Sadiq Khan to fight government attempt to water down green policies

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is on a collision course with the government over proposals to water down his green plan for the capital, which involves stopping the expansion of Heathrow and protecting the green belt.

Planning inspectors want Khan to withdraw his objections to Heathrow’s expansion, permit fracking in London, and loosen his commitment to the green belt by allowing building in “very special circumstances”.

Khan is expected to write formally to the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, to reject these proposed changes to the “London Plan” policy. Ministers will then have six weeks to choose whether to force through the changes by legal means.

The brewing row highlights the tensions between local governments, which in some areas are taking a tough stance on climate change and environmental issues such as air pollution, and central government, which is accused of lagging behind on concrete actions to fulfil the UK’s national goals on the climate emergency and environmental protections.

Jules Pipe, deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, said: “Tackling London’s filthy air and the climate emergency are among the mayor’s top priorities. London has declared a climate emergency and it’s critical we move towards renewable energy to improve the capital’s toxic air quality, protect the health of Londoners, and keep the city on course to being a net zero-carbon city by 2050.”

Related: Rise of Donald Trump is ‘obscuring lessons of the second world war’, says Sadiq Khan

Khan’s plan would ban fracking in London, prevent the massive expansion of Heathrow backed by the government, and enshrine stronger protections for the green belt and metropolitan open land.

A report by the Planning Inspectorate, a quasi-independent government agency, suggested changes to the London Plan that would allow for fracking in London, and for development in the green belt “in very special circumstances”, with alterations to the boundary of the green belt in “exceptional circumstances”.

The inspectors want the changes in order to bring the London Plan into line with national policies, set by central government, and the great majority of the measures in the London Plan received their approval. Their recommendations are non-binding – however, to ignore them, the mayor must write to the secretary of state explaining why he is doing so.

A spokesperson for the Planning Inspectorate said: “The London Plan has been examined by an independent panel of three inspectors. The panel’s role in the examination is now complete. The report sets out any recommended changes, as well as the reasoning behind those changes, following the examination in public. It is for the Greater London Authority to consider the changes and publish the report at a timing of their choice.”

The effects of the changes proposed by the inspectors are likely to be minor in practice. For instance, there are no current plans to frack in London, and none are likely to be brought forward. Fracking has in effect stalled across the UK.

Allowing for building on the green belt in “very special circumstances” would be open to challenge and require explanations of what made circumstances so special that the presumption against building should be breached.

(January 1, 1959) 


The physicist Edward Teller tells the American Petroleum Institute (API) a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”


(January 1, 1965) 


Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee states that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air”, with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Summarising the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.”


(January 2, 1970) 


Shell and BP begin funding scientific research in Britain this decade to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases.


(January 1, 1977) 


A recently filed lawsuit claims Exxon scientists told management in 1977 there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases.


(January 1, 1981) 


An internal Exxon memo warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”.


(January 1, 1988) 


The Nasa scientist James Hansen testifies to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.”


(January 2, 1988) 


confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee finds CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urges rapid action by the energy industry. “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation,” it states.


(January 1, 1989) 


Exxon, Shell, BP and other fossil fuel companies establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions.


(January 1, 1990) 


Exxon funds two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research.


(January 1, 1991) 


Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledges there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”.


(January 1, 1992) 


At the Rio Earth summit, countries sign up to the world’s first international agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This establishes the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr says: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”


(January 1, 1997) 


Two month’s before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) takes out an ad in The New York Times titled Reset the Alarm, which says: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”


(January 1, 1998) 


The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC.


(January 1, 2009) 


The US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, leads the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ends in disarray.


(January 1, 2013) 


A study by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, reveals 90 companies are responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.


(January 1, 2016) 


The API removes a claim on its website that the human contribution to climate change is “uncertain”, after an outcry.


(January 1, 2017) 


Exxon, Chevron and BP each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.


(January 1, 2019) 


Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, says climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming.

Jonathan WattsGarry Blight and Pablo Gutiérrez


On Heathrow, the London Plan will in effect be subordinate to the decisions of the courts, where attempts to stop the airport expansion by legal means are already well under way. Last week, a new legal front opened up in the ongoing battle, when WWF was granted permission to make arguments against expansion based on the rights of children.

Khan’s objections to Heathrow expansion are nuanced, moreover, by his backing for increased capacity at Gatwick.

The row over the London Plan is significant as it highlights the gap between local and national government on green issues. Local mayors and council leaders wishing to implement environmental improvements, whether on air pollution or measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes lack the powers to do so.

Even where they are given power, for instance in setting up clean air zones, they may be frustrated in raising funding for their plans, when local authorities are facing cuts, large deficits or even bankruptcy.

Khan will write to the secretary of state before the end of the year, and the government will have six weeks in which to respond.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “It is for the mayor of London to take forward the planning inspector’s comments on the London Plan. The secretary of state will respond to any letter from the mayor of London in due course.”