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Making London a Sustainable City: Is It Possible?

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London is a city of seven million people, with still largely Victorian infrastructure that is choked with very 20th-century traffic. So how could you ever make this great conglomeration a “sustainable” city? That was the question tackled tonight by a Young Greens-run seminar at City Hall. (A dreadfully unsustainable building, although for that the Greater London Authority can’t be blamed – complaints should be directed to Tony Blair.)

Jenny Jones, one of the two Greens on the 25-member Greater London Authority, began by attempting to define sustainability, saying it means “we don’t use today’s resources to compromise the next generation’s ability to have a good quality of life”. By next generation, she added, she meant the next generation all around the world.

A pretty big ask then.

Darren Johnson, the other GLA Green, said a survey they had instigated found that 90 per cent of Londoners thought renewable energy in homes was a great idea; 20 per cent would consider going ahead if a scheme was presented to them; the problem was to make it happen.
– if it went ahead there would be at least 250,000 customers.

The first scheme presented — and in many ways the “biggest” idea of the evening — came from Jim Footner of Greenpeace, who spoke about decentralised energy networks. Under the current centralised system, with big plants in one place producing lots of power that was then transported to consumers, two-thirds of energy — largely in the form of heat — was thrown away. “For every 100 units put in to the system, two-thirds is lost in heat and you; lose another 3-5 per cent in transmission losses; you only use one-fifth of the energy that you could be using.

“At the moment the Barking 1000MW station dumps all that excess heat into Thames; it seems crazy not to be using it.”

The decentralised model instead turned consumers into generators, and if heat was being generated in this way it could be used locally, Mr Footner said. This would also be ideal for the use of small-scale renewable sources such as wind, solar etcetera.

This was not mere theory, he added. “Woking [a Surrey town] decided to decentralise 10 or 15 years ago. It spent money to save cash, not for environmental reasons, but in doing so cut CO2 emmissions by 77 per cent.”

Could this be scaled up for London? The answer was a definitive “Yes”. “The designer of the Woking scheme has been employed by the mayor to work on London.

And beyond that, it was possible to employ it to deal with the threat of massive emissions from China. “WADE, the world alliance for decentralised energy, has calculated that its emissions could be cut 56 per cent their predicted level in 25 years, which would also save $400bn over 25 years.”

Back in London, he said, the approach would bring renewal energy from the margin to the mainstream. “And, if it is your energy – you’ve made it – it is much more appealing to save it.”

In response to an audience question about how to make this happen, he said that barriers in the current regulatory system discouraged small-scale producers; they had to be able to claim for the energy they produced. Furthermore, the remit of Ofgen (the main regulator) was to keep prices down at all costs. That had to be changed to a more balanced view.

Next up, Steve Shaw, the campaign co-ordinator for the Local Works Campaign, looked at the question of “sustainable London” in its broadest sense, saying that the chief problem for Britain was that “communities are unsustainable. We talk about ghost town Britain; the decline in things that make communities sustainable: post offices, banks, independent shops. And there is a severe deficit of local democratic activity.

“We have a very centralised system – not just in energy but in political power – in that big Gothic building just down the river. It creates top-down, one-size-fits-all policies.”

His organisation has produced a draft Sustainable Communities BIll, backed by 237 MPS, that provides for more bottom-up decisions, particularly on issues such as local waste recycling, reducing traffic, reducing social exclusion and local job provision. And if a local participation exercise is carried out and comes to a decision, under the BIll the central government would have to back it, including with funds.

Louise Hazan then brought the issue down to an organisational level, speaking about People and Planet’s campaign for green universities.

In the London league table the London School of Economics (LSE) was top (might be a message there), and Royal Holloway scored well well; UCL was at the bottom.

“Royal Holloway is selling itself as green uni – something students are increasingly looking for.” But generally, Ms Hazan added, “universities are not yet significantly contributing to the solution, and they should be.”

Richard Bourn, the London campaigner for Transport 2000, said a lot of what needed to be done was “pure commonsense. The Mayor has done some good things in transport, but it has become clear that are still some crucially important things that aren’t happening.”

Among the positives were congestion charging, bus service improvements, some progress on providing for walking and cycling; there had been a significant increase in cycling partly due to reduced congestion.

“But, the mayor’s philosophy is as long as you don’t travel by car it is OK to travel – we have misgivings even about public transport travel. We don’t see the alternative to boundless car travel is to put same amount of travel on to public transport.”

While much had been done in Inner London, the biggest problems were in the outer boroughs, which held at least two-thirds of the population. “Well over half of journeys there are made by car; 87 per cent of journeys made as car drivers end in outer London; only 14 per cent by rail, bus and bike combined.

“The traffic is continuing to grow and the target is merely for a reduction in the RATE of growth. Pressure on the road network is gong to continue to grow; roads are running out of capacity.”

