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Climate and environment – What can the Mayor of London actually do?

The climate emergency demands action and London needs to move far faster. We look at the Mayor of London’s powers to tackle climate change and other environmental issues.

The climate emergency is the crisis of our time, second only to the pandemic that has taken over our lives this past year. Over the last 20 years, the Mayor of London has been a powerful advocate for ambitious approaches to climate change and other environmental issues. Indeed at our own event last year, the current Mayor set out his ambitions for London to be a zero-carbon city by 2030. But what powers does London’s Mayor actually have to tackle the climate emergency, as well as respond to other environmental concerns like air pollution and waste?

Powers and responsibilities

The Greater London Authority Act 1999 set out environmental improvement and sustainable development as core to the Mayor’s role. The Act and its successors also set out the Mayor’s ‘environmental functions’. By law, the Mayor of London must publish a ‘London Environment Strategy’ which covers an assessment of – and policies related to – biodiversity, waste management, climate change mitigation and energy, climate change adaptation, air quality, and ambient noise. It also set up the London Waste and Recycling Board to deal with the city’s waste, and other legal responsibilities such as a duty to implement the national air quality strategy.

In 2007, the Mayor’s powers were expanded, requiring the publication of a climate change mitigation and energy strategy, as well as outlining that the Mayor must “consider the effects that any proposed exercise of its general power would have on climate change.” In effect, this means that climate change must run through everything the Mayor does – including their other strategies and the bodies they oversee.

Limitations and additional powers

This is perhaps most visible through the Mayor’s control of Transport for London and so in turn, the majority of London’s transport network. This gives them enormous scope to tackle carbon emissions and the capital’s dirty air. Previous Mayors have used the opportunity to introduce road user charges, green the bus and taxi fleets, fund electric vehicle charging points, and encourage walking and cycling. However, although climate change mitigation is a serious element of the current Mayor’s Transport Strategy, operational plans can reflect competition with other priorities, such as keeping the city moving and fares low.

Elsewhere the Mayor also has substantial powers over planning and although the role does not have significant responsibility for land management in the capital (except for via the two Mayoral Development Corporations: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Old Oak and Park Royal) they can influence every planning decision taken in the city through the London Plan. This includes policies to protect Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs), as well guidance on issues such as improving energy efficiency and maximizing urban greening. The first Mayor of London also set up the London Sustainable Development Commission in 2002 to advise on making London a ‘sustainable world city’.

Despite this, the Mayor of London is relatively limited in their approach to tackle climate change and other environmental issues. For example, they have no direct powers over green infrastructure or to encourage retrofit, and often have to rely on calling on others to take action. In recent years, the current Mayor, alongside other metro mayors, has called for extra funding and powers to tackle air pollution and climate change, to bring them in line with other mayors around the world.

Tasks for the new Mayor

So given these limitations what should be top of the new Mayor’s priority list? First of all, the Mayor of London should be doing all they can to ensure that London’s recovery from coronavirus is a green recovery. Several polls over the last year have shown widespread public support for this approach. We’ve previously written about how tackling two areas in particular – transport and heating – are critical in giving the city a chance of getting to net-zero as quickly. The next Mayor should be exploring all routes to green London’s transport network, from encouraging zero-emission vehicles and providing charging infrastructure to ensuring safe access to micromobility technologies – bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters. Elsewhere the Mayor will need to continue to call on the government to devolve more power and resources that would help London government to do much more, such as promote low or zero carbon heating systems in new and existing homes and buildings across the capital.


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Amy Leppänen is Acting Communications Manager at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter. Read more from her here.