Capital conflict

Michael Benge analyses the environmental policies of the main contenders in the London Mayoral election

With London's mayoral elections approaching, one of the principal battlegrounds will be environmental health and the drive to create a more sustainable city. As opposition candidates establish their responses to Mayor Ken Livingstone's Air Quality Strategy, the question is: how can they achieve their aims without damaging the city's economic life, and what economic sacrifices are required to achieve environmental improvement?

One major issue is the congestion charge, which has been much lauded by many and strongly criticised by others. This disparity of opinion is reflected in the widely differing policies offered by the four principal candidates for London's Mayor. By extending the charging zone, both Livingstone and the Green Party hope to drive even more cars off London's roads. Supported by an improved public transport service benefiting from hydrogen fuel cells in buses and GPS technology to improve reliability, the two pro-expansion parties feel the potential benefit to London's air quality is clear.

Their argument is that if more commuters, visitors and shoppers come to rely on an improved transport network, there will be little or no economic damage and air pollution in the city - approximately 60% of which is caused by road traffic - will be significantly reduced. Indeed, the Green Party intends to extend the zone to the boundaries of the Greater London Authority in a three-band system with variable charging. Despite this, they remain "totally in favour of reducing rates for small businesses".

Conservative Party candidate Steve Norris holds quite the opposite view, remaining strongly opposed to the congestion charge on the grounds that far too much attention has been directed at a small, eight square mile area of the capital. With over £200m of investment required and the fact that the charge has not raised the extra revenue Livingstone promised, Norris believes the scheme is not financially workable and has meant little investment has been made in reducing congestion in the rest of London.

His alternatives revolve largely around improving previously existing congestion easing methods. "The stricter enforcement of road regulations should be implemented to keep yellow junction boxes free, reduce illegal parking, and remove other obstructions to traffic flow as well as streamlining London's traffic light management to make it a more efficient system," a spokesperson for Norris says. The Liberal Democrat's candidate supports the existing scheme but opposes expansion of the zone. London Assembly member Mike Tuffrey, speaking for Lib Dem candidate Simon Hughes, says this is because it "risks environmental benefits already gained".

Any extension, he says, would incorporate large residential areas, leading to an increase in cars driving into the current zone as drivers who were discouraged by the original threshold began re-entering the city centre. However, the Liberal Democrats are keen to shorten the charging period from 6.30pm to 5.00pm. This would, Tuffrey argues, bring back a degree of economic life towards the end of the day, benefiting businesses within the zone. "The increased congestion would have environmental consequences, but with no easy solution, a careful balance needs to be reached between environmental and economic considerations."

Low emission zone

One subject on which all the candidates agree is the introduction of some kind of low emission zone (LEZ) which would exclude highly-polluting vehicles from certain areas altogether at certain times, freeing up roads and easing congestion further. But, businesses rely on lorries, and the effects on congestion at the periphery of the zone - with large numbers of heavy diesel engines trying to circumvent the banned areas, remains to be seen. If re-elected, Livingstone proposes to use central government funds to have a LEZ cover the whole of London by 2007.

Airport expansion

Yet, it is not just motorists that need to be considered. The city's economy is highly reliant on air travel, and there is high public concern about airport expansion, although this mainly revolves around noise issues. While the mayor has limited powers to curb pollution from air travel, the Greens remain opposed to the growth of any of London's airports, arguing that much business travel is unnecessary and "more imaginative ways" to conduct business need to be found. The party claims it would encourage full use of modern technologies such as internet and video conferencing as an alternative. Furthermore, the Greens believe the impact of restricted airport expansion on the tourism market can be limited by relying less on the relatively fickle transatlantic market and focusing instead on "robust" and "more sustainable" tourism from Europe via the Channel Tunnel. The Liberal Democrats advocate greater involvement in the Trans-European Transport Network as a an effective way of limiting air traffic, leading to the development of better high-speed rail links between the UK and Continental Europe.

Livingstone, recognising his limited powers to halt plans to expand Heathrow, intends to concentrate on reducing pollution caused by movement to and from the airport through heavy investment in public transport. This includes the construction of Crossrail One, a rail link designed to ease travel from the city's main airport to many parts of London.

In addition Livingstone says his administration would ensure that specialist vehicles used by the airport, such as delivery and freight vehicles, meet the highest environmental standards, and that the airport itself is made as sustainable as possible by monitoring areas as energy consumption.

Expanding Stansted

Alongside the competing candidates, Norris claims to feel strongly that environmental issues should take precedence over economic considerations at Heathrow, and that there should be no further development, including the much proposed construction of a third runway.

Norris is concerned this would lead to an increase in levels of air pollution in the area, and would have a detrimental effect on the lives of thousands of residents living along the proposed new flight path. However, he says: "As mayor, I intend to play my part in making London the undisputed city for business in the world. This requires first class national and international communications, and expansion of airport capacity in the future."

