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Wolmar's London vision

Wolmar's London vision

Clean Air in London

6 min read Partner content

Christian Wolmar, the Transport writer is seeking the Labour nomination for Mayor of London in 2016. He spoke at a fringe meeting at Labour conference about what a future Mayor must deliver on and was joined by key stakeholders.


The panel included Nick Raynsford MP, MP for Greenwich and Woolwich and former Housing Minister, Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London, Vidhya Alakeson, Deputy Director of the Resolution foundation and Cllr Lise Thorsen– Lead Cllr on Sustainability on Copenhagen City Council

Christian Wolmar introduced himself as a Transport expert and said that he was a candidate in the race to be Labour London mayoral candidate for 2016. After the last race in 2012 between Boris and Ken, he says we can do so much better.

He said he was trying to focus on aspects other than just transport and that it is important to start the debate on London’s future now. He has already been going around London over the past year and spoken at about 25 meetings so far. He added that there were some very clear priorities for the next Mayor:

  • need fewer cars in central London

  • more social housing

  • a better deal for private tenants

  • deal with a decline in some town centres

  • try to reduce youth unemployment from 24% currently

  • try to stop London becoming a ‘doughnut city’ with house prices too high in the centre and everyone living in the suburbs.

Vidhya Alakeson introduced herself as born and bred Londoner.
She said she still had a clear vision that London could still be a city for people on low and modest incomes as well as those wealthy business people and celebrities who currently live in central London.

She stated that there is a clear housing shortage in London, with street homelessness only the visible tip of the iceberg. She said there was a “ more systemic deep rooted problem beneath it.”.

She added that across London there is currently only one borough where you can rent a property if you are on 50% of the average income and it was Barking and Dagenham.

She added that we need to think about shared ownership and using the mayor’s own land assets, and that of local authorities. On pay Alakeson added that more than half a million are currently paid below living wage so this is likely to be lower elsewhere in the country as jobs and social mobility are higher in the capital.

She made clear that in some sectors like finance and management consultancy the number and percentage of the workforce on low incomes was very low and that they could move towards accepting the London Living wage. Other sectors like hotels and restaurants will clearly take longer to implement it.

Currently it is £8.10 per hour in London and £7.50 outside London.

Vidhya Alakeson added that we needed to make London “a part-time friendly city” which would help women and men in the lowest pay bracket work part time more easily and flexibly.

Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London thanked Christian Wolmar for the invitation to speak on the panel.

He said that air pollution is much worse than most people realise. Whilst we have got rid of the coal smoke pollution problems of the past the biggest hazard now comes from invisible and carcinogenic diesel fumes.

He said that the 16,000 people who die of heart attacks or strokes each year in London may be losing an additional 3 years of life on average as a result of long-term exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is also far too high at some schools near main roads.

Birkett said that by the government’s own figures air pollution is the second biggest killer after smoking. He added that the levels of nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas from combustion, are the highest in London of any capital city in Europe. Diesel vehicles produce 90% of the harmful exhaust gases so this is largely a diesel problem. Boris Johnson has estimated that around 80% of the most harmful particle emissions in London come from road transport.

Mr Birkett said that 2013 is the European Commission’s ‘Year of Air’ and that he hoped this would draw attention to the issue.

He added that the Mayor of London’s greatest powers are probably in transport where Boris Johnson has a woeful record including scrapping the western extension of the congestion zone, delaying Phase 3 of the low emission zone and giving small diesel vehicles a 100% discount to drive in the congestion charging zone. Also trying to suppress air pollution in areas close to air quality monitors used to report legal breaches and warn of smog episodes.

He concluded by saying the key issues for the 2016 election include: banning all diesel vehicles from the most polluted areas in London by 2020; removing the turning circle requirement for taxis that forces drivers to buy one of two diesel vehicles (so drivers could buy petrol vehicles now and electric well before 2020); and fitting thousands not hundreds of buses with exhaust filters. He said in the last 3 months the debate on air pollution has shifted with media commentators now most interested in solutions and the timetable for action.

Nick Raynsford MP said housing is rightly very high on Labour’s agenda and that London is experiencing most acute crisis anywhere in the country. He suggested 3 things we could do:

  • Supply – serious shortage getting worse. Population in London is now increasing. Currently 8 million.

  • Affordability – driving up costs in owner occupier and private rented sector. Significant population from overseas require housing – and they drive up demand for private rented accommodation This impacts particularly on people with low incomes.

  • Size and quality of homes. Ensuring that they are energy efficient and built to a high standard.

He spoke of his own property in the Greenwich Millennium Village where heating was only needed for 40 hours last year and not at all the year before

He said the government’s rental system was now unfit. 80% of market rental rate is still unacceptable. In Greenwich £300 per week is still too high.

He added that getting a coherent rental framework is important and that government needed to use public land. £25 billion per year is currently spent on housing he added. Of that £23 billion on housing benefit and £2 billion on housing.

Lise Thorsen said that just about everything should be on agenda in terms of making London a better city.

She said: “We have managed to turn Copenhagen into a green and sustainable city by striking a balance between economic and sustainability issues.”

They also have a plan be first carbon neutral capital in world by 2025. Currently 36% of trips to work or school are by bike. There is a goal to increase this to 50%.

She said that less than 2 % of waste goes into landfill.

She concluded by saying the main priority should be to increase quality of life and reduce energy consumption. Politicians should lead by taking responsibility and showing people the benefits when they are delivered.

photograph: © 2013 Simon Birkett and Clean Air in Cities Limited

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