fringe idea to a mainstream issue; and all candidates from the main parties, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party as well as Khan, support the idea.

London has serious air pollution issues, and Oxford Street is the most polluted street in the city. Therefore ,the decision for this iconic street not to be pedestrianised first is a no-brainer. I really hope that Khan will stick to his promise and pedestrianise it if he, as expected, becomes mayor. But moving forward, a plan must be drawn up to take this further, and pedestrianised zones must be identified across London. Khan also said that were he to become the next mayor, he would make Wolmar his Transport Commissioner. I very much hope he will stick to his word, as it is crucial to have a person in this field who knows his craft, and who has sustainability at the heart of his agenda.

Tackling London's air pollution crisis

Air pollution is quickly becoming a key issue for many Londoners, and rightly so. London's air is toxic, and it is becoming a serious health issue. A few weeks ago the environmental organization, Greenpeace, became the latest group to campaign on this issue. A series of new laws must be implemented to tackle this health and environmental problem. First, as mentioned above, pedestrianisation should not stop with Oxford Street. Also, a new and effective congestion charge zone should be implemented. The current central London zone is largely ineffective. First of all the area it covers should be extended to cover Greater London, and the price payable should be based on the size of the car engine, and thus by the pollution it creates. There should be exemptions of course, in order that it does not become an anti-business agenda. And electric vehicles should continue to be exempt, and further initiatives to encourage the deployment of electric vehicles should be implemented with the aim of positioning London as a leading city for electric car usage.

London as a clean tech city

Finally, London has a huge role and potential as a city of innovation, being already an international financial centre. London is currently the financial capital of the world for investment in coal, and with the bad reputation of coal worldwide, more must be done to change course. Many new clean-tech organizations have their homes in London, but more should be done to promote London as a financial centre for clean energy and clean-tech investments. The biggest UK solar firm , Solarcentury, which worked on the iconic Blackfriars Solar Bridge, is based here.

You also have innovation groups like Cleanweb. They frequently meet to talk about computer models, systems and the role of software in tackling climate change through smart solutions. It is a huge asset for London to have innovators like that, and more must be done to keep them and create opportunities for them. Promoting London as a clean tech city could make the capital an attractive base for this growing sector, and it would without a doubt benefit the city visually as well. Imagine London becoming a pioneering example of tomorrow's climate resilient world, trialing the newest clean tech systems. Who wouldn't want to live in that?

I sincerely believe that Sadiq Khan is the man who can take London to the next level with sustainability in mind. He should understand the huge potential London has to become a world leading city in tackling climate change, and air pollution. He could provide us with a sustainable transport system. He could make London a city leading the world in provision of sustainable homes and buildings and a city that lives within its means. And a city that invests in communities, whether they work on building renewable energy, growing food locally, or cleaning up pollution. Communities create values, and it is important that London, as a city of tomorrow, puts that at the heart of its identity, and Londoners need a mayor who can champion that ideology.

Also published on A greener life, a greener world.

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