Looking for the sunny uplands

In which Steve Dyke ponders how seriously Medway Council and the government are taking climate issues that effect us all..

I hate to admit it, but we are likely to be governed nationally and locally by Conservative politicians for the foreseeable future.  These are some thoughts on what this may mean for Medway’s natural environment.

The outlook will be shaped both by actions taken (or not taken) to respond to the climate and ecological crises we face, and by the attitude of those in power.  Two documents published this year will have an important influence: the Government’s Environment Bill (“the Bill”), reintroduced into Parliament earlier this month, and the long-awaited release of Medway Council’s draft Local Plan.

The Bill, if adopted, will be the most substantial piece of UK primary legislation on the environment for years.  It is needed because we will soon no longer have the protection of EU environmental laws.  Among other things the Bill:

  • establishes the ‘Office for Environmental Protection’ (OEP) as a watchdog (although some claim it will be a toothless one),
  • embeds environmental principles in future Government policy making,
  • mandates the setting of specific targets for air quality, and
  • introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain in the planning system.

This seems positive, but can we trust a right wing government favouring deregulation and  desperate for trade deals?  Boris Johnson’s commitment to fighting climate change is certainly suspect.  Last October, The Guardian published a ‘climate ranking’ of MPs, based on their voting trends on climate-related issues and taking into account their registered interests linked to fossil fuel industries or organisations that have denied climate science.  The lower the score the worse their record on climate change.  Boris’ scored zero, as did my MP, Kelly Tolhurst (Rehman Chishti was only slightly higher at 9%, with Tracey Crouch one of the better Conservatives on 30%).

Similarly, at the recent launch for the COP26 climate conference to be held in the UK this year, Boris said: “We must reverse the appalling loss of habitats and species, it’s only by repairing the damage to the natural world that we can address the problem of climate change”.  Yet as I write this he has just approved the expensive vanity project that is HS2, which will lead to the total or partial destruction of 61 ancient woods plus numerous SSSIs and local wildlife sites.  Can we trust him?

The Bill was originally published last year but withdrawn because of the General Election.  Only a few changes have been made in the reintroduced version, but one notable amendment has been to remove the previously clear commitment not to allow UK environmental standards to backslide from the current levels of environmental protection enshrined in EU law.  With a large Commons majority, what is to stop regulations, targets and standards relating to our environment and wildlife being watered down over coming months?  How many Tory MPs will be prepared to rebel and stand up for nature?

We also have a newly appointed Environment minister, George Eustice, who seems to have a mixed voting record on the environment.  Significantly, according to www.theyworkforyou.com he has “generally voted against measures to prevent climate change” and “consistently voted for selling England’s state owned forests” (i.e. ours).

Medway Council’s Local Plan is due to be published this Summer, setting out their vision for future development in Medway.  Their aim seems to be “growth that delivers benefits for all”.  It will be interesting to see what that means in practice and where our wildlife, woodland and green spaces fit in to their vision.  In their Local Plan “Development Strategy Consultation” document (March 2018, section 7.14) they stated:

The environment is central to the ambitions for Medway’s sustainable growth. The council recognises the challenges of accommodating the needs of the area’s growing population alongside safeguarding the special characteristics of the local environment. The Local Plan will set out the council’s commitment to protecting biodiversity, valued landscapes and geological conservation interests. The council will prepare detailed policies to secure the area’s network of ecological and landscape features in producing the draft Local Plan.

I like the sound of this, but this paragraph highlights a tension between growth and safeguarding the local environment.  The draft Local Plan will presumably attempt to sketch out what is meant by ‘sustainable growth’ in the Medway context and it will be interesting to see to what extent this has taken into account the Council’s declaration last year of a climate emergency.  How will the Plan address the need to aim for ‘net zero’ emissions while planning for 30,000 plus houses?  How will the Council balance the needs of the local population with protection of our natural environment?

Of course there are good Medway councillors who care about the environment and the climate emergency, but are they really able to influence the decisions of the current administration?  I doubt whether a Council led by Cllr Jarrett will ever properly look after our environment as I get no sense that he is committed to this.  As an example, in the last six ‘Voice of the Leader’ columns he has written for The Political Medway (all written since the declaration of a climate emergency), he has not once mentioned the natural environment.  The only mantra I seem to hear is ‘economic growth’.

Our wildlife and ecosystems are in crisis and we need leadership that will place the environment and biodiversity at the heart of political decisions.

But where is Medway Council’s ambition when it comes to our environment?  Take trees, which are not only good for locking up carbon and reducing the effects of pollution and flooding, but also nurture wildlife.  According to the Woodland Trust, the Rochester & Strood parliamentary constituency has a measly 3.6% of woodland cover, less than a third of the national average of 13%.  Gillingham & Rainham is not much better at 6.1%.  Despite this I am unaware of any major tree planting initiatives being undertaken by our Council.  In fact, following a question asked recently by Cllr Chrissy Stamp, it was revealed that between 2016 and 2018 there was a net loss of 243 trees.  It is likely that mature specimens are being removed and replaced with immature trees or even ‘whips’, many of which will never even make it to maturity.

Other councils are far more ambitious.  For example in Bristol, businesses are encouraged to sponsor the planting of one tree for every one of their employees as part of an initiative to double its tree canopy cover to 24% by 2046.

I do await with interest the action plan due to be produced this year by the council’s ‘Climate Change Advisory Group’, set up in the wake of their declaration of a climate emergency last April.  I hope for radical action, but do not expect it.  It is disappointing that they seem to be going along with the government’s aim to be carbon neutral by 2050 (thirty years’ time), rather than adopting a much earlier target, such as 2030 adopted by Gravesham and Maidstone.

I also note that the group is made up only of Tory and Labour councillors, with some support from council officials.  Why not recognise that the Climate Emergency is something that affects all of us, and draw membership from across the community? Why not create a Medway citizens’ assembly to drive climate action?  Some other councils, like Camden in London, are already using this approach to inform their decisions.

I have to end on a downbeat note.  To me, the outlook for our environment currently looks bleak.  We seem to be heading for flooded wastelands rather than sunny uplands, but that need not be inevitable.  It is time for those who believe in the protection of our natural world and the need to take positive action to fight the climate and ecological crises to make their voice heard.

Steve Dyke is a member of Medway Green Party and a previous local election candidate for Strood North and Strood South wards. Born in Northfleet, he moved to Medway aged 5 and has been here ever since.

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