In order to achieve this, Norris says the least disruptive and most environmentally friendly option would be the expansion of Stansted airport. Hughes, however, says that while he is aware of the economy's "need for capacity growth", the Lib Dems would push for the introduction on a duty on aviation fuel. He too remains sceptical about expanding Heathrow and would greatly encourage expansion at Stansted to stimulate regeneration in the east of London.

The Thames Gateway

This would mean that the city's east would bear the weight of increasing volumes of air travel, while remaining at the centre of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's plan to solve London's housing shortage by developing the extensive brownfield areas of the Thames Gateway.

While all the parties agree on the value of developing brownfield sites, Hughes feels that under Livingstone's direction a "multiplicity of agencies and organisations has developed in the Gateway with overlapping responsibilities and uncertain remits, resulting in unnecessary bureaucracy".

To counteract this he proposes that control be centralised in the hands of the London Development Agency to allow unhindered development. This, he says, along with "fast-track home building schemes, and working with retailers and transport companies to identify unused urban space for construction", would ease the city's housing shortage.

For the Tories, this development is of paramount importance. Norris' only reservation is the need for a government commitment that "the infrastructure will be put in place to support the development of real communities, rather than endless fields of residential estates". This will require not only road building, but also new hospitals and schools, and better transport links, including the introduction of new bus routes and the extension of both under and overground train lines to entice commuters to the area. In addition to this, Norris says he would try to increase the number of affordable houses across the capital and would establish a Greater London Building Society to allow low-income families to buy part of their own homes.

The Greens also favour large-scale building projects across the city in sustainable areas including the Gateway. Candidate Darren Johnson sees the construction of recycling plants in the area as an essential, in that it would serve the dual purpose of creating employment in the area and contribute to an improved waste management network.

Concerned about the proposed construction of a new incineration plant at Belvedere in East London, Johnson says the only viable way to reduce London's waste is through a far higher, if not complete, reliance on recycling. The Greens claim any benefits gained through incineration and the resultant recovery of energy remain insignificant compared with the environmental damages this can cause.

Waste management

With London producing around 17m tonnes of rubbish annually, 6.4m tonnes of which is industrial, and of which only 9% is recycled, all the candidates agree that huge steps need to be made to meet European and government targets.

Landfill sites are running out of space and incineration is extremely unpopular, so it is clear that whoever wins the coming election will have to make every effort to bring London's recycling efforts into line with the rest of Europe.

However, Alistair Read, head of policy for the Lib Dems' Mayoral campaign, did state that "only as a last resort", for certain materials, would incineration remain a consideration, something the other candidates may well find themselves having to think about more closely for practical reasons.

Livingstone's aim to "take London to 25% recycling and beyond in the next three years" will, he says, be achieved with grants from the £21.3m London Recycling Fund and by working closely with individual boroughs and businesses.

The Liberal Democrats' proposed Waste Minimisation Network is a prime example of working to heighten awareness of schemes and methods through which more municipal waste can be recycled, and similar proposals are being advocated by all main parties. Johnson points out that many businesses are already well aware of the need to modify their practices in this regard, with 230 key businesses and organisations already signed up to Livingstone's Green Procurement Code. He says that as the Mayor has little direct power to influence change, leading by example, campaigning and improving London's waste management infrastructure is the best way to have a dramatic effect. Indeed, all the candidates see this, along with significant investment, as one of the most important methods to be employed.

A level playing field

Another issue of central importance is the creation of more sustainable and energy efficient buildings. Citing the example of schemes in Barcelona, the Greens support regulating to force the installation of solar panels on all new developments in the city. The cost of this would be borne by developers and business, ensuring a level playing field, and with the inevitable influx of expertise and improving technology, the party believes costs can be substantially reduced.

Furthermore Johnson says he would work hard to get existing developments to adopt photovoltaics as well. None of the other candidates would go so far as to force the implementation of such measures, but all are in agreement that significant efforts should be made to support solar energy and would encourage other technologies. Rather than introducing additional costs for new developments, Norris highlights the lack of financial incentives on offer to companies and developers that incorporate environmental technologies and products in their plans. He would seek to remedy this, although the details of such a scheme would require important consideration before anything concrete could be put on the table.

Of course improvements in this area remain dependent on improving technology. Encouraging the development of these advances would also play an important role in creating a more sustainable city for the future. With greater - and cheaper - opportunities available, most businesses, residents and developers would be more than willing to do their part for London's environment, and with the right support from the Mayor major improvements can be made to the capital.

Livingstone has made the environment a platform of his incumbency, and both the Lib Dems and Greens are strong in the London Assembly. Issues such as congestion and airport noise are of direct concern to Londoners - although perhaps more for their nuisance value than fears for the environment. There is also pressures from both central government and Europe to improve areas such as waste management, and the Mayor will have to balance these against the position's limited powers to effect real change.

London's environment is a key to its continuing success and this is reflected in the candidates' manifesto. However, whether the promises translate into real action once the campaign dust settles remains to be seen.



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