‘I don’t know another council that does more than us’ – Hackney’s environment chief on the climate emergency
PUBLISHED: 09:28 23 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:15 24 October 2019
He’s one of the hardest working councillors in the country when it comes to tackling the climate emergency – and even in his spare time Jon Burke walks around Hackney confronting idling drivers.
The environment and transport chief is responsible for much of the work that has made Hackney one of the leading local authorities in the push to reduce emissions.
In February the council declared a climate emergency, and pledged to do everything in its power to deliver net zero emissions across all of its functions by 2040.
That's 10 years earlier than the government target and in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) "higher confidence threshold" for limiting global warming to 1.5C.
Cllr Burke called it "one of the most robust, realistic and science-based commitments delivered by any council."
He told the Gazette: "What we don't want to be is a council that grandstands about issues and then doesn't do anything. Our motion is more than saying: 'It's terrible'.
"Having spent most of the last decade telling climate change deniers and people who are agnostic to follow the science, I was very keen to ensure our own commitments were the most closely aligned with the IPCC report's higher confidence threshold."
The motion includes an earlier target of 45 per cent decarbonisation by 2030 based on 2010 emissions. Other councils have vowed their whole borough will have net zero emissions by the same date.
"That's an indicator of the lack of seriousness," says Cllr Burke, accusingly. "In what way do they propose to achieve net zero emissions in a borough with a wide variety of stakeholders? I find that astounding.
"We will deliver across our full range of functions. That is very considerable when you consider half of the housing stock is council owned. This is not a case of hubris, but our targets are unbelievably stretching. We're talking about turning around an economic system that came into being over 300 years ago in a couple of decades."
He suggests some councils have passed motions that lack detail, and may have committed to targets they either haven't considered the implications of, or have no intention of meeting.
"Some have said they will be carbon neutral by 2025, and followed it up with bullet points which in no way indicate how they will do it.
"I went to an Extinction Rebellion (XR) meeting where a mayor of a metropolitan area said he was going to be carbon neutral by next year. That is absurd."
His party, Labour, has also set a target for net zero emissions by 2030 as part of the Green New Deal. Cllr Burke obviously thinks this is, as it stands, "completely unrealistic".
Hackney, meanwhile, is developing a carbon budget with the Carbon Trust to better understand where it needs to be, and how to get there.
Cllr Burke adds: "I don't know another borough that does more than us."
He is referring to Hackney already using 50pc renewable energy for the council and its council-run schools. On April 1 next year that will be 100pc.
Alongside that, it is also about to launch its own energy company, and has vowed to ensure its housing stock doesn't fall below the energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of C from 2030. It will also incentivise private landlords by offering to pay for the work.
"I'm passionate about it but that passion also exists in the cabinet and with the mayor," Cllr Burke adds.
Cllr Burke says he doesn't know of another council who has vowed to publish yearly updates on its decarbonisation.
"The primary reason I was supportive of that is because I'm not going to be in this role forever, and I want it in the conscience of administrations of the future, so they don't desert it.
"This is the most politically important issue that we face."
He jokes there's a "cold war" emerging with councils trying to "out radicalise" each other through policy. But despite Hackney recently coming top across London in government figures for its current emissions, he insists the town hall doesn't take much notice of awards.
"The people who win are the people who apply," he says. "We find that all a bit embarrassing. I don't need anybody to tell me we are one of the leading local authorities in the country, I know we are."
He's certainly not waiting around on others. As transport lead he's vowed private car ownership will be reduced by 25pc by 2030. But he does believe electric vehicles (EV) have a place, and says the rollout of charging points hasn't been fast enough - so the council is doing it themselves. There are only 1,500 chargers in London, he says it needs 65,000.
"Hackney has 1,000 streets and there needs to be unobtrusive chargers on every one of them," he says. He's also been outspoken on the cutting of bus routes, most recently the 48, because improved public transport is so vital to a green future.
"Our main stakeholders are the kids being poisoned in their beds on Woodberry Down Estate," he says. "I need to go to them in 20 years and say we did everything we could to curtail land transport issues."
Hackney shares, with Islington, the UK's first ultra-low emission streets scheme around Old Street, and the council's own transport fleet is made up of 40 EVs running on non-palm biofuel. He says the fact Dennis Eagle has made a zero emission dustcart is proof of the progress being made.
"We don't want to eradicate ambulances or socially useful vehicles," he says. "If we address the issue of private vehicle emissions we address the issue of land transport issues altogether - 1pc of emissions come from buses, 16pc come from commercial vehicles, and 83pc come from private cars."
