Newbury Labour Party response to WBC’s draft Environment Strategy
This response has been collated by Newbury CLP’s Policy Officer and incorporates feedback from members and Executive Officers. We know many members contributed directly using the online consultation as well. It is not a comprehensive analysis or a formal Labour Party response, and it contains many more questions than answers. We commend the detailed feedback and concrete proposals offered by WBC opposition councillors Carolyne Culver, David Marsh, Steve Masters and Adrian Abbs. This response attempts to raise issues not raised in those responses, as well as including the specific views and questions sent to us by members.
Many thanks to those who contributed – responsibility for any mistakes or omissions remains with our Policy Officer, Julie Wintrup. If you have expertise, interest, would like to blog for us or simply wish to be kept informed please get in touch, on PolicyatNewburyCLP@gmail.com ! We will develop this strand of activity in our forthcoming Policy Workshops during Spring 2020.
- Waste and resource efficiency
- Greening our Environment
- Climate action and social justice
- Engaging the citizens of West Berkshire in the Environment Strategy
We are delighted that West Berkshire Council is committed to developing an Environment Strategy and we welcome this consultation. We congratulate the officers of WBC who have brought together such a comprehensive draft strategy in such a short time, and the members who have driven the process. We applaud the detailed analysis and wide range of proposals from the opposition benches, particularly our new Green Party councillors, who have been so vital to this process. While we agree that it is important to ‘get our own house in order’ within the Council and the region, we want to encourage a broader contextualisation given the many influences that resist containment by WBC’s constituency boundaries: whether geographical, political, organisational/governance, or in terms of the air we breathe.
We share with others concern that a cautious ‘nudge’ approach characterises the draft strategy, that relies on “all of us”, when system change through tough regulation of polluters is required. “We” the people can influence very few of the major environmental challenges other than very slowly and indirectly. Even in the areas of our personal lives that we can change, we need to be provided with far better services and tools to embed and maintain behavioural change over the long term. We think there is scope for WBC’s priorities to be much more ambitious in its five key areas for change, as well as more inclusive and focused on social justice.
We are most concerned about the challenges to WBC’s Environment Strategy posed by its perilous financial circumstances and debt, entered into as a result of central government’s ongoing cuts to the local authority grant. In short, we are not confident that WBC is in a robust enough financial position to follow through on its environmental pledges, even with good faith and the very best will.
We support the case for an integrated planning approach, that places at its heart “a sustainable, affordable, accessible and integrated transport system, founded on the principle that transport is an essential public service” (A Green Industrial Revolution, Labour Party, 2019). We urge an investment in neglected local roads, pavements, cycleways, and where necessary, better lighting, to improve safety for those who do not drive but need safe and accessible routes in their everyday journeys to work, shops and recreation. If people are to use their cars less, or not at all, then the alternatives need to be attractive, reliable and easily available.
We propose speed lowering schemes across West Berkshire, which have proven safety and environmental benefits. The European Environment Agency says: “Cutting speed can also significantly reduce emissions of other pollutants, particularly reducing NOx and particulate matter (PM) output from diesel vehicles. The safety gains from slower driving are also indisputable.”
While the draft strategy sets out the case for an improved local transport system that we agree is essential, we have implementation concerns. Years of government-imposed short-term local authority budget cuts mean bus services have been slashed. The new Bus Station is set well away from the Railway Station, a decision driven not by environmental concerns or a desire to make public transport use easier, but for financial reasons. Roads and pavements are full of pot holes and the constant road works in Newbury make walking and cycling especially hazardous.
So, while we support the transport aspirations of the draft strategy, we remain sceptical of their being realised without considerable investment, without which petrol and diesel car and lorry use is unlikely to reduce.
We would like to see a dedicated assessment of the effects on accessibility issues raised for older people, disabled people, wheelchair users, and families of young children using buggies, all of whom who are most affected by changes to car usage, parking and public transport. Those specific groups ought to be sought out for feedback and consultation and where appropriate, properly remunerated by WBC for their time and expertise.
