Cllr Rachel Blake talks about the impacts that climate change has had in Tower Hamlets

This blog post was originally published on 24th January 2020

In March last year Tower Hamlets council formally declared a climate emergency. It was a significant step in acknowledging that ‘green issues’ are not a niche or ‘nice-to-do’ extra but are a key priority.  Nearly a year on we’ve made good progress but there is still more we can do. Meanwhile the government is failing us with its lack of ambition and action.

We have witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of climate campaigning recently with groups like Extinction Rebellion and activists Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough rightly putting this on the agenda.

Greta said to the Davos conference ‘I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is’ and for politicians the challenge is how to bring about change so we are all reducing our impact on the planet. That means both policy change and behaviour change and so leadership is needed bring people with us not just tell others to do things.

At the heart of this is social justice – in our borough it is the most deprived areas that have the worst air quality. 40 per cent of residents live in areas that breach EU and government air pollution guidance. Our children’s lungs are up to 10 per cent smaller because of air pollution. This is affecting people across the capital as every year, 9,500 people are dying prematurely in London due to air pollution.

No one is immune from the impact of climate emergency, however statistics show that in our borough people in more deprived areas are disproportionally  impacted by poor air quality so I do see it as both a social and intergenerational justice issue. Our generation has to act now.

In local government there are lots of things councils can and should be doing to tackle the climate emergency.  We’ve committed to be a carbon neutral council by 2025 and are making good progress towards this ambitious target. At the end of last year the council switched its energy supplier to a green tariff.

We also have a Carbon Offset Fund, based on a policy that requires major residential developments to achieve zero carbon with at least 45 per cent reduction achieved through on-site measures. The remaining regulated carbon emissions are offset through payments which fund our boiler replacement programme, work to make schools energy efficient and our grants for small and medium businesses to carry out energy improvement. These have a real impact at a grassroots level.

Our Breathe Clean campaign has educated people about the impact of pollution and through our anti-idling campaign we have been telling drivers to turn off their engines. In our parks we are working with ice cream vans to help them switch to being electric as at present because they leave their engines on they pump out fumes where young people play.

We’re rolling out 50 ‘school streets’ and ‘play streets’ by 2022 so areas around some schools have restrictions to traffic to protect pupils from exposure to harmful emissions.

To encourage people to switch to electric vehicles we are installing 300 on-street charging points including some rapid chargers to help enable the take up of electric taxis and commercial vehicles, and will be replacing our vehicles such as waste trucks with greener alternatives.

To change behaviours means education but also looking at our neighbourhoods. Our ambitious Liveable Streets programme is investing money which will make it easier, safer, and more convenient to get around by foot, bike and public transport. It also aims to reduce people making ‘rat runs’ and shortcuts through residential streets to encourage more sustainable journeys and to improve air quality and road safety.

We have to work with our partners to enable them to make change in their communities. Our Air Quality Fund, worth £200,000 was set up to give out small amounts of money to residents and community groups to deliver innovative projects that tackle air pollution. Successful bids have included a primary school which applied to install a green screen around a nursery and a housing provider that applied to install electric vehicle charging points.

We’ve worked with the Mayor of London to tackle our poor air quality as pollution cuts across borough boundaries. Due to our location as an inner London borough we have a large number of Transport for London roads where people pass through the borough. Sadiq has been bold in introducing the Ultra Low Emission Zone and from next year the extension of the zone will mean it will bring even more benefits. The Mayor of London has put additional money into scrappage to help owners of polluting vehicles switch to cleaner vehicles as again it’s important we bring residents with us and don’t just pass on all the costs to them.

Central government needs to do a lot more such as a national scrappage scheme to really shift away from polluting vehicles. We’ve called on the government to introduce a new Clean Air Act that could include “a legal right to unpolluted air” as well as bringing the ban on new petrol and diesel cars forward to 2030 and introducing temporary traffic bans outside schools at home time. I would also like to see a greater focus in school curriculum on the climate emergency.

At the election there was talk of a green industrial revolution and this is too important to be seen as radical but needs to be the new consensus no matter who is in power.

What we do on a local level has a huge impact globally and if we don’t act rising sea levels will impact on us all. Globally there are calls for change as places like Bangladesh face what their foreign minister warned of the “existential threat” posed by climate breakdown.

As Bevan said the language of priorities is the religion of Socialism and in 2020 more than ever taking action on the climate is the most pressing issue we face.

Please note – this was published when Labour controlled Tower Hamlets between 2015-2022.