Thinking global, acting local: environmental action in Croydon

By - Monday 13th July, 2015

We feel impotent and small when faced with environmental challenges, but we have more power than we think, says Sean Creighton

When Croydon’s composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia on 1st September 1912, it was the culmination of a summer of very poor weather, with excessive rain, and low temperatures. Kew Observatory recorded only 58% of the normal sunshine for August. Although not experiencing the worst of the rain, London received 125-150% more than usual. It is thought that the prolonged spell of depressed temperatures may have resulted from the eruption of a volcano (Katmai) in Alaska on 6th June 1912. The rain was particularly bad in parts of the country on 25th and 26th August – called the Great Rain Storm.

This is just one example of the way in which changes in global weather can impact on us in our local areas. An important slogan of the environmental movement has been: Think globally, act locally. That often appears to be a severe challenge because the actions of one individual to repair, re-cycle and re-use, to grow more of their own fruit and veg, to reduce their car, energy and water use and so on seem miniscule compared with the continuing damage from carbon emissions in countries like China.

We know what we like and don’t like. The challenge is how to change things

But we can bear in mind that environmental action is a much broader agenda than action on climate change. Our local environments in Croydon include: transport, dirty streets, graffiti, crime, vandalism, derelict buildings and sites, air quality, poverty, health inequalities and quality of life. Residents instinctively know what they like and dislike about the area they live in. The challenge is how to effectively address the issues.

In Croydon this instinctiveness has been the spur to a wide variety of community actions, many with an environmental focus, such as by residents’ associations, Thornton Heath Community Action Team, Croydon Transition Town and the groups of ‘Friends’ of parks and open spaces, such as the very active and dynamic Friends of Park Hill Park.

But there’s also negativity – a feeling that things cannot be improved because of growing population density, competition for car parking, traffic congestion, inadequate public transport, high turnover of residents in some areas and the re-shaping of the built environment for the profit of developers.

Many groups in Croydon are taking action on environmental issues

Whether we are optimists or pessimists about the prospects for change, our common and unspoken aspiration is to create a pleasanter community and a sustainable community. We can take inspiration from past environmental actions, such as the mass campaigns to prevent the enclosure of commons in the 19th century leading to the legislation saving London commons, or from the recent campaign that has led Lancashire County Council to reject an application by a fracking company, or from the backlash against Croydon Council’s badly worded committee report that suggested it wanted to build on school green spaces.

You may counter that the well-organised ‘Stop The Burn’ campaign against the Beddington Lane incinerator Incinerator Campaign has failed in its attempts using judicial review procedures. But it has had interesting reverberations on the politics of Sutton which are still being played out. There is still scope for pressure on Croydon’s Labour administration to withdraw from the partnership in the interests of public health, regardless of how much it would cost.

There are many community and voluntary organisations in Croydon undertaking different kinds of community action to create a sustainable community and address environmental issues. The more traditional ones have come together in the Croydon Assembly Environment Forum. The Friends of parks and open spaces are beginning to liaise with each other. The Croydon Citizen provides a platform for the discussion of ideas.

Since the Labour administration took control in May 2014, the council’s role in improving the environment has changed in four ways:

1) Cleaner streets

It has been working hard to make Croydon a cleaner place, find new solutions to tackling the problem of litter and fly-tipping, and to develop a partnership with residents. The cleanliness of our streets, parks and open spaces has therefore become a major environmental action issue with plenty of publicity.

2) Street environment improvements

Although some people consider it to be cosmetic and not to address the underlining problems of inequality, the plans of the administration to improve the physical environment of the streets in the town centre and district centres contribute to creating a pleasanter physical environment for people who live and work in them

3) Re-organising its departments

It has created a new Place Directorate that brings together many previously separate sections responsible for the range of physical environmental issues across the borough. The work of this new directorate can be strengthened if the council engages local residents in the district centres in decision-making on the physical improvements to be carried out

4) Private landlord licensing scheme:

Many of the problems relating to litter and fly-tipping are linked to private rented properties. This is due to inadequate advice to tenants on the rubbish collection system, the high turnover of tenants due to short tenancies, inadequate provision of refuse collection bins and the clearing-out of the furniture of previous tenants. The new licensing scheme, due to come into effect on 1st October this year, is partly designed to reduce these problems. The landlord lobby, however, is seeking to overturn this scheme at judicial review

The Environment Forum is conscious that it must not lose sight of the bigger global picture, especially climate change and how this affects us in Croydon. The forum meets again on Monday 27th July at 7:30pm at Ruskin House.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • moguloilman

    Any thoughts on the boundary between acting localy and NIMBYism?