The draft consultation discussed “getting its own house in order”. And West Berkshire needs many more houses. However we are concerned that proposed vast new-build developments are dependent on car usage, with traffic queues ‘built in’. These have no place in West Berkshire if the draft strategy goals are to be realised. Labour proposes all new homes should be “zero carbon standard”, which will mean that “the day-to-day running of the home won’t add additional carbon to the atmosphere. This is achieved through better energy efficiency standards and low carbon and renewable energy sources, and could mean all new homes are fitted with solar panels, super-efficient insulation and triple-glazed windows, and are not fitted with fossil fuel heating systems such as gas boilers as standard”.
We would like to see this standard applied to all new homes built in West Berkshire. More houses for families are needed not only single person or retirement flats and large ‘luxury’ homes. Developments need to be connected to major routes and work places by good public transport, and to include local schools and GP practices. Without such infrastructure, West Berkshire risks becoming a hollowed-out commuter region in which cars continue to dominate transport options. We question how many people will be able to afford to move to new Electric Vehicles, given the high cost of living in West Berkshire.
We agree with others who have questioned the timidity of this component of the draft strategy. Using less and being more efficient should be the priorities. Labour committed to on- and off-shore wind turbines and “enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches”. It committed to upgrading homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards, reducing the average household energy bill by £417 per household per year by 2030 and eliminating fuel poverty. As part of heat decarbonisation, Labour committed to rolling out “technologies like heat pumps, solar hot water and hydrogen, and invest in district heat networks using waste heat”.
While we understand the limited scope of one local authority, we would urge a much more ambitious plan on energy, and would ask: why not plan for a West Berkshire-wide expansion of solar panels, which is well within its control? We have also had many questions about WBC’s relationships with neighbouring councils who face very similar challenges. Is there scope to work with other councils, to enlist the support of local Members of Parliament, and to support special interest/community groups to press for action by government? We have little faith in the likelihood of “lobbying” government being effective.
The Labour Party committed in its manifesto to making producers responsible for the waste they create and for the full cost of recycling or disposal, encouraging more sustainable design and manufacturing. We back bottle-return schemes. We would like much more information about the long term PFI contract WBC has with Veolia, and whether there is scope to ramp up current recycling capacity.
We support the objective of transitioning from a linear to a circular economy, however the challenges in doing so here in West Berkshire are immense and not fully described in the strategy. Many of our members have told us they consider recycling services in West Berkshire to be seriously inadequate, and we all know we are well behind other local authorities. We have no knowledge of how effectively our carefully separated plastics, paper and glass recycling is dealt with once it is collected, and would appreciate far better information and education on materials, processes and alternative forms of disposable.
We want to end what Labour has called ‘food bank Britain’ and wish to see WBC commit to ensuring everyone has access to healthy, nutritious, sustainably produced food, that places local farmers, fishers, food producers and workers at the heart of a plan to deliver healthy food locally. We support local cooperatives of allotment holders, that cuts costs to Town Councils and contribute more imaginatively to food networks. We would like to see the cost of allotments reduced, shared ‘half’ allotments to be encouraged, and opened up to community groups, as happens in more progressive councils. Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford could each sustain small City Farms. The draft strategy might usefully address much more directly ways to minimise food waste and support local food networks.
We have no evidence to support our concerns, but question whether the costs to WBC caused by fly tipping are rising in concert with the increasingly selective approach of the Recycling Centre to accepting larger items. For many, the cost charged by WBC for removing household items is prohibitive. Once again, we fear the costs of improving WBC’s waste management system means higher costs to the public, discouraging use by those who struggle financially.
We all know areas where waste, litter, used needles, discarded food and food wrapping mean rat infestations are problematic. The grassed area along the A339 between town and the Retail Park/MacDonald’s is one of those and has been so for as long as we can remember. We had questions from members regarding what to do with discarded used needles, but we could find no answers on WBC’s website.
