Scrutiny has a critical role to play in making sure Councils meet their climate targets

Leanne Werner is a Labour Councillor in Southwark and a SERA member. Over the last 16 months, Leanne has chaired a scrutiny commission looking at ways to improve air quality in Southwark and meet overall climate targets. In honour of Clean Air Day 2020, Leanne writes for SERA on what a clean air strategy should look like at the local level.

I am a SERA member and a Labour Councillor in Southwark. When I stood in the local elections in May 2018 one of my pledges to residents in South Bermondsey was to create a cleaner and greener borough. Last year when I was elected chair of one of Southwark's four scrutiny commissions; I saw this as the perfect opportunity to push for a commission dedicated to the climate emergency. I wanted to make sure that we were on track to deliver our promise of being a carbon neutral borough by 2030. 

During our first meeting we decided to focus on what actions the council is taking to improve air quality. Poor air quality kills and one of the biggest contributors to poor air quality are transport emissions, particularly diesel. After considering evidence from air quality experts and academics, local and national groups working to improve air quality and improve transport, and outreach to a leading local authority, Waltham Forest we produced a detailed and comprehensive scrutiny report on Air Quality. 

We also took an overview of the emerging Climate Emergency strategy, producing two extensive reports that made recommendations on engagement, approach and content of the emerging strategy. The Commission again received a wide range of evidence to inform its deliberations including hearing from Eco School Councillors, Camden Council, senior officers across a range of departments including planning and transport, and considering national good practice ranging from Zero Carbon Britain and to the London Waste Board.

During the second half of the climate emergency commission we entered a pandemic. I wanted to make sure we captured the environmental changes seen at this time. I worked with a local photographer and filmmaker who interviewed a cross-section of Southwark residents who have seen environmental changes over the pandemic including: cleaner air, a cleaner river, quieter streets, more birdsong, more people cycling and a stronger community spirit. You can watch the film here.

Our findings 

The commission’s findings show that it can no longer be acceptable for any transport schemes to be developed which cause increases in traffic volumes on other roads, particularly where there are vulnerable populations like schools and hospitals, and when we know those living in poverty, BAME populations and residents in areas of existing poor air quality are least able to cope with the effects of diseases like COVID-19. 

We must be driven with a proper scheme design: modelling the likely impacts of traffic interventions, understanding the communities who benefit and those who benefit least. This would mean an expansion of air quality monitoring throughout the borough with clear-eyed analysis of the outcomes. We need a proper understanding of where traffic is generated, who generates it and how it can be reduced; an understanding of car ownership volumes and consumption of street space. In all cases we need to gather sex-disaggregated data.

This commission recommended that, in conjunction with TfL and the GLA, the council prioritises the dramatic reduction of traffic volumes in the borough, through a combination of incentives for those who do not own cars, disincentives for those with a car and improvements to neighbourhoods.

This commission recognised the significant harm done by traffic emissions, and that this is a social justice issue. Those on low incomes are the least able to cope with poor air quality. Our strategic priority is the significant reduction in traffic volumes across the borough. 

Our principles of social justice and a strong dataset will guide our interventions in a systematic way.

We should:

  • prioritise those most in need and monitor all schemes for consequent harms, and where necessary, revise them. 
  • reclaim the use of the kerbside from parking for the few and instead transform it into a public amenity for the many.
  • spend the next five years taking steps to making Southwark the cleanest and greenest borough in London.

In terms of the bigger picture we need strategy that sets out to address the ecological emergency as well as the climate emergency, and which aims to restore nature, not only limit the amount of carbon emitted and a strategy guided by our Fairer Future promises and the environmental principle of a Just Transition.

Southwark alone cannot deliver all the change needed by 2030. Much of the change needed in an area will require action by businesses, householders and others. And the government has a critical role, which includes giving local authorities the powers and resources they need to deliver to their full potential. 

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that governments can quickly implement potentially unpopular policies in the interest of the public good and that we can respond to a crisis when we need to. Society now needs to respond to the air quality crisis with the same urgency and at the same comprehensive scale. In Southwark, the signs are extremely positive with the initial round of COVID-19 transport measures that includes Southwark’s first large-scale Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme along with delivery of protected cycle lanes.

Leanne Werner is the Labour Councillor for South Bermondsey in the London Borough of Southwark. She tweets @ LeanneLWerner.

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