When Caroline Russell first became a transport campaigner in the early 1990s, she was courted by both Labour and the Lib Dems to stand in local elections. But, she says: “I knew I always trusted what the Greens said on transport.”
Twenty-five years on, Caroline is a councillor in Highbury East ward, Islington – the only Green on a council that is otherwise 100% Labour. With Sian Berry, she is also one of two Green members of the London Assembly and chair of the assembly’s environment committee, holding mayor Sadiq Khan to account to ensure he delivers on promises to reduce air pollution and make travelling around London safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
Caroline works tirelessly for environmental and social justice, and we were delighted to welcome her as our guest speaker at Southwark Green Party’s AGM, held on 15 November at the Albrighton Centre, SE22.
A major breakthrough Caroline has helped to bring about as a London Assembly member (AM) is to put climate change on the environment committee’s agenda. This might seem an obvious part of its remit but, amazingly, some Conservative AMs continue to reject overwhelming scientific evidence of the link between fossil fuels and global warming. The beefed-up remit means that committee members can, for example, challenge the expansion of Heathrow airport on the grounds that it will breach the UK’s legal commitments to reduce its carbon emissions.
Caroline’s work has also led to the publication of the assembly’s Hostile Streets report, looking at areas of outer London where streets are designed for cars and not people. This crisis is becoming ever greater as thousands of new homes are built along busy roads surrounded by noise, danger and air pollution.
A crucial policy set out by Sadiq Khan is his Vision Zero plan to end all deaths on London’s roads; disappointingly, however, the target date is not until 2041. As Caroline noted, if as many people were killed on our railways each year as on our roads, “no trains would run”.
So does Sadiq listen to what Green AMs have to say? Yes, said Caroline, but he is “going very, very slowly”. Car use is not declining fast enough. The mayor has pledged to triple the capital’s bike lanes to 90km but so far only 10km has been completed – and he’s been in office for two and a half years. Bike lanes are urgently needed, and “if it’s a bit inconvenient for drivers, that’s tough”.
A wide-ranging Q&A session following Caroline’s talk included discussion of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) for motor vehicles, which will come into force in central London from April next year, with the whole of inner London covered by 2021. Caroline’s concern is that areas outside the North and South Circular roads won’t be included in the zone, yet there are residential streets running much of the way along these major arterial routes. Road pricing offers the fairest way to tackle the biggest polluters, and it's an idea that other parties are now picking up on.
Even the slow and limited action being taken by the current mayor to improve air quality could be under threat. The Conservative party, Caroline warned, has already begun to campaign in the run-up to the 2020 mayoral elections – and car-loving Tory politicians don’t believe that breathing bad air is a problem. Electing Sian Berry as mayor of London, getting Caroline re-elected as an AM, and increasing Green representation in the London Assembly will all be vital, therefore, if we are to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and protect the health of Londoners. It’s up to Green activists to make sure voters get this message!