This blog post was originally published on 26th March 2021
For Newham, responding to the climate crisis is a vital issue that has an impact on people’s everyday lives. The COVID 19 pandemic has brought the impact of health inequality into focus and demonstrated that forging a fairer future is vital to our recovery. Newham has put climate action at the heart of our COVID 19 Recovery and Reorientation Strategy and Action Plan, committing to becoming London’s greenest local economy and to measuring our economic success on the health, happiness and wellbeing of our residents.
The lower estimates are that ninety-eight Newham residents die prematurely each year because of toxic air quality. This shocking figure demonstrates how real this issue is for our residents. Just as communities in the global South face the worst effects of rising global temperatures, it is the UK’s most diverse and disadvantaged communities that are facing the sharp end of inaction on climate. As a global borough – with nearly half our residents born abroad and over 100 languages spoken in our communities – we are clear on our responsibilities to the world.
In contrast, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent budget demonstrated an utter lack of action on meeting the UK’s target of net-zero by 2050, let alone any intention to build back fairer. In the absence of national leadership, local authorities across the country are stepping up. Our Climate Emergency agenda spans every council department, driven by a Climate Emergency Taskforce of staff from across the organisation. We are doing all of this in partnership with our residents, businesses, community and faith groups. We began this with a Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Emergency and are now establishing the countries first standing citizen’s assembly.
On housing, we are ensuring that the 1000 social rent homes I promised to begin in my first term as Mayor are built to the highest standards of sustainability. We have done this in partnership with residents as we improve our estates. We are retrofitting our existing council stock and have innovative plans in the pipeline to deal with the wasted energy that leaks from our oldest Victorian buildings. All of this is central to dealing with our chronic housing crisis, but also saving our residents money and addressing fuel poverty.
To tackle our air quality crisis, we have introduced a range of policies across all areas to encourage healthier transport and living. We have invested in greening our local areas, kicking off in 2019 working with Trees for Cities and City Hall, bringing the community together to plant 9000 trees in Beckton. Subsequent efforts include 712 for the Royal Docks area and a further 313 across the rest of the borough in places that lack a good tree canopy cover. Our recovery strategy also places emphasis on creating 15-minute neighbourhoods, to encourage walking and cycling. Like many London boroughs, we are incentivising change through an emission-based parking scheme and traffic calming measures likes low traffic neighbourhoods. Using both carrot and stick, we are installing new on-street electric vehicle charging points and working with TFL to expand cycle lanes, to make less polluting travel options more attractive.
We are already seeing positive results on air quality. In Stratford, one of the most polluted areas of the borough, we have seen a clear reduction in toxic air over the last two years, with a 24% reduction in NO2 pollution, a 53% reduction in PM10, and a 17% reduction in PM2.5 across the town centre. These substantial reductions show that we can turn the tide against the toxic environment in London and across the country.
To make the borough carbon neutral by 2030 we need action across the board. For example, some of the £170 million of the COVID 19 support grants for our local businesses are being awarded based on Community Wealth Building principles, which includes a commitment to reducing their emissions. In another part of the council, the council’s pensions committee is committed to divesting from fossil fuels, ensuring that we clean up the council’s finances.
In Newham, we are showing what is possible if there is political will. With the COP 2021 Conference taking place in the UK in November, there will be an increased focus on how we are tackling this crisis. Whilst the Tories are failing to step up, as Labour in local in government we must increase the pressure and continue to demonstrate leadership locally.