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A Green Voice for Southwark

Eleanor Margolies is standing up for Camberwell and Peckham

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air pollution

This emergency is not a metaphor

child in air pollution mask

Lifeboats

Emergency food supplies

Emergency exits in theatres…

No one would think it was acceptable for these to be supplied only ‘if feasible’. But that is what Southwark Labour is saying in the motion proposed by the Cabinet member for Environment to Southwark Council assembly this evening.

I am delighted that a motion to declare a climate emergency is being put to the councillors. Acknowledging the climate emergency is the first step that will allow councils to take radical action to transform housing, transport and waste. It’s something that members of the Green Party and activists involved with Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free and other groups have been asking for at council meetings around the country.

Bristol was first to agree a motion. A Green Party motion in our neighbouring borough, Lambeth, was passed in January. Soon after, the London Assembly declared a climate emergency. However, the Mayor failed to give any concrete budget commitments for a zero carbon plan. As Caroline Russell, Green Assembly Member, has written:

“We are facing 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030. The Mayor’s plans are working to 2050 and are out of date. Unless he updates his plan, he cannot tell government what London needs to tackle the climate crisis.

“This is no time for complacency. We don’t have 30 years. We have just over a decade to cut the risks that extreme heat, drought and flooding pose to the wellbeing of Londoners.”

Like the London Assembly declaration, Southwark’s declaration of a Climate Emergency will be empty words without a plan of action. The motion calls on the councillors who are members of the cabinet to:

‘Develop a strategy, working with local stakeholders, to ensure that the council becomes carbon neutral at a much more rapid pace than currently envisaged. This Carbon Reduction Strategy should aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 if feasible.’ [my emphasis]

I hope this motion is passed tonight. I’m glad to see that the council wants to work with local stakeholders. We have so much expertise in the borough already – from urban gardeners to beekeepers, cooks keeping food out of the waste stream, shopkeepers helping consumers avoid plastic, people delivering passengers and cargo by bike and helping others to cycle… A recent Peckham and Nunhead Community Council meeting brought together some of this expertise.

But in the motion as it stands there is no date for Carbon Reduction Strategy to be ready, let alone implemented, and no detail of how stakeholders will be involved. I would like to see the council use methods of citizens’ assembly or open space – ways of organising discussion that bring out the best from everyone rather than following an agenda prepared in advance.

The climate emergency is not a metaphor. And it is not a problem for the future. It is happening now. We have seen devastating floods this year: cyclone Idai affecting 2.5 million in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the loss of hundreds of lives, and potentially another 2 million hit by flooding in the central states of the US. In Southwark, the heatwave last summer caused a spike in deaths, asthma and lung disease is increasing and life expectancy is falling as we choke ourselves with exhaust fumes.

Where is the emergency plan?

Where is the information for citizens explaining the nature of the emergency and the steps we must take?

We already know how to reduce carbon consumption. We don’t have to wait for ‘new carbon reduction technologies as they develop’, as the motion suggests. While being open to technological developments, we mustn’t fool ourselves that commercial solar airplanes or carbon sequestration will be ready in the next five or ten years.

Among the changes councils could make very quickly, they could:

  • apply zero carbon standards to all new building applications in the borough
  • install more secure cycle parking so people who want to cycle can do so
  • increase recycling and composting by simplifying systems and informing people

Within a few months, they could change policies to:

  • install solar panels and insulation on all council properties
  • build many more cycle paths
  • plant more trees and pollution-filtering hedges
  • close school streets to through traffic

The reason for making these essential changes can  be communicated clearly to residents under the umbrella of the Climate Emergency. Cutting carbon emissions is not a ‘nice thing to do, if feasible’. It’s essential, life-saving action.

Last week I was backstage just before the doors were opened at a London theatre. I watched as a Front of House manager rehearsed the ushers on emergency procedure. He said something like: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, for your safety we need to stop the show at this point. Please leave the auditorium by the exits indicated.’ All the ushers then said aloud, in their own manner, ‘This way please’, pointing to the doorway they stood by. They practice this procedure before every performance. It means that if there is an emergency, the ushers won’t stumble over what to say or where to point. And they transmit their calm, purposeful manner to the public.

Please be brave, Southwark councillors. Refuse to say ‘if feasible’. Think of yourself as fire marshals, or theatre ushers if you prefer, calmly announcing what must be done for the sake of public safety.