Like others we would like to see stretching targets for the greening of West Berkshire, including tree planting and biodiverse zones. Green urban spaces for play and leisure have proven links to physical and mental health. The World Health Organisation says that: “Urban parks and gardens play a critical role in cooling cities, and also provide safe routes for walking and cycling for transport purposes as well as sites for physical activity, social interaction and for recreation. Recent estimates show that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3% of global deaths”.
WBC’s decision to remove our Football Ground flies in the face of its commitment to the health and wellbeing of the community.
We would like to see a commitment to clean air zones, beginning with the areas and streets surrounding our schools, that comply with World Health Organisation limits for fine particles and nitrous oxides. We found little in the draft strategy that told us how WBC would know if its wish for better quality air was being realised over time.
We also want to mention flood risk. A great deal of flooding has been as a consequence of reduced management of gullies and drainage systems as well as poor recognition of the importance of rural flood plains. Places like Lambourn for example are struggling with recurrent issues with the sewage system and many other rural communities have also seen an increase of water ingress. We ask that WBC produce and makes public robust environmental impact assessments coupled with an infrastructure strategy that identifies shortfalls in existing systems and renews/maintains where appropriate.
WBC should also have a register of land owners to ensure their land is managed in an environmentally responsible manner that is cognisant of stream, brook and river management as well as ditches and hedgerows. Hedgerows act as natural snow fences as well as encouraging wildlife.
As a party Labour is committed to a Green New Deal that marries “radical climate action with social justice and the rebalancing of the economy” (The New Economics Foundation, 2019). We have not been persuaded by the draft strategy that WBC is prepared for simultaneously addressing social justice issues and the social inequalities evident in West Berkshire. We support Extended Producer Responsibility, and the circular model referenced in the draft strategy. However, it is acknowledged that producers pass higher costs on to their customers, and as we know, such cost increases hit struggling families and the less well off the hardest.
We would like to see much more involvement of workers and Trade Unions in addressing work flow processes, product design, and waste management. Excellent advice on building alliances with Trade Unions is available in EU funded guidance.
We applaud the commitment in the draft strategy to work with young people. We hope this means an understanding is developing that very different world views must be sought out if WBC councillors are to learn from others. We urge moving beyond the rhetoric of the strategy however to consider the evidence. Young people not only face futures very unlike the WBC councillors’ pasts; their health and wellbeing is affected by climate change in ways we are only beginning to realise. In 2017 Majeed and Lee said: “young individuals are believed to be at greater vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change by virtue of their developing coping capacity”.
For all these reasons, WBC’s Environment Strategy must not stand alone. It must lead to a re-investment in young people’s services. Cuts to education, youth services, and a passive acceptance of government’s long-term dereliction of child and adolescent mental health services has been disastrous for young people’s health and wellbeing. In 2018 53 children in Berkshire were found to have waited more than a year for mental health treatment. If WBC is serious about respecting young people as partners in making radical environmental change a reality, then we ask it to make a wholehearted commitment to the lives of all children and young people in West Berkshire: that is connected, preventative and actually experienced by those young people and families who need help most.
Parks, football grounds, woodland, skateboarding facilities and cycle paths are particularly important spaces for the most disadvantaged young people and families in West Berkshire. The World Health Organisation says: “Green spaces also are important to mental health. Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness. Some analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators”.
We want to know how the needs of young people, parents of young children, disabled and older people, and other vulnerable groups will be assessed and addressed by WBC’s Environment Strategy. This is not to slow the pace of change, but to include and learn from those groups who have the most to contribute towards the long term success of the strategy. We would like to ask how capability for rapid transition in our communities, homes and workplaces is to be developed; that is, how citizens will be equipped to put new knowledge, skills and habits into use, by the provision of the many tools needed to fully participate in all aspects of the strategy.
