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Sustainable conversations?

Went to the latest UEL/LLDC seminar on Sustainability last week and got into a bit of a spat with the speakers and another member of the audience over the sustainability example of London 2012. Samantha Heath of London Sustainability Exchange told us how she had, almost single-handedly, got Ken Livingstone to subscribe to sustainability targets of various kinds back in 2002 to 2004 when she was a member of the Greater London Assembly and how this all depended on Ken making top down decisions, all of which may be true. She had just been telling us what a wonderful example of sustainability the London Olympics had been and how it had created a new culture in the UK. I had to disagree with her that the Olympics had been such a sustainability success given, among other things, the botched remediation, the farce of the turbines and the failure to use the canals to shift materials, none of which she disputed. Another member of the audience chipped in about the sponsors and again she agreed this had not been a success, although she was keen on the torch relay which was a puzzle given the advertising platform it provided for Coca Cola.

However, when I argued with her she became very defensive about the top down approach asking me if I thought it was wrong for her to do this by getting Ken to impose these top down controls. I was confused by this as I hadn’t been talking about that but if it was true that she had been able to convince Ken to change his approach to sustainability before the Olympics or just as the bid was being organised back in 2003, and that was how this change was achieved, then it hadn’t actually needed the Olympics anyway, it was just a Mayoral intervention. Surprisingly she didn’t disagree with this proposition until this provoked another person in the room to go on about how the Olympics was the treasure that everyone was seeking and this meant everyone would follow its example. Samantha then changed her mind and said she also thought the Olympics had provided just such an example.

So interesting to note that the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, of which Samantha is a member, has just produced its final report. She didn’t mention the report once during her talk. Unsurprisingly the report claims the positive outweighed the negative at London 2012. However, the Commission is not so enthusiastic about the example London 2012 is supposed to have created. In fact, it is surprisingly critical. For example, it says it is aware of ‘discussion within government about how to utilise sustainable procurement principles and a commitment to procure sustainably through embedding buying standards into centralised and departmental contracts, as well as supply chain monitoring, with a target date of 2015’ but ‘we can find no evidence of substantive action.’

Samantha was deeply critical of how businesses had approached sustainability in the past, back when she was at the GLA, but was enthusiastic about how London 2012 had raised the bar, particularly in construction. The Commission’s report is less congratulatory. While it claims large projects in the construction sector are following London 2012’s example, it says of small and medium sized projects there is no evidence of such an impact because of ‘Scepticism about the business case, inconsistent approaches to planning, lack of leadership and lack of competence in the supply chain.’

Since then Dr James Tansey, who was appointed by the Vancouver Organising Committee as the first Official Carbon Offset Supplier to an Olympic Games, has criticised London 2012 for abandoning the idea of a carbon neutral Games. "I think London 2012 got it right in terms of building smart, green buildings from the start in the Olympic Park, they were model buildings - wonderful examples of design. But the London Organising Committee stepped away from the concept of carbon neutrality. I don't fully understand what happened there. I think there was pressure on the Olympics from the Government."

Another seminar contribution was offered by Bruce McVean of Beyond Green, who was upset that a report he had helped produce on integrated design back in 2009 had apparently been shelved. The report, which he outlined in his talk, essentially stated there should be co-ordination between different agencies and frameworks should be created to advance sustainability. Both he and Samantha were keen on localism and he seemed to be convinced, and maybe he is right, that the five Olympic Boroughs are now co-ordinating their efforts. However, he wasn’t happy when I disagreed that the Olympics had much to do with this given that the development style pioneered by London 2012 was of external corporations, with the latest run directly by the Mayor of London, taking over territory and powers from the local boroughs.

Other members of the audience had raised questions about housing and the demolition of estates in East London and a conversation of sorts did get under way with Samantha saying it was good we were getting down to talking about the realities facing people until, just as I was beginning to respond on one point, one of the hosts stood up and talked over me asking the speakers a question about the one thing they would like to happen in the future, or something like that, and someone from the LLDC was invited to come up to the front and talk about what they were doing about things like Bruce’s report.

So the brief ‘conversation’ ended and normality was restored. A lot of people had already left. I put on my coat…

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