London and the environment: Nicky Gavron AM talks to MHSG

On 11th January 2017, Muswell Hill Sustainability Group welcomed Nicky Gavron, AM who has been an assembly member since 2000, has served as deputy mayor twice and has been influential in climate change policy for London.

Strategic Planning for London

Nicky started off by talking about the strategic planning currently underway by Sadiq Khan.  The biggest challenge faced was the large population growth anticipated for London from a population of 8.6 million today from over 10 million by 2035.  The big questions were how, where and for who should London grow.   Nicky underlined Sadiq Khan’s vision for “good growth” – good quality, affordable housing that will increase social equity.  His strong preference is for high density growth, but not high rise, and protection of the green belt.  Much of the new development by Boris Johnson was high cost, very high rise apartment buildings.  Sadiq Khan has set out his high level plans in the document ‘City for all Londoners’.

He has identified 38 opportunity areas in London for significant development, as well as priority areas for regeneration.  Nicky acknowledged the challenges of regeneration – e.g. gentrification vs estate renewal, as well as the importance of retaining sufficient land in London for businesses, rather than allocating it all to housing. GLA plans also prioritise the intensification of town centres, particularly those close to public transport.

Low carbon new buildings

Nicky commented that the quality of much new build was poor in terms of energy efficiency.  Since 2013 there has been a requirement for homes to achieve a 35% improvement in energy savings above Part L Building Regulations; from October 2016, there is now a requirement for new developments to be zero carbon.  However developers are able to bridge any gap between zero carbon and 35% improvement on building regulations by paying an offset payment which goes to local authorities.  The offset payment will be ring-fenced for low carbon projects.  Challenges that Nicky identified are: ability of local authority planning officers to evaluate developers pre-build energy plans, the gap between what developers say they will do vs what they actually do (and what sanctions there are), and whether local authorities will make good use of the offset payments.  She said that a challenge for us as a community group was to hold Haringey Council to account for the spending of the offset payments.  Islington Council has been demanding offset payments for some years and now has annual budget of £2 million to put on retrofitting and other low carbon work.

Nicky said that one of her current projects is to investigate modular housing built offsite.  The quality of this is now high, can be at passive house standards and is well suited for renting.

Energy for Londoners

Sadiq Khan’s manifesto stated the ambition to create a new London municipal energy supplier which could offer lower tariffs for the fuel poor following Nottingham City Council’s lead with their Robin Hood Energy supplier.  Apparently there is “lots of thinking” going on with the recognition that a municipal energy supplier could do much more than sell energy, eg by acting as an energy services company whose business model was not based on the amount of units of energy sold, but rather on the energy services delivered (thus encouraging energy efficiency).

Retrofitting

The main retrofitting project under Boris Johnson was the RE:NEW programme.  This is run by Capita who have a 3 year contract until this Summer.  Nicky Gavron said there was a lack of visibility on what had been achieved through this programme – although 100,000 homes have been reported to have had measures undertaken it was not clear if this was as limited as changing a few light bulbs or more substantial measures.  Sadiq Khan’s short term priority was to introduce a boiler scrappage scheme for low income households.

Solar energy

London has one of the lowest amounts of solar energy installed amongst UK cities. The focus of Sadiq Khan’s plans on solar are around using TfL land for solar panels e.g by the sides of train tracks.

Water stress

Nicky spent some time talking about the challenges of water shortage in London.  One of the main issues is huge quantities of water leakage.  There have been debates over many years about the need for new desalination plants to create more drinking water vs the priority of preventing leaks.  Whilst Thames Water has reduced leaks considerably over the last few years, there is still a long way to go.  We also need to increase water recycling and there are questions over how much water should be purified – e.g is it necessary for the water that flushes toilets.

Waste

London’s recycling rate is actually falling, and whilst landfill has reduced, waste incineration has increased greatly.  Nicky’s view is that co-mingling of recycling waste is part of the problem.  Rather than being actually recycled, much of our green bin waste is turned into residual fuel used to feed the energy from waste incinerators.  This goes against circular economy principles.  Nicky is against the building of large waste plants, better to build smaller modular processing plants that do not rely on a continuing large supply of waste.

