By Dave Wilson / EnvironmentLatest News / 0 Comments

A climate emergency is upon us. That fact is not altered by the welcome decision of the City Council, last Thursday, to declare it: nothing has changed as a result of the consensual decision to recognise the seriousness of the challenge that faces the whole of humanity.

We have work to do.

I’m writing this at just before 9.00 a.m. The heat is already unpleasantly close to 30oC, something that would have been exceptional 10 years ago but has become normal. This is just one symptom of the problems we face as a result of 150 years of unconstrained industrialisation and the commercial exploitation of geology and nature. In the past 60 years or so we’ve recognised examples of this and acted on each individually: the London smogs of the 50’s; rivers killed by industrial pollution; the use of ecosystem destroying pesticides like DDT;  ozone depleting chemicals in aerosol sprays; lead in petrol … the list is endless. But we’ve failed, so far, on the big picture issue of global warming. Now, the younger generation in particular have called us to account. The party is over for industrial societies. Now it is time to clean up.

We have  work to do.

In that context, the decision of this City Council is welcome. Its commitment was strengthened considerably by five amendments put forward by Labour councillors, three of which were accepted outright:

  •  to undertake environmental impact assessments of every decision the Council takes
  •  to include housing developers in the list of those to be worked with to deliver net zero carbon activity
  •  to embed the target of reducing carbon emissions within the Corporate Plan and set annual targets which can be effectively monitored

A further two Labour proposals were referred to a new working group on climate change:

  •  to hold a citizens assembly to identify and report on priorities and actions
  • to establish in independent review body to report on progress

So far, so good. We have a solid policy which looks to the Council not only to address its own carbon emissions but to cajole, encourage, persuade and where possible enforce other organisations, commercial and public, to do the same. We have a challenging target to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, which will – if we achieve it and everyone else globally does the same – only just be in time to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change. If we don’t, then the future of humanity, as well as many other species, is under real and imminent threat.

We have work to do.

That work involves taking the principles set out in the resolution and applying them successfully to specific activities. Not least among these are house building and design, public transport, private car and lorry journeys, and energy usage and production. This is why Labour proposed a Citizens’ Assembly: because many of the decisions to be taken will impact on how we live, and will inconvenience (to put it mildly) everyone who lives here. Getting advice direct from a representative sample of people from the whole District is key to ensure that people buy into the decisions that have to be taken, while ensuring that people who live in our villages are heard as clearly as those who live in the towns and City. Labour is also acutely aware that a substantial proportion of the population voted for the Green Party in the May elections, yet is not represented at all in the Council chamber. The Council has a responsibility to make sure that their voices are heard, and that their expertise on these questions is made available.

We have work to do – but no monopoly on the wisdom of how best to do it.

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We’re surely on that road, but we have the chance in this district, in this country, in Europe, and globally, to change the direction we’re going. It really is not optional if human life – if it continues – is to be worth living. The time for talking is over. We have work to do.

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Internal shot of bus
By Dave Wilson / Transport / / 0 Comments

We seem to be in a phase when there any number of vicious circles affecting our lives and our country. Leaving aside the screamingly obvious issue of to-Brexit or not to Brexit, there is the refusal of central Government to either adequately fund local Councils or allow them to raise their own funds through tax, there is our obsession with plastic, and there is our obsession with the motor car.

We know that we ought to give up cars, just as we know we ought not to accept the continued use of disposal plastic wrapping for our food. In both cases, we know that there are viable alternatives. We’re highly aware of the damage that we are doing as a result of continuing our current behaviours. We’re just not prepared to accept the short term impacts that giving them up would bring, despite the evident medium and long term benefits.

If you look at personal transport, it’s easy to see why. Hopping into your car whenever you’re ready to roll is convenient, needs little or no planning, gives easy access to wherever you want to go, and (for most) is affordable, or at least the cost is bearable. So long as that position continues, we’re unlikely to see a revolution in how we travel even short distances, even as we all recognise the pollution that results.

What is to be done? One obvious way forward would be to combine punitive cost increases – car park charges, road fund licences, fuel tax and even toll roads – with radically improved public transport and walking and cycle routes. The trouble with this carrot-and-stick approach is that it tends to be rather more stick than carrot. This is partly because no-one is prepared to bear the cost of front-loading improvements, so that they are available from day one. But more intractable is the combination of political and social impacts. The former is a question of self-interest from politicians, who have neither the stomach nor the courage to face down the organised ranks of fuel tax protesters, and fear what else might be unleashed, as French President Macron discovered from exactly such a course of action.

However, having lily livered leaders isn’t the most important reason for stasis. The real impact of massive hikes in car running costs on people living outside the towns and City of the district are far more important. Our villages have mostly lost their pubs, post offices and village stores, and in some cases their schools and doctors’ surgeries too. Without adequate transport into the urban areas the populations of the villages will be stranded and ultimately will leave.

So we have the intractable dilemma: how to discourage car usage without creating massive negative impacts?

This is especially important in our district. It has such a distinctive combination of urban centres and far flung villages, exacerbated by the fact that the City sits at the heart of the road network as well as hosting many of the facilities and attractions that residents want to use. The result is congestion on the roads to, and within, the City, which in turn leads to traffic queues, which in turn leads to wholly unacceptable levels of pollution and traffic noise, not to mention the physical risk to pedestrians and cyclists.

This is what happens if you look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Because there is a solution. It isn’t cost free. It isn’t going to happen under this Government. And it’s not that radical. It is buses.

However, what would have to happen is that the population as a whole agree to share the burden of the cost, which is significant. But the only readily available and wholly positive solution to reduce car journeys is to provide an alternative. That alternative has to be reliable, frequent, safe, clean, convenient and universal. Buses fit the bill if they are managed properly, supervised adequately, and made available to everyone everywhere at a cost that people can pay. Some people may cycle, but they are more likely to do that for shorter journeys. They too should be encouraged through the provision of dedicated cycle routes and safe and secure storage at their destination, among other things. Some people may live in places served by a regular reliable train service, but that’s a small minority. What we need are buses, and lots of them.

So what is the barrier to this slightly mad idea of a bus-based utopia? Money, mostly.

To give you some sense of the scale of the need, Stagecoach currently spends about £57 million a year on services in East Kent. That’s nearly four times more than the entire City Council revenue budget, so we can assume that it is more or less equal to the budgets for Canterbury, Thanet, Dover and Folkestone councils combined. And, without criticising Stagecoach for this, the service outside the urban areas isn’t at a frequency that is needed if we are to successfully coax people out of their cars. In fact, even in parts of the City – like Thanington – the bus service is non-existent in the evenings and parts of the weekend.

While this is a big barrier to change, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to make progress. The question is two-fold: do we have the will to pay to create a service that is capable of replacing cars? And, more fundamentally for the future of the planet – and our children – can we afford not to?

 

 

N.B. This article was initially published in the Canterbury Journal on the 4th April 2019

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