Charles Wright: Are environmental issues the biggest danger to Sadiq Khan’s re-election drive?

Charles Wright: Are environmental issues the biggest danger to Sadiq Khan’s re-election drive?

If the race for City Hall is hotting up, could it be as much about climate change and air quality issues as it is about Labour and Brexit?

With the mayoral election less than 10 months away, Liberal Democrat contender Siobhan Benita has heralded her party’s European election victory in the capital as an “excellent springboard” for her City Hall bid.

The Lib Dems topped the Euro poll with 26.9% of the vote, winning outright in 15 boroughs and coming second in 14, with the Tories slumping to fifth place in the capital as they did nationally.

Labour’s Euro-election decline is mirrored in a 12 point fall in Mayor Khan’s support in London, according to a poll of Londoners conducted just before the European elections for the Mile End policy institute at Queen Mary University of London.  

The poll shows Khan’s share of first preference votes down from 55% to 43% since December – still well ahead, but facing the possibility of second round run-off – required when no candidate gets more than 50% of first preference votes – if Green mayoral candidate Sian Berry or Lib Dem Benita overtake Tory contender Shaun Bailey.

Conducted just before the Euro-election, the poll in fact shows Berry running ahead of Benita, with her share of first preferences more than doubling since December, to 16% compared to Benita’s 10, putting her just 7% behind Bailey. 

And she and her Green Party London Assembly colleague Caroline Russell have led the charge on climate change and air pollution alongside Lib Dem AM Caroline Pidgeon, with a focus on recent decision-making in east London.

Over two days last month Khan reiterated his commitment to the £1 billion Silvertown four-lane road tunnel linking the Greenwich Peninsula to the Royal Docks area, proposed for relieving congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel nearby. At the same time, his deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander pulled the plug on the long-planned walking and cycling bridge between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe.

The decisions came as Khan announced plans for London’s “biggest-ever” car-free day, on 22 September, with events showcasing “what some of the busiest parts of our city would be like without cars and traffic”. Yet Khan has also come under renewed fire for his 2016 decision dropping City Hall objections to the expansion of London City Airport, as the airport unveiled plans to manage increasing demand, out for consultation until 20 September.

Russell has described the Silvertown tunnel as a “dinosaur” project which would increase traffic and pollution in the area, contrary to Khan’s “climate emergency” declaration, while Pidgeon has accused the Mayor of failing to match his “rhetoric on air pollution and climate change” by pushing ahead with the project.

The Rotherhithe scheme was halted after costs for what would have been the largest vertical opening bridge in the world soared towards £600 million – approaching half of TfL’s total “Healthy Streets” budget between 2017/18 and 2021/22 – compared to the £350 million allocated in TfL’s business plan. It’s “sheer scale and complexity” meant the project was “currently unaffordable”, said Alexander.

The decision has been condemned by Labour-run Southwark Council as well as by environmental campaigners, while opposition to the Silvertown project has not abated despite a consortium being selected to build and operate the tunnel, with contracts due to be signed at the end of the summer. A public meeting tomorrow (11 June) will be addressed by Russell, transport commentator Christian Wolmar and Greenwich Momentum vice-chair Izzy Hickmet. 

Greenwich Council’s Labour leadership has maintained its support for the tunnel, but Southwark, Lewisham, Newham and Hackney councils are opposed. “£1 billion for a Silvertown Tunnel that will worsen air quality, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, while cancelling the Rotherhithe walking and cycling bridge. Another massive backwards step,” Hackney Labour council’s cabinet member for energy Jon Burke tweeted last month.

City Hall foot-dragging then, or a dose of City Hall realism in the face of continuing pressure on TfL finances and limited Mayoral powers?

The Silvertown tunnel would be privately financed and operated and paid for by tolling – a mechanism which TfL contends will also regulate usage and therefore keep pollution levels down. By contrast, a report to this month’s TfL Programmes and Investment Committee (page 133) confirms that TfL would have to provide “the vast majority of funding” for the Rotherhithe Bridge – cash which basically isn’t there. 

“No other funding or financing options appear to be feasible in terms of suitability, timescales or quantum,” the report says. “Alternative private finance models…are not currently believed to be commercially or financially viable.” 

TfL is now considering options for a ferry service instead, an alternative incidentally proposed by the Canary Wharf group in a submission early this year to the London Plan examination in public as a “more viable and attractive (to users) proposition”.

And Khan used the launch of his Climate Change Week event programme last week both to highlight his support for low carbon businesses in the city and his action on air pollution, including the ground-breaking Ultra-Low Emission Zone, and to criticise “climate delayers” at government level, calling for “urgent, additional government intervention” including further devolving of power to City Hall and bringing forward a ban on fossil-fuelled vehicles.

Khan remains popular – 45% of Londoners think he’s doing well, compared to 39% saying he’s doing badly – but half of all Londoners also think pollution has got worse in the past 12 months. The pressure’s on for London’s Greens, and Lib Dems to keep up progress towards that all-important second place in the Mayoral ballot next May, and the big environmental themes appear to offer them their best chance.

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Categories: Analysis

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