27 Apr 2018 Story Air

In London, a neighbourhood plan with global ambitions

Simon Birkett is on a mission to reduce the toxic levels of air pollution in his beloved London. A former HSBC banker, Simon was inspired to take on the cause full-time after his early retirement in 2009. You could say that he loves his city too much to give up on it. 

“I had one vision,” he says. “To make my neighbourhood an exemplar for healthy air in London.” Beyond his immediate neighbourhood of Knightsbridge, he hopes to get all of London to fully comply with the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. 

“That is still the mission,” he says. “But now I have a bigger vision: London and the rest of the world.”

One day in 2015, eight years after he had started his Clean Air in London campaign, Simon was invited to join the steering group for the UN’s Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process – a series of expert meetings that result in reports to inform the UN’s work to protect the environment. He was hooked by the discussions and engagement with environment experts from a variety of disciplines and geographies, all with one goal – a more sustainable future for the planet. 

Around the same time, Simon was setting up the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum, which had the opportunity to produce the first neighbourhood plan in central London under new legislation. A major challenge in that work, Simon says, is that the vitally important climate targets set for 2030 or 2050 seemed “unreal and unrealistic”. What he sought, and found in September 2015, were concrete targets and a framework around which he could organize the local plan: the newly agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Some have called the Knightsbridge neighbourhood plan ambitious. But, he says, “it is achievable. We had five themes, ten objectives and 42 policies. And every single policy can contribute to one or more of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”

Simon Birkett
Simon Burkett is campaigning to clean up London's air. (© Simon Birkett and Headshot London 2017)

He had made the connection, he said, between the lofty global goals agreed to by every nation on the planet, and the meaningful impact of these goals at the local level.

“I never would have thought of the SDGs unless I had been involved in the GEO process. Through this, I have learned a lot. Now things all fit together to achieve meaningful outcomes.”

Simon says he is now a true believer in the SDGs, especially at the city level. “We need to get people working towards them, as well as getting the data. We need people signed up.” 

Simon says he will not rest until he has achieved his objective: turning London into one of the world’s cleanest and most innovative sustainable cities. Lobbying the British Parliament, the Mayor’s Office, the European Union and the World Health Organization have all been part of that strategy. 

At a briefing session over breakfast with London’s deputy mayor on environment and energy, Simon said, the deputy mayor asked if there were any questions. He saw his opportunity. 

“Have the Sustainable Development Goals been embedded in the mayor’s plan?” he asked. There was silence. Simon smiled at the memory. 

“The deputy mayor said, ‘Can you do that?’” And I said, “‘Hey, we’ve done it in a neighbourhood plan. You can do it in the London Plan!’” 

Simon expects the alignment of the final London plan to the SDGs “to cause massive change. This could have a seismic effect… all European cities will want to keep up with London.” 

Simon wants London to develop a model that can inspire New York, São Paolo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Johannesburg, and Nairobi – as well as other cities in Europe. He says Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Deputy Mayor will lead the way.

Having a global framework with the SDGs allowed him to speak a global language. But he insists that the real work has to happen at the neighbourhood and city level. GEO6 is already articulating the need for urgent, sustainable and equitable action.

“You have to combine political leadership with technology and lifestyle changes,” he says. “Then, you can crack this problem.” Meanwhile, in his spare time, Birkett has drafted the legalisation for a new ‘Clean Air Act’ that would make clean air a human right in the United Kingdom.

Learn more about the Global Environment Outlook