    I sense an increasing unwillingness to accept inconvenience for the greater good. Everyone wants cheap energy, a good mobile phone signal, their garbage to be cleared away but are much less willing to have a power station, a wind farm, a mobile phone mast or an incinerator anywhere near them.

    As a consequence we have endless bureaucratic processes designed not to make good choices and get things done, but to obfuscate and prevent anything being done.

  • Sean Creighton

    NIMBYISM is an insulting term used to try and discredit objectors to planning proposals which are seen by local people as being detrimental to the character and quality of life in their local area. Planning is a political process of mediating between competing interests and priorities. There will always be winners and losers.The system is increasingly stacked in favour of development regardless of whether it is needed or its impact. The rights of residents and local authorities to refuse to approve developments are being further eroded, e.g. the latest Government announcements to extend permitted development rights. There are legitimate concerns about the benefits and disbenefits of developments. e.g. the Beddington Lane Incinerator. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose an incinerator that is not based on 100% clean technology, that will pump pollution into the sky with adverse long-term health effects, and create considerable vehicle movement with associated air pollution. The anti incinerator campaigners are taking their stand on these wider issues. What lots of people object to is developments that are increasingly about making short-term profits, parachuted in with no concern for the local area or people. We are likely to see more and more opposition to developments which are going to be forced onto local areas because the balance of rights is stacked against communities. The bureaucratic processes which you refer to have nothing to do with democratic debate, mediation and conflict resolution. The further expansion of one or more London airports will leave no one satisfied except some business interests. The Government will take a decision based on what it sees as least damage to itself in terms of its voters in the local areas and more likely the disagreements within its own Party. There has been no proper public discussion as to what the alternatives to airport expansion might be, e.g. more intense use of their existing sites; requiriing airlines to invest in more fuel efficient and quieter engines.

    • Robert Ward

      I am not sure exactly what your point is.

      Of course the process should be about compromise and challenge. Of course there will always be winners and losers. But sometimes the difficult decisions have to be made. It can’t always just be about stopping things, or blaming evil capitalists. Giving ‘local’ people a say doesn’t mean giving local people a veto.

      And what is ‘local’? Parish? Ward? Parliamentary constituency? Croydon Council?

      You also like examples where something you don’t like might have an additional barrier put in place. But what about social housing being prevented?

  • Sean Creighton

    Robert, of course its not easy. There will be differences of opinion at local level, however that is defined. Properly run local engagement and debate can help encourage people to see the wider picture. But not allowing local people more rights to influence decisions is only going to result in more frustration, anger and disillusionment with the political process, of which planning is part. There will be people who oppose social housing particularly in the suburbs; but they may also wish to oppose the creation of new wealthy gated developments. Would they oppose co-ownership, co-operatives, self-build and co-housing? Are they really opposed to social mix or the creation of ‘ghettoised’ forms of housing? How many will actually be willing to sell their homes to developers who will want to demolish their houses and build blocks of flats This is going to be a serious issue to be discussed in the South of the Borough as Government and the Mayor of London continue to force Croydon to grow and build housing regardless of its quality, size and shape and the extra strain it outs on a creaking infrastructure. . We cannot just have new housing in the Town Centre and the North. Consultation on changes to the Croydon Local Plan are expected in the autumn. The debate needs to start now.

    • Robert Ward

      Agree with most of what you say there. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, especially in the area of housing.

      I would also point out that Croydon Council does forcing too, in particular on the proportion of social housing in new developments.


  • Sean Creighton

    Do you mean ‘needs forcing’. The housing provided in new developments is not really ‘social’; it is allegedly ‘affordable’, but the rents are linked to private rented levels, which tend to go up. The link is about 80% and therefore not affordable for most people who would qualify for ‘social’ housing – Council and housing associations.

    • Robert Ward

      No I don’t.

      You are right that the word used is ‘affordable, and that it has a definition which means that it is somewhere between social housing and the open market. The word is used by politicians imo in part to fool people into thinking it means affordable for them.

      My point on Croydon Council is that they are imposing a quota on this ‘Affordable’ housing. The result is that on a particular site to meet economic hurdles you are forcing a development to be generally higher and of a particular structure – a mixture of Affordable and high-end flats with nothing in between. Another consequence is the ‘poor doors’ seen in Central London.

      We seem to have a supply side problem. We need more houses. IMO speed is more important than the mix of tenures on a particular site.