‘All politics is local.’ If this old American refrain should ring true anywhere today it is in the marginal constituencies of Labour MPs. In the face of worrying poll numbers, many have suggested that Labour candidates looking to defend their seats should highlight their local work and community issues instead of making the pitch for government. Nowhere could a locally-focused strategy be more necessary than when it comes to the environment.
Repeated surveys have demonstrated that, by and large, British voters are not terribly concerned about climate change. It comes as no surprise then that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have barely mentioned it on the campaign trail since the election was called two weeks ago. But Fabian Society research has demonstrated that while voters might not worry about rising temperatures, they are concerned about local environmental issues like parks and air quality. The Tories’ failure on both is an opportunity for Labour to ‘go local’.
Parks matter to voters. Over half of UK adults visit their local park at least once a month and 90 per cent of families with children under five do. But Tory budget cuts mean that many green spaces are becoming unusable. By the end of this year, most councils will have seen a 40 per cent reduction in central government funding since 2010-11, and over 92 per cent of public parks have had funding for staff and maintenance reduced. As a result, several parks have been left to grow wild, while playground equipment is going unrepaired in many areas. A cross-party report by the communities and local government committee warned in February that public parks were reaching a ‘tipping point’ with litter, vermin, vandalism and crime on the rise.
Conservatives have tried to escape blame for cuts to local services – including park maintenance—by attempting to abolish an annual vote in parliament to approve local government financing so that councils themselves will appear to be responsible for budget cuts. But Labour candidates must not let them get away with it. They should seize the doorstep opportunity to ‘go local’ by defending their neighbourhood parks and speaking with voters about how decaying green spaces are a direct result of Conservatives’ decisions in Westminster.
As with parks, central government inaction has had dire consequences for air quality. Just five days into 2017 and London had already surpassed its annual air pollution limit. The vast majority of local authorities in the UK have exceeded their limits as well, raising concern among the public. A survey published in February found that 58 per cent of Britons believe that current air pollution levels are damaging to their health and nearly two-thirds support enacting tougher legislation to tackle the issue.
As environmental issues go, air pollution is relatively localised. City and region level initiatives can have a marked impact on air quality and the effects of pollution are by no means universally distributed. The Tories’ cynical attempts to delay publishing their air quality plan until after the election might have prevented vital local action had the High C ourt not intervened. The plan, which should now be published next week, may allow councils to introduce clean air zones in the worst affected towns and cities, making polluting vehicles pay to enter.
The Conservative record on air pollution is already a failure – and an opportunity for Labour. In his original ruling in November, Mr Justice Garnham said that the government’s then proposed air pollution plans, which didn’t allow local authorities to take action on diesel emissions, were so poor as to be unlawful. When he ruled again last week, Justice Garnham noted that “the continued failure of the government to comply with directives and regulations constitutes a significant threat to public health,” pointing out that nitrogen dioxide pollution was linked to more than 64 premature deaths each day. Again, Labour candidates – especially those in polluted cities – must highlight Tory inaction and make the case for strong local champions to ensure implementation of anticipated local initiatives.
Neither parks or air quality will be make or break election issues. But when it comes to the environment, they’re the issues that matter to voters and the ones that the Tories have failed on. The local nature of both serves as a useful antidote to the dominance of international issues in what Theresa May has already painted the ‘Brexit election’. These issues allow candidates to connect with voters in their own backyards, literally and figuratively. Labour candidates would be wise to include parks and air quality in their doorstep arsenals.