Philobiblon: Making London a sustainable city: is it possible?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Making London a sustainable city: is it possible?

London is a city of seven million people, with still largely Victorian infrastructure that is choked with very 20th-century traffic. So how could you ever make this great conglomeration a "sustainable" city? That was the question tackled tonight by a Young Greens-run seminar at City Hall. (A dreadfully unsustainable building, although for that the Greater London Authority can't be blamed - complaints should be directed to Tony Blair.)

Jenny Jones, one of the two Greens on the 25-member Greater London Authority, began by attempting to define sustainability, saying it means "we don't use today's resources to compromise the next generation's ability to have a good quality of life". By next generation, she added, she meant the next generation all around the world.

A pretty big ask then.

Darren Johnson, the other GLA Green, said a survey they had instigated found that 90 per cent of Londoners thought renewable energy in homes was a great idea; 20 per cent would consider going ahead if a scheme was presented to them; the problem was to make it happen.
- if it went ahead there would be at least 250,000 customers.

The first scheme presented -- and in many ways the "biggest" idea of the evening -- came from Jim Footner of Greenpeace, who spoke about decentralised energy networks. Under the current centralised system, with big plants in one place producing lots of power that was then transported to consumers, two-thirds of energy -- largely in the form of heat -- was thrown away. "For every 100 units put in to the system, two-thirds is lost in heat and you; lose another 3-5 per cent in transmission losses; you only use one-fifth of the energy that you could be using.

"At the moment the Barking 1000MW station dumps all that excess heat into Thames; it seems crazy not to be using it."

The decentralised model instead turned consumers into generators, and if heat was being generated in this way it could be used locally, Mr Footner said. This would also be ideal for the use of small-scale renewable sources such as wind, solar etcetera.

This was not mere theory, he added. "Woking [a Surrey town] decided to decentralise 10 or 15 years ago. It spent money to save cash, not for environmental reasons, but in doing so cut CO2 emmissions by 77 per cent.”

Could this be scaled up for London? The answer was a definitive "Yes". "The designer of the Woking scheme has been employed by the mayor to work on London.

And beyond that, it was possible to employ it to deal with the threat of massive emissions from China. "WADE, the world alliance for decentralised energy, has calculated that its emissions could be cut 56 per cent their predicted level in 25years, which would also save $400bn over 25 years."

Back in London, he said, the approach would bring renewal energy from the margin to the mainstream. "And, if it is your energy - you've made it - it is much more appealing to save it."

In response to an audience question about how to make this happen, he said that barriers in the current regulatory system discouraged small-scale producers; they had to be able to claim for the energy they produced. Furthermore, the remit of Ofgen (the main regulator) was to keep prices down at all costs. That had to be changed to a more balanced view.

Next up, Steve Shaw, the campaign co-ordinator for the Local Works Campaign, looked at the question of "sustainable London" in its broadest sense, saying that the chief problem for Britain was that "communities are unsustainable. We talk about ghost town Britain; the decline in things that make communities sustainable: post offices, banks, independent shops. And there is a severe deficit of local democratic activity.

"We have a very centralised system - not just in energy but in political power - in that big Gothic building just down the river. It creates top-down, one-size-fits-all policies."

His organisation has produced a draft Sustainable Communities BIll, backed by 237 MPS, that provides for more bottom-up decisions, particularly on issues such as local waste recycling, reducing traffic, reducing social exclusion and local job provision. And if a local participation exercise is carried out and comes to a decision, under the BIll the central government would have to back it, including with funds.

Louise Hazan then brought the issue down to an organisational level, speaking about People and Planet's campaign for green universities.

In the London league table the London School of Economics (LSE) was top (might be a message there), and Royal Holloway scored well well; UCL was at the bottom.

"Royal Holloway is selling itself as green uni - something students are increasingly looking for." But generally, Ms Hazan added, "universities are not yet significantly contributing to the solution, and they should be."

Richard Bourn, the London campaigner for Transport 2000, said a lot of what needed to be done was "pure commonsense. The Mayor has done some good things in transport, but it has become clear that are still some crucially important things that aren't happening."