The other main negative was the Thames Gateway scheme, the “largest urban regeneration area in Europe” with 120,000 new homes planned by 2020, and more after. The planned Thames Gateway bridge would draw an extra 17 million additional car trips into east London; with a 60 per cent increase in traffic on the north circular. Suburban rail and light rail needed to be developed, instead of relying on cars.

Also needed were a whole range of soft measures – a 20mph speed limit, cycling and walking networks, travel plans for organisations, and car clubs.

The final speaker, a sustainability consultant and BedZed resident, directed his first comment to city planners: “Cycle routes have to start somewhere sensible and go to where people want to go.”

He stressed that the timebomb for the South-East and East of England was water. “We don’t have enough of it. If the Welsh and Scots weren’t nice to us we wouldn’t have any at all. We use something like twice annual rainfall. Most of that is wasted.”
Edited: [GH]

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Quite frankly, Natalie, I’m much more concerned about making London “sustainable” in terms of being able to live a quality life, reasonably safe from crime. I’m sick of the yobs and wasters who think they can get away with anything. And they’re right – they can.

    London still has more green space per square mile than other major cities worldwide and that won’t change. And communities wield a lot of power. In my community of Crystal Palace, they wanted to build a big mall on the gargantuan lawn where the CP used to be till it burnt down in the ’30s. Anyway, the local community really galvanized to such an extent that the measure was defeated. The big lawn and its surrounding copses of trees were saved.

    Let’s focus instead on the mugging and murder rates instead to make London even more sustainable.

  • I’m not sure what London you live in, but I certainly don’t recognise your description of it. I feel as safe in London as I’ve felt anywhere. Of course you need to keep your wits about you, but the risk of being a random victim of violent crime (if you’re not involved in illegal activities, or a school child with a mobile phone) is not high.

    I’m reminded of one figure mentioned at this conference – about 300 people die in car crashes every year in London, while the average murder rate is around 160.

    So what should you worry about?

  • Hi Natalie,

    Glad you found the seminar on Friday interesting. Just a quick correction, re: your comment that LSE and Royal Holloway are at the top of a London Universities Leaguetable. What i was presenting is not a leaguetable as such, there is still far too little information about universitity’s environmental performance being monitoring and analysed, to enable an accurate leaguetable to be formulated. The examples I gave were simply to illustrate that some universities are taking steps in the right direction (and yes, LSE and Royal Holloway do stand out as having taken the most concerted action for going green) and that some are not (ie: UCL, but also many others).
    WIthin the next week or so you will be able to see all the information we have been able to collect about universities’ environmental performance on our website. This will allow students running the Go Green campaign to compare their universities to others around the country, to find out how other groups have been campaigning and to share resources with other students and green groups.
    Check it out at:

  • We journalists do like our league tables … but thanks for setting out your position so clearly.

  • I don’t know the stats… I am sure I would be horrified at the murder rate of some of America’s largest cities but 160 seems to be too high. Not too high in the sense of being “MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD” (I believe our own D.C. still holds that distinction) but too high in the sense that every other day someone is being murdered.

    I am not trying to hijack the thread from the initial point of the article (I thought it was well-written and quite interesting). My above comment was just a 2-cents thing.

  • I couldn’t find international comparisons by city, but certainly the British murder rate is very low in world terms, and I suspect London would also rank well in comparison with cities of similar size.

    Of course a lot of those murders are domestic, and many more are gang-related; the risk of being attacked and killed as an innocent walking along the street are very, very small.

  • And truth be told, that has also been my experience in handful of large American cities I have visited. London/the UK is a city/area my wife and I have long wanted to visit (and plan to one day).

  • neda

    dear Editor,
    please let me know your email address.
    i would like to inform you about a very recent event that is out culture of Green and related issues.
    many thanks and have a nice day,

  • Jefferson

    Washington D.C. was never actually the murder capital of the world. There are far worse cities and slums in Brazil and South Africa. Colombia’s Medellin was normally the murder capital from the late 80’s to 2002, with a murder rate that ranged from 150 to 300 per 100,000 across a city of two to three million.

    San Pedro Sula in Honduras is probably the world murder capital now but the official statistics are absurdly low and massaged.

    I agree with Natalie. London isn’t what I’d call dangerous, with just over 200 murders a year in a city of seven million. Supposedly it has a high crime rate yet miraculously a low murder rate (2 or 3 murders per 100,000 is barely average, let alone high). Any city which has those and is considered dangerous (like London is, strangely) should be considered safe.

    However, any city which has a ‘supposedly’ low crime rate yet a massive murder rate (like most really violent places you’ll notice) should be considered dangerous – because they are. The latter scenario is far more reliable as far as danger is concerned and these are the places you should be wary of (i.e New York is still a lot more violent than London though neither are that bad).