 

 

 

A minute is the limit

A minute is the limitSome excellent news from the London Borough of Southwark. The council has published a proposal for a Traffic Management Order stating: ‘Engines to be turned off when stationary in parking places, free parking places, loading bays and on waiting restrictions’

This will mean that the council’s own parking enforcement officers will be able to talk to drivers about turning off their engines when stopped, and if necessary issue a Penalty Charge Notice, with a fine of £80 (reduced to £40 if paid in the first 14 days) as opposed to a Fixed Penalty Notice (£20).*

At the moment, cycling up Portland Street on a typical weekday morning,  I notice at least three or four vehicles parked with engines running. These include utilities companies, delivery companies and Southwark’s own vehicles.  The proposal says:

This purpose of this scheme would be to prohibit vehicles from waiting with the engine running, regardless of whether the vehicle is attended, in all pay parking places, free parking places, loading bays and on all waiting restrictions on streets throughout the borough – and thereby reduce the environmental pollution caused by idling vehicles.
If made, the order would be enforced on-street by the Council’s Civil enforcement officers, using contravention code 63.

Southwark Green Party was very critical of the council’s recent Air Quality Strategy and Action Plan for its lack of ambition and of specific measures. We called for the Joint Enforcement Team (a team of community wardens and police officers) to enforce existing anti-idling law. So we welcome this proposal, and hope it will be backed up by:

  1. training for Southwark Council fleet drivers
  2. training for all sub-contractors to Southwark Council (e.g. Conway, Mears, Veolia)
  3. public awareness campaigns

Drivers should be made aware of the law on idling, but more importantly they should know that they can save lives, prevent asthma attacks and save money by turning off engines when they stop. A useful FACTSHEET on idling produced by TfL and Cleaner Air for London gives figures and busts common myths like ‘I need to have the engine on to keep the battery charged’. Air pollution has to be tackled in many different ways. This is part of the answer.

*Leaving your engine running while stopped on a public road is an offence under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. And the Highway Code states: ‘You must not leave a vehicle engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road.’ (Rule 123). The Traffic Management Order allows Southwark Council to make use of  parking and traffic legislation and issue a Penalty Charge Notices (PCN) as opposed to a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN), which is allowed by the  Road Traffic (Vehicle Emissions) (Fixed Penalty) (England) Regulations 2002.  The Fixed Penalty Notice is a £20 fine while a Penalty Charge Notice incurs an £80 penalty which is reduced to £40 if paid in the first 14 days after issue.

 

Details of the traffic order can be downloaded here

The small stuff that matters

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is generally good advice. But it’s at the small scale that high level policies are implemented, paving stone by paving stone. Things that seem like small decisions can have long-lasting effects on the way people feel and behave. So while national politics is in turmoil, a friend and I have been knocking on our neighbours’ doors to ask them about the shrubs and bricks they pass every day.

whaddon and melbreak pathThis photo shows a footpath running between Pytchley Road and Albrighton Road, on the East Dulwich Estate. It’s used by residents of the adjacent blocks, and also by parents and children heading to local primary schools, the East Dulwich Community Nursery and the Albrighton Community Centre. It’s a good way to avoid the noise and pollution of the main road, and offers the only step-free route up this part of the hill between Dog Kennel Hill and Bromar Road.

Southwark Council plans to demolish the large brick planter and replace it with four car parking spaces. Does this make any sense at a time when everyone wants to encourage walking instead of the use of private cars? What do Southwark Council’s policies say?

Strategic Policy 5 on Healthy, active lives of the Preferred Option of the New Southwark Plan states that ‘New policies for improving town centres, building schools, and providing the facilities for cycling and walking will address physical and mental health issues to improve the every day experiences of residents, workers and shoppers.Strategic Policy 6 Cleaner Greener Safer states that ‘Southwark will be a place where walking, cycling and public transport is the most convenient, safe and attractive way to move around. We will protect and improve our network of open spaces, trees and biodiverse habitats and green corridors that make places open and attractive.’

It’s good stuff. The council’s high level policies recognise the importance of greenery in tackling air pollution, unsustainable carbon consumption and public health problems. And yet in this small corner of the borough, council officers persist with a plan that flies in the face of those policies.

As residents, we’ve objected to this detail of the plan since it was first proposed in 2013. We’ve attended monthly Regeneration Project Team meetings, and made a deputation to the planning committee in 2013. As a result of our comments, the Planning department said that the plans must be revised to preserve step-free access through the courtyard (the original plans had replaced a sloping footpath with steps). But the revised plans still included new car parking spaces and footpaths that were a mere 1.2 metres wide at some points. This makes it hard for pedestrians to pass – if two people pushing buggies in opposite directions met, one would have to reverse back!

widths

Image from a Scottish Government document on designing streets. The accompanying notes state: ‘In lightly used streets (such as those with a purely residential function), the minimum unobstructed width for pedestrians should generally be 2 m’.

 

Last month an amended plan was presented to us, increasing the footpath width to 1.8m. But it still narrows the footpath significantly and would force pedestrians to follow a tight ‘dogleg’ path round Melbreak House, creating a new blindspot. By reducing visibility and increasing the chance of conflict between pedestrians heading in opposite directions, it is likely to make walking here feel less pleasant and less safe at night.

