The upcoming elections in May are pivotal, with trust in democratic institutions and politicians at an all-time low, and with several challenges confronting our society at once. Some polls have suggested that the local elections will be a referendum on ‘partygate’. While May’s elections will be a useful snapshot of the national mood, voters will also judge us on the central issue facing global and local representatives alike: climate change. COP26 in Glasgow and the ever-damning intergovernmental panel on climate change reports have reaffirmed the catastrophe of the climate crisis for our today’s and tomorrow’s generations. After decades of inaction, local and city leaders are coming together to tackle the climate crisis.
In London, it began in 2019 with the leadership of our mayor Sadiq Khan as councils began to declare climate emergencies to reach net-zero carbon emissions. As a Labour councillor in Hackney, I’m proud of our leadership against climate change. Over the weekend, we announced a £50m green new deal for Hackney. The holistic deal includes local investment packages, a sustainable transport plan, a roadmap to 100% green and community energy, a climate education and democracy programme, a green jobs commitment and a circular economy strategy. Our full plan is on our website so we can be kept accountable. A green new deal of this kind is a fact-focused and data-driven policy platform that can make a crucial difference in any borough. A comprehensive green new deal manifesto should become the bare minimum up and down the country.
In terms of how we got here, Hackney was described as “leading the way” in tackling pollution by Sadiq Khan. We delivered the highest number of low-traffic neighbourhood and school street schemes in London. These help lower levels of congestion, tackle toxic air pollution and promote healthier lifestyles for our residents. Not only have they reduced our carbon footprint, but they have also made our streets a friendlier place to walk and cycle. They have had a positive impact on our high streets, which has strengthened our local economy, enabling us to invest more into our future. This is the virtuous cycle that good local policies can create.
Unfortunately, there are still boroughs that need to step up and fight against the climate crisis in earnest. A cycle away from Hackney, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea remains one of the most polluted inner-city areas in the UK. This important part of our city has been slow to respond to the climate emergency it declared in 2019. The borough committed to aim for net zero by 2040. Sadly, it is unclear how they are going to get there.
Kensington and Chelsea continues to be over-reliant on cars and motor vehicles, with local policy that effectively encourages pollution-creating transport more than it encourages greener alternatives. The Guardian reported in 2014 that Kensington and Chelsea is the “borough with [the] most polluted air in the UK”. It is hard to see much change over these last eight years. There are still parking spaces in the middle of the road and a refusal to build cycle lanes. Air pollution contributes to diseases and cancers. It is highly negligent for elected representatives to act on air pollution with anything other than urgency.
Public trust in politicians has plummeted, particularly after scandals like partygate. This was confirmed in a recent poll by Opinium and My Life My Say – a youth-led organisation focused on engaging young people in democracy, of which I am CEO. The way to build trust is to tell people stories about how policies will improve their day-to-day lives. Building that bridge from today to the future is paramount as we transition to a greener economy.
Hackney has paved the way. Other city boroughs crucial to a net-zero future, such as Kensington and Westminster, should join that vision urgently. We have no choice but to learn from each other’s successes. Climate activists have long sounded the alarm. We must respond to it. The more people see and hear about successful action on climate, the more they will trust that a bold approach will deliver. This is the difference Labour makes in power.