Ed Miliband looks around a newly-built council housing complex in Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Labour isn't going to promise a million new homes

The party says the existing target of 200,000 a year by 2020 is "ambitious but realistic".

Labour has long made it clear that a large housebuilding programme will be at the centre of its programme for government, with Ed Miliband promising 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 in his conference speech last year. But some regard this target as inadequate, arguing instead for a pledge to build a million new homes over the course of the next parliament. Ahead of this autumn's conference, and the completion of the party's housing review, led by Michael Lyons, there has been speculation that this will be the final manifesto promise. 

But a Labour housing source confirmed to me today that this wasn't the case. "There have been a lot of promises made on housebuilding in the past and those haven't been met. Our target of 200,000 by 2020 is ambitious but realistic," he said. "The last time we built 200,000 homes in England was the 1980s. History shows that after every crash and recession the recovery in housebuilding takes longer and the average that you get back to is then lower." 

The government currently forecasts a fall in the number of houses started this year from 133,650 to 128,000, and Labour reasonably argues that it won't be possible to get construction up to 200,000 in the first year of the next parliament (the rate required to achieve a million by 2020). "200,000 by 2020 is ambitious and it will require fundamental change to get there," the source said.

Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds will shortly have more to say on how the party plans to increase construction by small firms and by self-builders. The Lyons review is also examining whether to lift the cap on some councils' borrowing, although a source emphasised to me that this wasn't a "silver bullet". Outside of London, there are few councils anywhere near their loan limit. 

But while 200,000 a year by 2020 will remain the target, Labour regards this as "a plot on a journey upwards". The ambition is to deliver a "sustained increase in housebuilding" of which 200,000 is the start, not the end. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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