Air Quality

Nicky re-iterated what a huge issue poor air quality is in London.  There are hundreds of  schools affected by poor air quality and there are many schools in Haringey situated along main roads e.g Bounds Green School. In the short term (this year) a Toxicity Charge will be introduced for diesel cars below the ‘Euro 4’ standard – most diesel cars registered before 2005.  The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) scheme will extend to the North Circular by early 2019, which means that all high polluting vehicles will need to pay an extra charge currently set at £12.50.  A scrappage scheme for diesel cars is to be introduced, and clean bus corridors, including one in Haringey will come in before 2020.

Consultation on GLA plans

Nicky emphasised that the Mayor is very keen to have as many responses to his Consultations as possible and encouraged us to respond, both as individuals and as a group.

Questions and comments from the audience

Transformation vs incrementalism 

Question/comment:  Action should be more drastic e.g banning diesel vehicles altogether rather than charging (the rich can always pay).  Emphasis should be on more regulation rather than incentives.  Scrappage schemes can be ‘middle-class subsidies’.  More ambition is needed.

Response: Nicky Gavron agreed that plans needed to be ambitious but ULEZ is a big project and early 2019 was the earliest date possible.

Population predictions

Question/comment:  Should housebuilding plans be reviewed in the light of Brexit and potential loss of jobs in London?

Nicky agreed

Air pollution

Question/comment:  How about introducing legislation that any diesel vehicles bought from now onwards (inc. Euro 6) should be eligible for Toxicity Charge – this will discourage people from buying diesel?

Nicky: Good idea!

Question/comment:  Could money raised from toxicity charge go to pay for more electric vehicle charging points?

Nicky:  Good idea, not sure if toxicity charge money will be ring-fenced, and for what.

Low carbon building/retrofitting

Question/comment:  Behaviour change for parents driving kids to school essential – how about big posters outside school gates showing levels of pollution and impact on health?

Agreed – more work can be done to encourage behaviour change, community groups such as MHSG working with local councils can play a big role, particularly in monitoring air quality.

Question/comment:  Have you looked at modular ‘kit houses’ made in Estonia and Finland?  Low cost housing should be ring-fenced for key workers/low paid – councils find it hard to retain staff due to high housing costs/travel costs from outside London

Good suggestion – will investigate

Question/comment:  Local council planning departments don’t have skills to evaluate developers’ energy assessments.  What can the GLA to support training of planners?

Good point, GLA doing some work to allow councils to share best practice

Question/comment:  Why not insist on passive house rather than allow developers to offset requirement for zero carbon homes?

Nicky acknowledged that passive house can be low cost.  Danger will be that developers will argue that zero carbon is expensive for some projects and there will be a choice between zero carbon and affordability.

Question/comment:  What about GLA funding ‘Local Open Homes’ projects (as Centre of Sustainable Energy used to do) to encourage Able-to-Pay

Nicky agreed

Question/comment:  Schools don’t know about funding opportunities e.g RE:FIT for energy efficiency work, and lack the time and expertise to make applications for funding.  Can GLA help fund project manager time to assist schools?

Good idea

 

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One Response

  1. Please thank Nicki for a stimulating talk last week. Some thoughts on transport:
    The optimum speed for lowest air pollutants and carbon is around 40mph. Below 20mph, fuel consumption rapidly increases and hence any stop-start conditions caused by speed humps, traffic lights and congestion are really badly polluting.
    So, if you really want to reduce pollution in an urban environment, you either regulate traffic to a constant 40mph and remove traffic lights, speed humps and local parking areas, or you replace all city vehicles with electric ones (although generating the required electricity would still emit carbon until the grid is decarbonised). Both options are longer term and difficult / expensive to implement. The problem with air quality is that it requires a solution with immediate effect, to stop people from dying, which is probably banning traffic from the city altogether.

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