The London National Park City concept, developed by geographer Dan Raven-Ellison to draw attention and better connect people to London’s green spaces, has had great success at winning political support. It was backed by all the leading mayoral candidates in 2016, then wrapped into Sadiq Khan’s environment strategy.
After more than 50 per cent of the capital’s council wards had got on board, the Mayor officially co-signed it into being last year. This time too all the principal candidates have been eager to embrace NPC’s mission, but only three – Liberal Democrat Siobhan Benita, the Green Party’s Siân Berry and Independent Rosalind Readhead – turned up to Saturday’s NPC Greener, Healthier & Wilder London hustings at University College London, prompting not a little exasperation about the no-shows.
As panel chair Ebs Akintade prepared to read a statement from Khan in response to the campaign’s five asks, Benita interjected, to loud applause, that “If they cared about the environment, they would be here,” and asked why it was that, once again, the three male candidates had opted out. “A serious point, I think this is now the third hustings [Khan and Shaun Bailey] have pulled out of”, she said, adding that Rory Stewart had been to one but seemed to have decided against attending others.
She was backed up by Berry, who said the Mayor “should be here so we can hold him to account” and drew an analogy with the Conservative government’s behaviour. “The thing about politics at the moment, things like Boris Johnson refusing to go on TV to account for his policies, we can’t be letting politicians get away with that,” she said.
Organisers confirmed that Khan had declined their invitation on 27 January, while Bailey and Stewart, having initially accepted, then cancelled on 25 and 27 February respectively, with Stewart saying there had been a diary mix-up. Women’s Equality Party candidate Mandu Reid had also been booked, but withdrew on 28 February because of illness. During the meeting Stewart tweeted that he “loves” the National Park City concept and had been on a long walk with the founder, and to deny he had only gone to one hustings by mentioning his attendance at three election-related events with “many more to come”. It appears that one of the three he mentioned took place last year and another involved solo speeches by candidates, not all of whom were on a panel.
In the Mayor’s absence, the candidates lost no opportunity to attack his environmental record. Berry said his partnership with Octopus Energy, London Power, was a “halfway house” that didn’t deliver his promised green energy company for London, and claimed it is “not good enough” that only one thousandth of Transport for London’s electricity supply is renewable. Readhead described Khan’s 2016 campaign promise for a cycle-friendly “mini-Holland” street redesign for every borough that wants one as “completely downgraded”. Benita wanted to hold him to account over clearing the way for City Airport expansion. All three candidates were strongly opposed to Khan’s backing for the £1 billion Silvertown Tunnel – “a disgrace” said Benita.
Laying out her stall, Berry revealed that her manifesto would include a ban on pesticides throughout London and that she would want to introduce “the biggest, boldest targets” for climate change, waste and traffic reduction, enabling bottom-up leadership to reach [them]”. She cited the NPC campaign as an example of how this would happen. She also came out for “green and blue building blocks” such as the green corridor up to Hampstead Heath from Kentish Town station fought for by local campaigners and backed her London Assembly colleague Caroline Russell’s report on better use of the Green Belt for health, food and re-wilding.
Benita burnished her green credentials by calling for a 2030 net zero carbon target and telling the audience we need to move beyond individual measures such as banning single-use plastics to embrace the necessary change. She promised that, as Mayor, she would lead an outdoor physical activity once a month, inviting Londoners to join her. She said her emphasis on kindness as one of three main planks of her campaign had resonated with people, and she outlined how she would allocate a New Zealand-style wellbeing budget to help ensure we value physical and mental health “as much as pounds and possessions”.
Striking a more sombre tone than her fellow panellists, Readhead spoke resonantly about releasing the soil from its “concrete tomb” for vegetable-growing, orchards and vineyards, banning leaf-blowers and restoring nature learning to the curriculum.
After the hustings, a wide variety of speakers and performers took the stage and the NCP announced its new volunteer rangers. The campaign has just been nominated for an award by Positive News, and the team are in conversations with other cities in the UK and internationally about their experiences and aspirations. “We’re hyperlocal, we’re also London-wide. We are learning by doing. We’ve gone from an idea to a movement” said chair of the NPC Foundation, Paul de Zylva.
The next London Mayor hustings are at the tenth anniversary Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre on Friday, 6 March. At the time of writing, all the main mayoral candidates are billed to attend. Watch this space.
Image from London National Park City.
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