The next Mayor should channel the Victorians to make London the greenest capital in the world

London has always overcome the great natural and man-made challenges it has faced. In the Victorian era, industrialisation and empire supercharged London’s economy, leading its population to more than triple as people sought a more prosperous life. With them came a raft of problems, from sewage to disease, that eroded the quality of life for all.

In response, the Victorians instigated a vigorous programme of municipal action: building sewers, clearing slums, and planting parks. In doing so, they made significant progress on social and environmental problems and cemented London’s place as the world’s leading city – a legacy enjoyed to this day.

Over a hundred years later, London faces similar challenges. On May 6th, the new Mayor of London will inherit one of the least liveable cities in Europe, where air pollution, fuel poverty, and the loss of natural space affect millions of Londoners.

London’s air is lethal and illegal and is responsible for more illness than alcohol or obesity, causing the equivalent of around 9,400 deaths in 2010 alone. Poor air is caused primarily by London’s congested road traffic, and the problem is set to get worse as its population grows, from around 8.5 million today to over 10 million by 2031.

Population growth also threatens London’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and progress towards decarbonisation is already stalling. This is partly down to an energy market that is failing both customers and businesses: around 10% of Londoners struggle to pay their energy bills and profitable green energy investment is drying up. This makes it harder for London to meet energy demand, as supply falls short.

As Lord Kerslake’s London Housing Commission has shown, all these extra people will also need homes, and London is already gripped by a housing crisis. More homes means more building, which could lead to the loss of even more of London’s already diminishing green space – between 2009 and 2012 an area of green space equivalent in size to Hyde and Battersea parks was lost to development. These challenges are all interrelated and require immediate and sustained action.

In a report published by IPPR this week, London: Global Green City, we show how the next mayor could draw on the spirit of the Victorians to build and enact an integrated programme of investment in London’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

For transport, the next mayor needs to take bold action to combat the twin problems of air pollution and congestion. He or she should mandate Transport for London to look into combining and extending the existing and planned charging zones to create a Clean Air Zone that charges drivers for the amount of emissions and congestion they cause. Schemes like this have gained the support of many communities within London – from green groups, through businesses, to motoring groups – and the (significant) revenues they accrue could be reinvested into more sustainable transport for all Londoners.

For energy, the new mayor could lower energy bills and drive emissions reductions by establishing a city energy company – Energy for London (EfL). EfL would supply electricity and gas to Londoners, while reinvesting its revenues into local, renewable energy and into improving the efficiency of the capital’s homes as part of a strategy to help people reduce their energy use. 

Though transport and energy will be key to the next mayor’s environmental plans, they are not the whole story. Already, the most successful cities are those whose development models integrate environmental priorities into all areas of city planning, from the economy to communities. The new mayor needs to bring London up to speed and should set an aim to make London a world leader in making the city greener, cleaner and more efficient – a ‘global green city’.

A good start would be to arrest the decline in London’s green space. In doing so, the next mayor should appoint a green infrastructure commissioner and establish London as a national park city, providing an overall framework to increase biodiversity and green space.

This approach must be formed around the fact that this is a crucial moment in history for London’s environment, upon which the city’s prosperity is founded. If he or she wins a second term, the next mayor will be in power for just under a quarter of the time remaining until 2050, when the world must be approaching decarbonisation. This is an enormous responsibility, but one that presents the new mayor with a unique opportunity to turn London into one of the cleanest, greenest, and most prosperous cities on earth.

This post was originally published in the New Statesman