The environment is key issue for voters

In what might be remembered as the year the political debate over the environment heated up, edie news trotted down to polling stations in two very different parts of London to quiz the voters on whether the planet mattered.

With Labour left reeling from its losses in the local elections, we asked to what degree, if any, had the electorate’s disappointment been down to the Government and local authority’s performance on environmental issues.

In Streatham, a ward on the suburban fringes of the South London borough of Lambeth, most people said they would consider a party’s environmental policies before casting their vote and several said they would be prepared to change their lifestyles to become greener – if those in power provided more incentives and gave them a direction.

Pollution, congestion and the lack of public transport were their main eco-gripes, while most singled out the council’s recycling services for praise.

Meanwhile, in the affluent central borough of Kensington people seemed pretty happy with their council’s efforts though there were concerns about a lack of facilities for safe cycling and the particularly inner-city problem of how to provide adequate recycling for high rise blocks.

In both wards several voters commented about the lack of Green Party candidates to vote for, suggesting they would be happy to see the party more active in their area.

Streatham’s Albert Spranger, 40, said that the environment should not be used as a party-political football as it belonged to all of us and problems should be tackled together.

“It’s something that affects us all nowadays. Politicians are starting to wake up, but they need to do more,” he said.

In the city itself his prime concern was traffic and lack of public transport.

“There are too many cars in London and too much pollution.”

The borough’s Brian Storey, 40, said most people wanted to do the right thing but needed a gentle push.

“Make it easy and we will do it,” he said, giving the example of recycling and Streatham’s successful colour-coordinated bag scheme, typical of urban kerbside recycling up and down the country.

“The environment definitely affects the way I vote, it’s very important, both nationally and locally.

“Nationally I don’t think any of the parties will do very much because the issues are too big but locally we can start with things like recycling, which over the past few years has changed a lot in this borough and I’m very pleased with that.

“On a personal level, I would change my lifestyle, but living in a totally environmentally friendly way is extremely hard.

“I couldn’t become a true environmentalist, but I’m happy to do my bit. I think for most people it has to be pretty easy – we’re all lazy at the end of the day.”

“If you make it easy, people will do it. Most people would like to be green but life is busy, particularly in London where everyone is rushing around, and it’s not people’s first priority.”

Back in Kensington Leila Gassmann, 22, said problems needed to be more pressing before she would vote for the environment.

“Environmental issues could influence my vote in the future, but I think I would have to be faced with a crisis first,” she told edie.

“It’s clean on this estate and it’s got a lot better in the last 5 years, I’d say it’s just thanks to local residents though not the council.

“Things that would directly affect me and my family and people around me are important, like waste disposal. I try to cycle but it’s quite tricky, there’s not enough cycle lanes.”

Safe cycle lanes were a real bugbear to many Kensington voters.

“There’s not enough cycle lanes, and cycling in Hyde Park is difficult,” said Ros, 27.

“I know it’s the Queen’s property but still… What would also make a difference is cleaner buses, the exhaust fumes really stink.

“I also think Westminster should collect the recycling, other councils do. But in central London we’re not even in contact with the environment, we don’t see the tips.

“Whether it’s taken along to a landfill site or recycled doesn’t matter to us as long as it’s taken away.”

Saqeb Mueem, 29, thought the council had matters more or less in hand.

“It’s not that important an election issue for me, we have recycling facilities, and with Hyde Park next door we’re not exactly in a bad situation in terms of green spaces,” he said.

“Making recycling easier and making it known to people that these things are available would help. I guess collecting recycling from the doorstep is not practical where I live, in a block of flats.”

Streatham’s Frances Brann, 67, also thought the powers that be could be trusted to get things right.

“Everyone is concerned about what happens in their own neighbourhood and these things are going to affect them,” she said.

“At the moment the way the politicians deal with it seems a little bit haphazard but they’ll work something else out eventually, one way or another.”

The borough’s Edward Armitage, 38, favoured a more direct approach.

“It has affected the way I vote,” he said.

“We’ve all been ducking the issue for such a long time and now we’ve all got to grab the bull by the horns.

“We need to concentrate on public transport – you see the main roads completely chocker from morning ’til night then go to the station and there are only two trains an hour.

“The prices for public are too high and I would be prepared to pay more tax if they could guarantee they were going to use it to improve services and subsidise fares.

“Councils and Government have also got to encourage people to do the easy things like insulate their homes and put solar panels on their roofs.

“I’m prepared to change my lifestyle, we all have to, if not about wanting to any more, we have to do things.”

In Kensington Suzie, 55, was an advocate of the think global act local school of thought.

“Yes, the environment can be changed on a local level, so it’s an important local issue, if you’re going to recycle then you have to make things a lot, lot easier,” she said.

“And then you have to penalise people for not recycling like they do in Switzerland. In blocks of flats, where you’ve got elderly people, how are they going to bring recycling down to the bottom? I take my recycling down in bits and pieces, I’ve got a bad back. And bicycling here isn’t hot stuff because people get knocked off their bikes.

“As for climate change, a lot of people just don’t believe in it. There are as many people saying there is a problem as there are saying yes, but it’s a natural problem.

“The temperature in this country hasn’t changed for 30 years. And the first islands to go, the Maldives, are only a few metres above ground, but they’ve been threatening for years and years that they’re going to disappear and they’re not.

“If we’re serious about climate change we should tax planes, not cars. Most people around here think the congestion charge is nothing to do with pollution, just a way of getting extra money.”

Chris Pask, 29, thought the environment was an issue for national politics.

“The recycling bins are right across from our door, so it couldn’t be easier if they collected it from our doorstep,” he said.

“But I just don’t think environmental issues are as high up the agenda as they would be in the national elections, not in this area anyway.

Several Kensington voters were disappointed there were no Green candidates, among them Martha, 29.

“We have no Greens to vote for! But to be fair, I think the council are quite good on recycling,” she said.

“They do collect from doorsteps but not from big blocks of flats so I guess that’s an issue in this borough because it’s quite high density -that probably does impact on whether people recycle.

Simon, 31, shared her concerns.

“I’m sad there’s no green candidates in this area,” he said.

“Issues like providing for cyclists are important, but I guess because it’s so high density here there’s a limit as to what you can do. Because we’re so central public transport is really good.

“It means there’s never a problem getting a bus so it makes it quite easy not to drive around.”

A few miles south in Streatham, Geoff Stiles, 52, said there was only one Green candidate and two seats to vote for.

“I actually voted Green this time because I think it’s the most important issue we need to address,” he said.

“We need to cut down on motoring and try to go by public transport. I’m prepared to change my lifestyle – I already have when it comes to trying to save water, doing my recycling and saving energy.”

From the point of view of the politicians, the environment was fertile ground to campaign on.

Mark Bennett, Labour candidate for Streatham South, told edie: “The state of people’s local environment is key. When we were doorstepping we found people had big concerns about levels of traffic, light and noise pollution and green spaces – these are all environmental issues.

“It’s about enhancing the quality of people’s lives.”

Karen Davies, Liberal Democrat candidate for the seat, said: “The environment is very important to the Liberal Democrats and I think it’s important to the voters.

“It’s something we’re all going to have to take an interest in if we want to keep our planet.”

“We’ve improved the recycling so it is above Government targets and continues to improve. Public transport is important of course if you are going to preserve the environment and come down on motoring.”

Sam Bond and Goska Romanowicz

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