To the rescue! My plan to save the humble cockney sparrow

'The sparrow is not the only endangered species under threat in London this week'

Sparrows - hardly the stuff of serious politics you might think. But the London sparrow faces a serious threat to its future. Indeed, the decline of the sparrow is substantially more marked in London than in most parts of the country. There are several theories as to why the house sparrow has declined. Increasing threats from magpies or other predators, loss of nest sites in houses, loss of some critical food sources, disease and competition from other species of birds have all been cited.

Sparrows - hardly the stuff of serious politics you might think. But the London sparrow faces a serious threat to its future. Indeed, the decline of the sparrow is substantially more marked in London than in most parts of the country. There are several theories as to why the house sparrow has declined. Increasing threats from magpies or other predators, loss of nest sites in houses, loss of some critical food sources, disease and competition from other species of birds have all been cited.

The Independent's campaign to highlight the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the sparrow only underlines how environmental and animal policy must focus its attentions. The vast majority of Londoners agreed with me when I drew attention last month to the unremitting growth in the numbers of feral pigeons in Trafalgar Square. There will always be large numbers of these highly successful birds in London, but many now feel that their increasing numbers are a bar to making Trafalgar Square a pleasant and attractive world square. By contrast, the decline of the sparrow is alarming. As Tony Blair said last month in his keynote speech on the environment, "the house sparrow, once more cockney than the cockneys, is now a rarity in London."

The tiny minority who have shouted the loudest about the Greater London Authority's actions last month to tackle the year-on-year growth in the number of feral pigeons in Trafalgar Square ought to look instead at the plight of the sparrow. According to the assessment published in Monday's Independent, the number of sparrows in Kensington Gardens has dropped from 2,603 in 1925, to 544 in 1950, and just 8 in 2000. It is for this reason that I agreed last month that the Greater London Authority should lead on the London House Sparrow Action Plan.

The sparrow is not the only species under threat in London this week. At the weekend, London Labour Party delegates will meet in Stratford, once the parliamentary constituency of Keir Hardie himself, for their regional conference. But where once London Labour Party conference was a focus of real decision-making, its future as a vital contribution to policy-making in the capital is threatened.

Resolutions on the funding of London Underground and my readmission to the party have been summarily ruled out in a depressing echo of the twists and turns of London Labour's mayoral selection fiasco. Like the cockney sparrow, London Labour's internal political life may need an Action Plan to revive it.

Creating and maintaining the right wildlife and environmental balance is important to the future of urban life. The biggest contribution to maintaining and improving the environment in London coincides with the interests of every Londoner and with the needs of business: getting an integrated and reliable public transport system. Augmented by alternative forms of travel and designed sensibly to discourage car use rather than car ownership, such a system would be the central component in creating a cleaner and greener city.

But beyond the core challenge of transport, the mayor of London is required by the Greater London Authority Act to produce strategies on biodiversity, energy, waste and air quality. London's economic future as well as the quality of life of every Londoner depends on the capital leading the way as a sustainable world city.

We must learn to value the rich natural heritage of London. Its parks, green spaces and rivers are home to a great diversity of wildlife and plants. Access to green spaces brings health and educational benefits to London's children, and makes London a greener and more pleasant city in which to live and work. The Thames is London's most important and visible natural asset. It provides a wide range of habitats, including shingle, mudflats and grazing marshes, and is home to more than 350 invertebrate species and 115 different species of fish.

The Thames and its tributaries, such as the Colne, Wandle and Lee, link London to the countryside, and provide a network of green corridors through urban areas. I propose to designate the Thames a special Blue Ribbon Zone, with its protection an integral part of the Spatial Development Strategy and other mayoral strategies. The protection of London's wildlife is only part of the challenge. The city produces 13.5 million tonnes of waste every year. Too much of it is burned or buried in landfill sites. At present, London recycles only 6 per cent of all household waste, compared with Barcelona which recycles 25 per cent, or Berlin's 30 per cent. So I have placed particular emphasis within the environmental strategies I will have to produce on the issue of waste.

Uniquely for such a strategy, my office is attempting to bridge the gap between the parties by liaising not only with my environment adviser, Darren Johnson of the Greens, but also with the other parties in the London Assembly who want to build a consensus on waste management and recycling.

The Greater London Authority is now working to produce a Capital Standard for street-cleaning and the environment by building partnerships between the mayor's office, the Tidy Britain Group, the London Boroughs and other key players. The GLA is also tackling the thorny issue of incineration of waste. Recycling waste rather than burning it clearly makes both economic and environmental sense, and the GLA's Municipal Waste Management Strategy will explore how to increase energy from waste in London.

I have welcomed the London Assembly's plans to conduct a scrutiny into waste and recycling and have written to the Environment Agency on the issues raised by incineration. These issues are important because by 2016, it is estimated that 8 million people will be living in London, a figure last reached between the wars. But whereas 60 or 70 years ago, it was overwhelmingly men travelling to work, now the whole city is much more mobile, consumes more and demands more services.

In this urban rush, the environment is bound to be at risk. But a huge conurbation whose environment faces constant degradation is bound to be a less pleasant place to live and a less attractive place to invest in. The contribution of the GLA is vital to ensure that London is somewhere pleasant in which to live and work.

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