Cllr Burke is critical of Labour's recent policy to increase the subsidy for drivers making the switch, suggesting it should be spent on cheaper travel or thermal energy subsidies.
He's even more dismissive of the emerging view of a "tech utopia" allowing life to continue as it is through green technology.
"We're never going to reach the stage where we meet everyone's needs," he says. "We need to look at superfluous uses. The best kind of lightbulb is the one you don't need to switch on in the first place."
Another key policy for Cllr Burke is tree planting, and Hackney will increase its cover by 30pc in the next few years - one of the largest projects in Europe.
Cllr Burke points out: "We will have planted the same number of trees in that time as the council did in the previous 19 years."
That not only reduces emissions, it has public health impacts, democratises the idea of "leafy suburbs" and will "stop people being admitted to the Homerton in 50 years because their streets have no shade". Hackney is also planning one of the biggest water fountain projects in the world and is the first council in the UK to pilot a glyphosate-free area to see if it can carry out high quality atreet maintenance without the weedkiller.
"A lot of the things we are doing will cost us more money," said Cllr Burke. "No one said saving the world was going to be easy or cheap. But the alternative doesn't bear thinking about."
He's always been passionate about the environment, but it was put on the backburner until his son was born during a 2013 heatwave, when he was working as a London Assembly researcher at City Hall.
"I don't want to sound like a hippie but I'd gone through the early stages of grieving about the environment. When I lost in 2010 I was diverted onto other political activities. I was a founder member of the London Equality Group, which became My Fair London, which campaigned for equality. But when my son was born it really hit me what kind of future we were facing."
Cllr Burke believes being from a working class background makes him an unusual person in the conversation on climate change. He suggests there is a "massive" job ahead in pluralising environmental activism, but believes the class issue surrounding XR and its protesters is overstated.
"The press and broadcast media want to create that divide, and they need to be cognizant to that," he says.
"Broadly speaking XR are on the right side of history, bar that absolute debacle [when activists halted the Tube in east London]."
He accuses other politicians of not being able to have difficult conversations, or perhaps not wanting to.
"I'm not afraid to lose my job at the ballot box," he says. "Too many politicians are wedded to the office that they hold."
That may be why he has no qualms about "wandering around Hackney knocking on windows" of idling drivers.
He adds: "I have various techniques. I'm not afraid to have a conversation with a van full of lads but it's a different conversation.
"If I just said: 'Do you know you're breaking the law?' their backs are up.
"If I say: 'Do us favour lads, I'm a councillor and the lead for transport and there's a kid's school over there, switch the engine off', 99pc of the time they will say: 'Sorry mate, I didn't realise'.
He did back down once, though, after a back and forth with a man idling outside Hackney Library.
Cllr Burke had been explaining the law and even the borough's premature death statistics to the driver, who eventually got tired and told him he was an undercover police officer.
"I said: 'Alright, you win!'," says Cllr Burke. "But he was wrong about the law'."
Cllr Jon Burke says the only way to fundamentally decarbonise the waste system is to reduce waste in the first place, but that the controversial new incinerator in Edmonton is a better option than shipping it out or landfill.
The North London Waste Authority, which covers seven boroughs, is building a new facility with an increased capacity. But the idea is people use less waste, allowing more councils to use it.
"The plant will be 20pc more efficient and produce electricity at less than a third of the carbon intensity of coal," says Cllr Burke.
Households need to make lifestyle choices, but Cllr Burke doesn't believe in the individualistic approach, saying structural reform is what is needed.
The council is consulting on switching to fortnightly waste collections, a controversial move. Most responses have been in favour, but not all.
"People say: 'What am I paying my council tax for?'. And I'll have those conversations: 'Your council tax is 7/8pc of the budget. We don't come around and only take away 8pc of your waste do we?'."
With Crossrail 2 having fallen off the agenda, the council has decided to get moving on its own plans, including a proposed new entrance for Hackney Central station.
But the much-needed plans to transform the lethal Pembury Circus junction is still a way off, Cllr Burke said, as the "Hackney Conversation" project to set out the vision for the area is still taking place.
As for the Stoke Newington gyratory, Cllr Burke says as he is relatively new to the transport portfolio [he took over from Cllr Feryal Demirci earlier this year], he is looking at issues that have been flagged up in consultations.
"We want to discourage short-term car use and make the public realm a more exciting place to spend your time in," he said. There's a couple of other underlying issues too and I'm waiting for TfL on those."