The design also depends on demolishing a large brick planter containing shrubs. Air pollution is an acknowledged public health emergency in London. Trees and shrubs play a significant role in trapping particulates and taking them out of the air, as well as producing oxygen. We should be planting more, not cutting them down. Here, the proposed car parking spaces would back onto a children’s playground – an undesirable combination from the point of view both of physical safety and air pollution. Greenery also helps to absorb sound – an important consideration since blocks of flats can create hard ‘corridors’ that bounce and amplify street sounds. And replacing a large bed of shrubs with tarmac is contrary to all the current thinking on the need for sustainable urban drainage.

So what of the assumed demand for car parking? In this part of the borough in 2011, 36% of residents owned cars. Census figures show car ownership is falling across London. Our common space should not be designed only for the presumed needs of a minority: after all, every car owner also uses pavements and footpaths to get to their front door. Residents who own cars here would also be affected by the loss of space for pedestrians and the loss of greenery; they also have children who use the playground. Though there has been pressure on parking while Albrighton and Pytchley Roads have been closed off for building work, these nearby streets will offer plenty of spaces once they reopen.

Previously, there were no private car parking spaces at this entrance to the courtyard: a ‘deliveries/emergency access only’ entrance would ensure that delivery vans and emergency vehicles can park close to the residential blocks when needed.

So far, we’ve spoken to about half the residents in this courtyard. Everyone we’ve spoken to – including car owners – has signed our petition (below). We’re now waiting to see how the council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration will respond.

On balance, I think it’s worth sweating the small stuff here. After all, decisions about bricks and mortar, trees and public space are likely to last for a generation.

We, the undersigned, ask Southwark Council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration to change their current plans for Melbreak and Whaddon courtyard on the East Dulwich Estate. We urge them to follow the council’s own policies on walking, biodiversity and green spaces. These policies are meant to protect and improve the trees and shrubs around our homes and make sure that walking to school and shops is safe and convenient. We are asking for a new design that

a) keeps the flowerbed

b) keeps a wide pavement

c) keeps access for bin-trucks, deliveries and emergency vehicles only.

Green books for young readers?

A young Viking wearing a horned helmet answered the door to us in South Camberwell today. She is a fan of Cressida Cowell’s series of dragon books, beginning with How to Train Your Dragon. I’ve just been introduced to these books by my nephew and it turned out that we’d all been to a fab talk Cressida Cowell gave last week, put on by a local independent bookshop, Village Books.

The Viking’s dad pointed out the rich theme of environmental thinking that develops through the series: the dragons are creatures that are (somewhat) tamed by the Vikings, living alongside humans, but in our time they have disappeared from the world – why?

In the first book, an impossibly large dragon explains the food chain that links all human and animal life:

The thing is, we are all, in a sense, supper. Walking, talking, breathing suppers, that’s what we are. Take you, for instance. YOU are about to be eaten by ME, so that makes you supper. That’s obvious. But even a murderous carnivore like myself will be a supper for worms one day. We’re all snatching precious moments from the peaceful jaws of time,’ said the Dragon cheerfully.

Anyway, our conversation with the Viking and her dad got us thinking about all kinds of things including local currencies like the Brixton Brick, urban wind turbines, and environmental themes in children’s books. Here is the beginning of a list, off the top of my head:

  • I love the picture book, Michael Bird-Boy by Tomie dePaola (1975) which touches on air pollution and the importance of bees.
  • In Old Macdonald Had An Apartment House (1969) by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, a caretaker of a city apartment block decides to grow tomatoes, cabbages and carrots in empty rooms. The comical black and white drawings gradually take on colour as the vegetables flourish. It is, as the blurb says, ‘a celebration of cities, human ingenuity, and of course — vegetables!’
  • ‘I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!’ in The Lorax by Dr Seuss. A stage adaption is coming to The Old Vic in December.

I also enjoyed these two (rather bleak) visions of the future (for teenagers):

  •  The Ennead by Jan Mark (1978) is set on a planet that was a haven for refugees from a dying Earth, but where virtually nothing grows. Wood and grass becomes coveted luxuries. Jan Mark is a brilliant writer and explores the social and political dimensions of environmental destruction and scarcity.
  • The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd (2008) tells the story of the introduction of carbon rationing in the UK. It’s great for thinking through how people might actually feel about carbon allowances, smart meters that cut off the power… and it’s set in South London! When it was published,  2015 was The Future. I guess I should catch up with the sequel The Carbon Diaries 2017 before the future catches up with me….

There’s a nice article by Alice Bell about children’s literature and environment in the book Culture and Climate Change: Narratives which can be downloaded from here.

Bell discusses superhero books like Jonathon Porrit’s Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth (1991) and the more tongue-in-cheek Your Planet Needs You! A Kid’s Guide to Going Green by Dave Reay (2009) in which a group of kids and their teacher have to explain global warming to the so-called superhero.

Which green books would you recommend to young readers?

 

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