BORIS ON THE ENVIRONMENT: CHARM, BLUSTER AND HOT AIR

hot-air-borisOn a number of fronts, it has become all too clear what the environment strategy Boris Johnson is offering to Londoners actually consists of: a bit of charm with a lot of hot air, bluster and the hope that no one looks too closely at the details.

At a recent conference on eco-vehicles, London’s Tory Mayor declared that the capital’s car owners had responded enthusiastically to his personal appeal to “go electric”. In reality, many had already committed themselves to the introduction of electric vehicles in response to the congestion charge and the low emission zone, which penalise polluting lorries and vans. Both these initiatives were introduced by Johnson’s Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

Next it was revealed that a report Boris commissioned from consultants Ernst & Young on the potential of London’s low-carbon economy had cost £85,000. This expensive report says nothing new. It is no more than a re-hash of information already in the public domain. It could easily have been produced in-house by the Mayor’s environment team – which he is now proposing to cut by half. Evidently, Boris prefers outsourcing to private companies, irrespective of the additional cost to Londoners.

This was followed by the publication of the Mayor’s Annual Report for 2008-9, in which he confirmed what many had suspected was his motive for suspending the third phase of the low emission zone, despite the disastrous impact of this on Londoners’ health. In his view, it was an “onerous environmental regulation” on small vans and businesses – in other words, on “white van man” in the London suburbs and the core supporters of Boris Johnson.

Then came the results of an investigation by the London Assembly into the Mayor’s environmental spending. This found that less than a third of the total will be spent on tackling climate change and less than 4 per cent on reducing waste. Most of the money will be used to fund initiatives which Boris claims will “make London a greener and more pleasant city”. Unfortunately, the environmental benefits of these initiatives are questionable.

For example, the Mayor’s cycling programme has a budget of £111 million and accounts for half of the Greater London Authority’s total environmental spending. Yet the scheme is likely to have only a minimal effect on car usage and consequently carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution levels.

Boris was in his element at the Green500 awards, where even Chelsea Football Club received recognition for its environment efforts. The Mayor charmed his audience with warm words about “London’s top organisations truly grasping the nettle to become greener”. This easy-going affability is one of Boris’s great skills as a politician. But problems as profound as those concerning the urban and global environment require something more serious. Such “greenstanding” at an awards ceremony is no substitute for an effective programme aimed at combating poor air quality and climate change.

First published in Tribune, 3rd July 2009