This week, I went to a meeting called ‘The Big Reduction’ run by my local council, the London Borough of Islington. Islington has a reputation as a rich and posh part of London – it is where Tony Blair used to live and where New Labour was born. There are certainly some rich people living in Islington – if they weren’t rich they couldn’t afford the house prices in the smarter parts of the borough. However, there are also poor people, many living in social housing, and middle-income people. It is ranked as the eighth most deprived borough in England and unemployment is higher than the average London and UK rates. Around a quarter of Islington inhabitants live in private rented property, which is the most difficult sector in which to improve energy efficiency, because of the ‘tenant-landlord’ problem – the landlord could invest in improvements, which would make the property warmer, reduce the carbon footprint and reduce energy costs, but it is the tenant who pays the electricity and gas bills, so most landlords don’t bother.
London’s mayor, the Conservative Boris Johnson, also lives in Islington. However, the council is run by the Liberal Democrats, the UK’s centre party. It has published a Sustainability Strategy for 2010-2012, which covers climate change as well as air quality (a major issue for all of central London), biodiversity and food. Through its responsibility for schools, leisure centres and social housing, the Council is directly responsible for 5% of total emissions. It set a target to reduce these by 15% (from 2005 levels) by 2010/2011. In 2008, emissions were around 10% lower (2009 figures are not yet published). It has also set a target to reduce total emissions from the borough by 10.8% by 2011. The latest published figures for this are for 2007, when emissions were slightly higher than in 2005 (though lower than 2006). The increase came from industrial and commercial activities, which accounted for 55% of total Islington emissions (33% were from residential and 12.5% from transport). To try to reduce emissions from business and public organisations, the Council set up the Islington Climate Change Partnership in 2006. There are now 160 members. In 2008, emissions from these organisations were 6.4% lower than in 2005, which is quite impressive, given that the 2008 winter was much colder than 2005.
Islington provides both advice and money. It has a Green Living Advice Team, which sends ‘Energy Doctors’ to people’s homes to suggest ways of saving energy and money. It also runs the Climate Change Fund, which offers grants to improve energy efficiency, including through solid wall insulation (making the walls thicker by adding an extra layer inside or outside) and to install renewables. Like all local councils, Islington does not have substantial spare money at present, so it is actively bidding for funds from other places. It has got money from the London mayor to make the communal heating of council housing more efficient, and money from central government for cavity wall insulation (filling in the cavities in those walls which have two layers of brick with a gap between them) for 6,000 homes.
London Boroughs do not have substantial powers over transport. Transport for London, which runs the trains and buses, is answerable to the mayor, who also controls the Congestion Charge. The south of Islington is inside the Congestion Charge zone, but most of the borough is outside.
There are local elections on 6 May 2010. The Liberal Democrats have 23 Islington councillors, Labour 22. There is one Green Party councillor, and one who for some (unclear) reason defines himself as an Independent Liberal Democrat. The Conservatives have no councillors in Islington at present. The two parliamentary constituencies in the borough are Labour. So it is possible there will be a change in council control in May, but there probably will not and, in any case, there are no major differences between the parties on climate at Islington level.
Local councils cannot achieve everything that is needed to control climate change, but they can achieve a great deal. The Conservatives say that, if they form the next UK government, they will give local councils more powers. (However, it is relatively easy to say this when you are in opposition at national level but control many local councils; it is more complicated actually to give power away if in office nationally.) Councils in other European countries, particularly Germany and Scandinavia, have done better on energy efficiency and renewables than have UK councils, and many US councils are involved in municipal energy enterprises. Therefore, the Conservative commitment to ‘localism’, while probably bad news for onshore wind farms, could be good news for energy efficiency.