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Cllr Jonathan Cook is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Community Services on Wandsworth Council.

Wandsworth has a long established reputation for competence and reliability in service delivery, but also of constant innovation and being pioneers in testing new ideas.

Nowhere is this more true than in the environmental arena, where we’re increasingly adopting measures driving Wandsworth toward a low carbon future, with improving air quality as a top priority.

Air quality is a critical issue in many towns and cities, but as the largest inner London borough we feel an obligation to be at the forefront of this battle, and show how densely populated urban areas can lead the way in improving the quality of life of our residents – be it through greening of our spaces, converting all our 18,000 lamp posts to LED, cleaner transport, promoting car clubs, or minimising the impact of waste processing by using the Thames to avoid some 100,000 lorry movements each year.

Wandsworth was the first London borough to definitively prove the connection between poor air quality and buses – we all knew it intuitively, but it took real-time monitoring of individual vehicles along Putney High Street to secure a commitment to hybrid and all-electric buses from Transport for London – now rolling out across London.  The results in Putney have been hugely encouraging – a 99 per cent reduction since 2013 in breaches of permitted levels and one of the first of London’s many air pollution hotspots to show improvement – proving it can be done.

Car clubs are another Wandsworth success, now with over 15,000 members (the highest of any London borough) and growing, we know that on average each new (and they are new, and therefore cleaner) car club vehicle takes approximately thirteen privately owned cars off the road – that’s real behaviour change.

Many other focussed air quality measures have followed – anti-idling campaigns, changes to parking regimes, traffic management, schools campaigns, all of which help, but don’t go to the heart of the issue and we all know we need to do much, much more.

So we have now embarked on an ambitious programme to be the best place to own an electric vehicle – certainly in London and probably the whole of the UK.  A package of measures worth some £3m has just been announced, featuring an expansion of rapid charging points with over 200 to be installed across the borough, an electric car club and, uniquely, two large area pilot schemes, one in Battersea the other in Putney, with EV sockets in every residential street lamppost.

These two trial areas will see around 500 sockets fitted, transforming the situation for residents who either currently own an EV or, perhaps more crucially, would like to but don’t yet have the confidence that this is a practical option because of the difficulties of charging  – in common with most urban areas the vast majority of Wandsworth residents park on-street, and can’t trail a cable across pavements.

We know from the DVLA that EV registrations are growing strongly in Wandsworth, at over ten per cent every three months, and alongside commitments from all the major car manufacturers to offer electric models it’s clear that the time has come to embrace EVs in order to cut emissions, and clean up London’s air.  These area trials are, as far as we know, the largest of their kind not just in London but in the UK, and will allow us to understand how best to support the shift toward zero emission vehicles that is so crucial to improving urban air quality.

As the custodian of a critical piece of infrastructure we see a key role for the council in enabling our residents to move away from polluting petrol and diesel.  Our highways responsibilities, taken with our public health obligations, make us uniquely well placed to stimulate this change in behaviour.   There is a crucial role for the market too – already some of our chargers are being installed in partnership with private enterprise, and much more is to come as choice diversifies and it becomes ever easier for our residents to confidently contemplate EV ownership in the knowledge that charging will be convenient.

This spirit of innovation and ‘can do’ that typifies the Wandsworth approach is something of a contrast to the ‘clobber, ban, fine’ approach to behaviour change that would make our residents’ lives less convenient and more expensive – we would rather help and support them embrace the future, and the key technology of electric vehicles.   And all of these investments are possible because of prudent management over many years, giving us funds to commit when we see opportunity.

Air quality has also been at the heart of managing one of Europe’s largest regeneration zones – the multiple developments taking place at the emerging Nine Elms district, home to Battersea Power Station, and the new US Embassy, not to mention more than 20,000 people. With a tube line extension, a main drive site for the even larger Thames Tideway Tunnel project and numerous above-ground developments, in previous times a degree of mess, especially dust and emissions from machinery, would simply have been tolerated as inevitable.  No longer: tight management working with all partners has kept the area remarkably clean – a fitting transformation typified by that of Battersea Power Station itself – a legacy of the area’s heavy industrial past now transformed into new homes and offices, including from 2020 the UK home of Apple.

Be it improving the air we all breath, stopping plastics getting into the sea, energy efficiency, or more trees in our streets and green spaces, Wandsworth aims to continue being at the forefront of not just protecting but enhancing our environment – not despite it being at the heart of Europe’s largest city, but because it is.

13 comments for: Jonathan Cook: Improving air quality for Londoners must be a top Conservative priority

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