Among the positives were congestion charging, bus service improvements, some progress on providing for walking and cycling; there had been a significant increase in cycling partly due to reduced congestion.

"But, the mayor's philosophy is as long as you don't travel by car it is OK to travel - we have misgivings even about public transport travel. We don't see the alternative to boundless car travel is to put same amount of travel on to public transport."

While much had been done in Inner London, the biggest problems were in the outer boroughs, which held at least two-thirds of the population. "Well over half of journeys there are made by car; 87 per cent of journeys made as car drivers end in outer London; only 14 per cent by rail, bus and bike combined.

"The traffic is continuing to grow and the target is merely for a reduction in the RATE of growth. Pressure on the road network is gong to continue to grow; roads are running out of capacity."

The other main negative was the Thames Gateway scheme, the "largest urban regeneration area in Europe" with 120,000 new homes planned by 2020, and more after. The planned Thames Gateway bridge would draw an extra 17 million additional car trips into east London; with a 60 per cent increase in traffic on the north circular. Suburban rail and light rail needed to be developed, instead of relying on cars.

Also needed were a whole range of soft measures - a 20mph speed limit, cycling and walking networks, travel plans for organisations, and car clubs.

The final speaker, a sustainability consultant and BedZed resident, directed his first comment to city planners: "Cycle routes have to start somewhere sensible and go to where people want to go."

He stressed that the timebomb for the South-East and East of England was water. "We don't have enough of it. If the Welsh and Scots weren't nice to us we wouldn't have any at all. We use something like twice annual rainfall. Most of that is wasted."


Blogger clanger said...

Decentralising democracy is a double-edged sword. Centralised authority may not always be a force for good, but it is a force. If you want to implement something beneficial, a centralised authority can do it in one go, nationally. If you dilute the power to implement policy, you may find it difficult to change the world for the better at some time in the future.

Consider a dirt poor industrial town in Eastern Europe. The EU tell them their factories breach every environmental law under the sun (assuming they can still see the sun through the smog). The EU would shut them down, and provide some aid. The locals, with decentralised control, may well vote to keep them open, regardless of the environmental consequences.

A number of UK towns fought to retain their industry rather than go post-industrial. They now still have choking pollution making *all* of their residents sicker, for a declining number of industrial jobs.

How many home counties would ban hunting if they had decentralised control?

Nationally the BNP are simply a political irritant-could they command power at a local level?

Locally enfranchised Welsh and Scottish folk may decide to keep their water and not save southerners from permanent drought.

Decentralised power ensures the US don't have to sign Kyoto even if every other country on the planet does so.

Be careful what you wish for.

One key to sustainability is to make a fundamental change in all new house-building and renovation requirements for specific minimum standards on this issue. Its slow, but it makes an accumulative difference to the national housing stock.

1/28/2006 11:15:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I wrote the above as a straight report of the meeting, but broadly I agree with you. You might call it the NHS "postcode prescribing" problem. I was thinking listening to that, if you asked most neighbourhoods if they wanted speed cameras, you'd get a resounding "no".

1/28/2006 12:48:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

I love speed cameras. I'd have them everywhere if I could, all hidden. A big fine for every breach, and a life driving ban for 3 breaches in any year.

Why do entirely sane people turn into nutters when they get behind the wheel of a car? Captain Kirk Syndrome I suspect. Their car becomes their Starship Enterprise.

Interesting take on the distributed democracy slant: could a US state sign up for Kyoto, independently of the federal govt?

1/28/2006 04:50:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

True - decentralising power can be used for good purposes and bad. Having had considerable involvement with international aid, where "grassroots development" is practically a mantra, however, I know how hard it is to get genuine participatory democracy.

Probably if you do generally good decisions will be made - but you have to ensure it is not the richest, the loudest, the biggest bully or similar who decides "for" a community.

1/28/2006 07:04:00 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

Clanger: A US state could decide to implement the Kyoto protocols on its own initiative, but it couldn't actually sign the treaty. Foreign reaties are a strictly national government thing in our federal system.

1/30/2006 06:28:00 am  

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