Monday 28 June 2021

Environment Monday - Will Covid have been the big missed opportunity to save planet Earth

Ever feel like someone, somewhere is trying to tell you something?

The UK seems to be finally emerging from the shadow of covid. The vaccination programme has given us real hope that maybe, just maybe, we can return to some sort of normal life. One of the things that disturbs me is that none of our political parties seems to be saying "Hang on a second, what lessons can we learn from this debacle?". 

Just over a year ago, we found ourselves in a position where pollution levels in London had diminished to such an extent that the monitoring equipment was reporting system malfunctions. Roads were empty and the parks were full of people walking, taking their daily exercise. Cycling has had a mini boom in London. Taking trains has become a pleasant experience, I've taken quite a few recently and had my pick of seats. Most of my friends with jobs in the City are working from home, with no prospect of a speedy return to the daily commute and the 9-5. 

All of the talk is about getting things back to normal ASAP and how we can achieve economic growth as quickly as possible. It seems to me as if we could be at risk of missing one of the biggest opportunities to re-invent our society as a low carbon economy. I've done quite a lot of travel into town over the last few days. The Thameslink service is still very quiet. Most of the users in normal time are daytime commuters and night time visitors to the West End. There is no great demand for such services. Trips on the tube seem far busier. I guess that many low paid jobs, such as NHS workers, cleaners, shop workers, etc use the tube as they live nearer their place of work. 

Speaking to many hospitality staff, it is clear that there is an acute labour shortage in this industry. Good firms that treated staff well over lockdown and furlough'd staff are in a far better position that those who let them go. Many venues that rely on Theatres and other West End attractions are really suffering. Other establishments, less tied to such attractions are actively poaching the best staff. There are some really great eating out deals on the table at the moment. Restaurants are desperately trying to generate trade. London is a great place to go and if you just want to do a bit of sight seeing and take a meal, there will never be a better time.

But this blog is more concerned with how the Government and the Mayor are in the process of missing the biggest of open goals, when it comes to making the UK a greener and more environmentally responsible nation. 

We believe that a well designed and well planned City can be very sustainable. Clean public transport, walking, cycling and homeworking all have a role to play. Well planned community spaces are a key aspect of this. Local shops and services are another key aspect. Between the 1970's and the end of the last decade, the trend was toward large shopping centres, mainly accessed by private cars. The advent of home delivery services put a major kybosh on these. Planned expansion of centres such as Brent Cross have been put on ice. Covid has pushed us en mass towards home delivery. I'd personally like to see delivery firms compelled to use green delivery, such as electric power vehicles and for short journeys bicycle couriers. It would be good if there was some way that spare capacity on the rail network could be integrated with a network of cycle couriers for delivery of smaller and ligher items. I'd really like the government to give generous tax breaks to companies that use green delivery methods. As these develop and become more sophisticated, the need for taxpayer support would diminsh., but such things often need a kick start.

As London pollution and traffic levels return to pre lockdown levels, I can't help but wonder why the government don't try and maintain some of the gains in better air quality.  As the government and the Mayor have been at loggerheads, there is no prospect of this., but just imagine if they'd agreed that there would be half price off peak and free weekend travel until September on public transport?  This would have given everyone the opportunity to get back into town and kick start the economy. Last August we had eat out to help out, where you got a tenner off the cost of a meal. I went to Paddington basin for lunch yesterday. The cost of the journey was £10.50, a free journey would most likely generate far more economic activity than the previous scheme and would encourage people away from cars. We need to get people back into London, but not in their cars. 

Barnet Council is consulting on a new 'local plan'. This should be an opportunity to rebuild a local sense of community. Developments should have safe communal space, local ameneties within walking distance, cycle provision and some of the section 106 money should be used to improve cycle provision generally. 

I have watched the debacle of the 'Low traffic neighbourhood' scheme implementation. It doesn't seem to have occurred to planners that sending cars around the houses creates rather than reduces emissions and loses support for the concept. Some of the ideas in LTN's are good, but these need to be introduced with consent. Due to utility works recently, I've seen the benefit of reduced traffic on my street. Cars have been banned from entering through the main entrance to Millway and this meant that it was not used as a late night rat run by boy racers. It meant that there was parking for residents and it generally felt safer. As I rarely drive for short local journeys, it had little impact on me. If Barnet Council made the junction of Millway onto Mill Hill Broadway exit only, this would end its use as a ratrun, whilst making little difference to residents, who would access the road via Goodwyn Ave or Weymouth Avenue. This purely accidental, short term adjustment to traffic flows resulted in many residents realising that the traffic flows could be improved no end for their benefit. I am not calling for changes, just using my own anecdotal evidence that modified traffic flows can improve the quality of life for residents, with little impact on anyone except for anti social drivers seeking a ratrun to break the speed limit.

What we really need is a proper study of how covid has affected the lives of UK citizens with work done to try and hold on to the improvements, whilst mitigating the damage of the return. If less people are travelling, lets encourage them to use public transport. It is a progressive policy. Sadly with a Mayor and Prime Minister set on politcal point scoring, it is likely to remain a pipe dream.

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