We would like to see public engagement in the Environment Strategy established as a priority. We are conscious that many selfless volunteers contribute regularly to consultations and lobby council/lors regarding particular interests. However, WBC has maintained a very old-fashioned approach to citizen engagement. We have been highly critical of this in the past, seeking livestreaming of meetings, far better use of technology and a more welcoming, interested approach to the public. Newbury Labour has long argued for a much more creative and inclusive approach to enabling the public to participate in WBC’s debate and decision-making processes. We believe engagement and an open democratic approach is essential if many more of us are to feel able to contribute in the future.
To help the public to better understand the opportunities, responsibilities and constraints facing WBC, we suggest regular reports and data that we might scrutinise. This might usefully describe the effects of factors identified as outside the immediate control of WBC, as well as those in its “own house”. Most of us who live, work and travel around West Berkshire tend not to divide our concerns between those that WBC has responsibility for, and those that central government, private landowners, local businesses and global corporations decide. Well-evidenced, regular reports on progress that include key influences on our environment, and their effects on progress towards WBC’s targets, would serve a vital function in engaging and informing us as citizens (not ‘residents’).
We are all “stakeholders” in the future – most of all, our young people – and our commitment to change is part of the solution to many of the problems identified in the draft strategy. We would like to see the language of “Working with large local employers to share learning and maximise the job opportunities that will result from green technology developments” to include working with others in genuine partnership, including workers, trade unions, customers and experts by experience, who use services and transport, who recycle (or not), and who every day walk/cycle/drive/park in the streets of West Berkshire.
We felt strongly that we would appreciate more events like the Climate Conference, but none of us who responded to the consultation was able to attend the last one because of work and family commitments. Once again, we would ask for such events to be much more creative and inclusive if we are to avoid the formation of in-groups that so often form in small market town communities. We would like to suggest the next conference focuses on developing capability in our citizenry and in our services as a way of embedding commitment to change.
We are pleased to be given the chance to respond to the draft strategy, and agree with others that it needs to be more ambitious, in the following ways:
- An honest assessment of the considerable financial investment needed to achieve the Environment Strategy’s goals is essential. Central government austerity economics pose a serious risk to WBC’s ability, however strong its will, to deliver on promises made.
- Hard targets with non-negotiable deadlines need to replace vague ‘visions’ and ‘aspirations’.
- Openness and transparency, and the use of reliable data amenable to public scrutiny will allow progress to be evaluated against goals. Honesty about impediments to achieving goals must be a central feature of implementation.
- Instead of complementing other work, the environmental strategy once agreed needs to be central to the other work and drive other decisions.
- Community and individual capability-building means not only being informed and educated, but having the right tools and opportunities through which to enact change.
- Environmental objectives must be balanced with social justice. Thriving (whole) communities and economic vitality are mutually dependent, not conflicting.
Berkshire Live, Alex Seabrook, 16/1/2020, Fears over West Berkshire plans to buy shops and offices to rent out
European Environment Agency, 30/8/2019, Do lower speed limits reduce fuel consumption and pollutant emissions?
Labour Party, 1/11/2019, Labour Pledges to make all new homes zero carbon within three years
Labour Party Manifesto 2019: A Green Industrial Revolution
Labour Party, 24/9/2019, A Right to Food: Labour will halve food bank usage within a year.
John Dixon, Plymouth City Council, A Plymouth perspective with case studies.
Permaculture Association, Local Food Networks
Let’s Recycle, Councils’ 2017/18 League Tables
World Health Organisation, Urban Green Spaces
Newbury Community Football Group: Campaigning to save Newbury’s main football ground from council redevelopment and improve playing facilities for the community
World Health Organisation, 2/5/2018, Ambient (outdoor) air pollution
New Economics Foundation, 28/11/2018, Five ways to fund a green new deal
Get the Data, Flood risk open data source by location
ETUC, 2018, A Guide for Trade Unions: Involving Trade Unions in climate action to build a just transition
Majeed, H. and Lee, J. 2017, The impact of climate change on youth depression and mental health, The Lancet
Health Service Journal, 30/8/2018, Revealed: Hundreds of children wait more than a year for specialist help
Rapid Transition Alliance, October 2018, Climate and Rapid Behaviour Change: What do we know so far?