Former Hackney transport chief Jon Burke has revealed that he is eyeing up a run for Mayor of Liverpool following his announcement on New Year’s Eve that he would be standing down from Hackney Council.
Burke’s announcement was met with plaudits for the achievements of his tenure by organisations including the Hackney Society, Hackney Living Streets, Plastic-Free Hackney, and the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel campaign, though anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood group Horrendous Hackney Road Closures this evening released a statement celebrating his departure.
When quizzed about what he might decide to do next, Burke revealed that, though he does not consider himself a “favoured candidate” with other Liverpool councillors seeking the role, he is considering exploring an application to replace outgoing Mayor Joe Anderson, who is under investigation for witness intimidation and bribery.
Burke said: “It’s an absolutely fantastic job, one of the best jobs in politics. Liverpool was a city that had the first overhead electrified rail system in the world. It had publicly controlled buses, and was a pioneer in so many social, environmental and cultural respects.
“I’d be lying if I said that I was not interested in leading the best city in the world. If you asked any politician, ‘Would you like to be the elected mayor of the best city in the world?’, if they said no, they might as well give up on politics.
“It would be a fantastic opportunity. I’m sure there are a huge number of very talented people who are interested in becoming the leader of that city, because why would you not be?
“I think there would be challenges. It has been a period of regeneration for Liverpool in some respects, but on the issues that have been close to my heart, such as decarbonisation, waste services, street cleansing, building a city from the bottom up, which I think Hackney has been a fantastic education in, I think there are big areas of challenge for Liverpool.
“There are challenges that Liverpool faces which Hackney has not had to face, as we have been the beneficiaries of things like land sales. That being said, Hackney has had the largest cut in direct government grant of any local authority in the country and we’re still building £40m leisure centres, 27 Green Flag parks, the residential streets are swept twice a week, main roads are swept five times and we’ve probably got the best waste service in the country.”
The former transport chief, who in a letter to Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville explained that his move out of London was driven by a desire to offer more green space to his children and to spend more time with his family, said he would be seeking the Liverpool mayoralty if the application process allows him to put himself forward for consideration as a candidate by the Labour Party.
In his resignation letter, Burke pointed to a number of accomplishments and commitments made while he was in post, including a switch to 100 per cent renewable electricity on the council’s annual supply and decarbonising its energy consumption by around 80 per cent; the elimination of over 70 per cent of the spraying of the pesticide glyphosate in the borough; and the driving through of a programme promising to deliver the planting of tens of thousands of trees by the end of this year.
The council also made a commitment while Burke led on transport to roll out on-street electric vehicle charging points on every residential street by 2022, by which time the Town Hall has promised for 100 per cent of its street lights to be converted to LEDs.
Burke faced criticism from campaigners for his support for the Edmonton incinerator, which he robustly defended while introducing residual waste restriction measures in the borough, alongside the creation of energy company Hackney Light & Power, which he says is in a position to sell services to other local authorities within the decade.
The final year of his tenure has been marked by a community debate over the radical roll-out of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which often became heated and even abusive, with Burke and his family receiving a death threat over the policies.
A spokesperson for Horrendous Hackney Road Closures, which led protests focusing directly on Burke as well as the policies, said: “He may be gone but I’m afraid the problem is bigger than him, and it has to change.
“It is not acceptable to treat residents with contempt in this way. If nothing else, it makes for very bad policy.
“The feeling amongst our 7,000 members is that the council is interested in virtue-signalling about its green credentials and appealing to healthy young, affluent cycling advocates, and those of us who have lived here all our lives or who don’t fit the picture can go to hell. We need a change of approach, not just a change of face.”
Reflecting on the debate around LTNs, Burke said: “I like to think that on the whole I am motivated by good faith and a desire to do some good in the world.
“My detractors drawing the conclusion that I am incompetent or have misjudged things is fine by me and fair comment.
“The only thing that has mildly shocked me is the extent to which those people have encouraged people to believe that I am some deeply nefarious individual that has undertaken the things I have because of some deep seated hatred of the motor vehicle or drivers, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I find myself surprised to be characterised in that way, as that is not the kind of person I see myself as being.”
Former Hackney Green Party parliamentary candidate and long-time environmental activist Alex Armitage said that he was “sad” to see Burke leave the borough, praising his leadership in bringing climate and ecology to the fore in Hackney politics as “commendable”, while criticising him for “his silence over ecological disaster projects like [the] Woodberry Down [estate regeneration project]”, where Burke was a ward councillor.
Hackney Green Party’s Al Binnie-Lubbock added: “I think it’s a real shame Hackney Labour has lost its best environmental advocate. But Hackney Greens are more than ready to fill the gap.”
Burke, frequently referred to at council meetings as working alongside officers to relentlessly drive through an environmental agenda within the borough, attributed in an interview with the Citizen any success he has had in policy in the role to Hackney residents’ own passion for the issues, pointing to the Green Party as “our nearest political rival in the borough by a long way”.
He added: “That’s not about Labour or the Green Party, that’s about the people of Hackney. I like to think I have delivered what many people in the borough want to see delivered. I don’t think we can be too hubristic about what we have achieved because the people of Hackney sent us to the Town Hall to do that.
“I can’t think of many other places in which local residents could get 200 schoolchildren to dress up as bees and pretend to die on the steps of the Town Hall in order to ask the local authority to go further and faster on its glyphosate programme. That is the spontaneous activity of the amazing people of the borough that has been my home for well over a decade.”
The former transport chief predicted that, in response to the climate emergency, communities will be entering “an era of structural responsibility”, under which he envisaged drivers bearing greater costs for the impact of the operation of the motor vehicle, with exemptions for those whose car is necessary for their occupation or blue badge holders.
While it has not yet been announced who will replace Burke in his brief, he described De Beauvoir councillor and UK100 director Polly Billington as a “natural successor”, while expressing his certainty that there are “a lot of other people who would want to do that job as well”.
Burke said: “I might have better jobs, I might have worse jobs, but I’ll never have a job quite like this. It will be very hard to match. The level of influence and control I’ve had in the role has been phenomenal, but none of that would have been possible without some of the brilliant officers I’ve worked with as well.
“I like to think I’ve confronted people with the reality of the most pressing political challenge of the 21st century. I think more people within Labour group and the administration understand that now than before I assumed office, and that’s what I wanted to achieve.
“The biosphere is not debating with us. Things will get hotter. Biodiversity will continue to diminish. That is as big a reality as gravity really. I think I’ve played a role in educating people around the political gravity of climate change and global warming and the imapcts it will have on every facet of our lives.
“Whilst I intend to continue to be active in this field, whether as an officer or something else, this is not me retreating away from the political issues which are of the utmost importance to me, because I don’t do them for me, I do them for my children and my grandchildren.”