Boris's large fiscal hole

Sian helps launch a new cross-party, cross-NGO initiative to ask Boris Johnson what the dickens he’s

After all the election excitement, I’ve been enjoying some glorious (if skint) ‘resting’ time over the past few weeks, getting some fresh air in the Lake District and having long lunches with everyone I’ve not seen in months.

Last week, I went to a preview screening of a new film about climate change called ‘The Age of Stupid’. Part sci-fi, part impressive documentary, this is a much more interesting piece of work than Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My colleague Jim Killock has reviewed the film properly, and I’d encourage everyone, from teachers to trekkies, to see it.

And of course I couldn’t stay away from campaigning for long. This week, I have helped launch a new cross-party, cross-NGO initiative to ask Boris Johnson what the dickens he’s going to do about greener transport in London.

There was so little information on this subject provided during his election campaign that campaign group London Living Streets was forced to leave a blank space next to Johnson’s name under two of their policy areas when they compared the candidates for Mayor in April. With admirable understatement they concluded, “Living Streets is disappointed at the lack of policies on this issue”.

The key problem with all this vagueness is that it’s very unclear how he’s going to balance the transport budget, when most of his published plans actually involve taking vital money out of Transport for London’s revenue stream.

Add up the cost of cancelling the CO2 Charge scheme (£50m a year), ditching the Western Extension (£65m), cancelling the deal with Venezuela that gave people on income support half-price fares (£16m) and swapping bendy buses for a newly designed and built routemaster (think of a large number, then double it), and you get a very big fiscal hole indeed. In the absence of a magic wand, this can only be filled with cuts to other programmes or by higher fares.

Green transport activists are now understandably worried that our favourite schemes, among them the £50 million a year cycling budget, walking initiatives, school and workplace travel plans, the Paris-style bike scheme and the hybrid bus programme, are going to see red lines drawn through them in the near future. Along with the loss of the CO2 Charge, all this could spell real problems for air quality and road safety, and put a stop to people in London switching from cars to public transport, walking and cycling.

Given the excellent progress we’ve seen since 2000 in all these areas except the stubborn problem of air quality, this is all very worrying. So, please join us in writing to Boris and asking him how he’s going to sort this mess out – you can download a stylish letter from the 4x4 campaign’s website.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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