Anna Firth and Megan Trethewey: Greening your campaign – some ideas for council candidates

19 Feb

Cllr Anna Firth is a Sevenoaks councillor, on the Board of the Conservative Environment Network. She contested Canterbury at the 2019 General Election. Megan Trethewey is head of programmes at the Conservative Environment Network having previously worked as a Parliamentary Researcher in Westminster.  

While much about the upcoming local elections will be different, one of the core issues that remains the same and consistently polls as a priority for voters is the environment. Two thirds of Britons now believe that climate change is as serious as coronavirus, according to recent Ipsos Mori polling. As the party of the environment, capturing the “green vote” should be a key target in the upcoming 2021 council elections.

Before the pandemic, the UK was decarbonising at a faster rate, whilst growing our economy faster, than any other G7 nation. From Margaret Thatcher’s seminal speech at the UN, the first world leader to put climate change on the international stage, to Theresa May under whose leadership the UK was the first major economy to adopt a net zero emissions target, and Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, Conservatives have an environmental record to be proud of.

Many Councils have already committed to net zero carbon targets by 2030 and many are working extremely hard to reduce their carbon footprint. In Sevenoaks, for example, we have moved away from landfill, replaced some diesel vehicles with electric, installed electric charging points in car parks, and introduced planning standards to ensure new homes have a minimal impact on the environment.

Yet we know there so much more to be done, not just to reach net zero, but to protect and restore the natural environment. Councillors have a key role to play so here are some of our top tips for greening your campaign this May.

Net zero motions or climate emergencies – what’s next? Plan and evidence

With 2030 under nine years away, it’s important to have a clear plan to deliver your net zero pledge this May. That doesn’t mean a fully mapped out pathway, since private sector innovation leading to new green technologies, will almost certainly lead the way but, rather, a clear plan to show that your targets are more than just virtue-signalling. Setting short term goals and consulting relevant groups, like Gloucestershire County Council, who have established a Youth Climate Panel, is a good start.

That plan should also be based on evidence as much as possible – don’t let opposition parties back you into a corner with unrealistic commitments. The UK adopted a 2050 net zero target on the advice of the independent Climate Change Committee. The West Midlands Combined Authority set their target to reach net zero by 2041 after commissioning scientific research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change.

Trees, glorious trees, and other green infrastructure

Trees are infinitely popular, and, when planted in the right place, offer multiple benefits from sequestering carbon, to providing habitats, and even slowing the flow of floodwater. Tree planting is also a great PR opportunity, perfect for Facebook and digital campaigning. For example, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council has plans to plant 30 community orchards.

Also beyond trees, as there is more green space locked up in our gardens than in all our national parks combined, you may wish to campaign for more “green infrastructure” to help local wildlife – meaning hedges, wildlife, “planting for pollinators”, “bird and bat feeders”, “green walls” etc. Nature is more likely to thrive where it has more space to roam, so try as much as possible to connect wildlife hotspots such as parks and woods with strips of greenery. This can form part of England’s ‘Nature Recovery Network’ which is being introduced through the Environment Bill. Solihull Borough Council introduced a new ‘Wildlife Ways’ scheme to plant 64 football pitches of wildflower seeding.

Cleaning up local air and protecting little lungs

Air pollution is estimated to contribute to up to 36,000 premature deaths and cost the NHS over £150 million each year. To safeguard children, who are particularly susceptible from the worst impacts of air pollution outside where they study and play, talk to your local head teachers about implementing school street schemes – timed road closures – in appropriate areas. Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s schemes have been popular after they were implemented following calls for expressions of interest.

Improving local active travel infrastructure can also help reduce traffic pollution, and should always be about creating more choice for people rather than less. Ask your local residents – where do they need a pavement widened, a zebra crossing introduced, or a safer cycle path built? Temporary planters or bollards can save you money and let you trial something before making it permanent. More people are getting out on their bikes, and councils can support them to do so safely. The government has made it clear they will be providing more cash for this so start the work talking to communities now. Schemes won’t last if they’re imposed on communities without proper consultation, so early engagement with residents is essential.

Start at home with council buildings and tap into local knowledge

Look at the environmental footprint of your council’s estate including schools, fire stations, libraries, and main office buildings. Are they energy efficient? How is office waste collected? How do your employees and children, for example, travel to school/work? Maybe ask council staff what green changes they would like to see and how you can support them to be more environmentally friendly. Air source heat pumps, solar panels, energy efficient boiler systems all help maximise green energy consumption and significantly reduce harmful outputs.

Right across the country there are British businesses leading and innovating in clean technologies, and charities pioneering new initiatives, that can help you to achieve your environmental goals. Find them and tap into that knowledge base – you may just have a world leading green business right under your nose that you could visit, interview, and spot-light on social media.

Don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory

You can be an environmentalist and a conservative, look no further than the Prime Minister for a case in point. Since 2010, Conservative governments have shown that you can grow the economy and tackle climate change. You can be pro-business and pro-environment. Forward-looking councils and councillors share the Prime Minister’s vision for a Green Industrial Revolution that will invest in British businesses, create a net zero economy, and support thousands of green jobs across the country.

So don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory this May. Instead, make it a cornerstone of your campaign and sign up to the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) to meet fellow green conservatives, learn more from other local environmental leaders, and receive key green election briefings.

Kirsty Finlayson: The Government is making good progress on green issues, but there is much more to be done

4 Jan

Kirsty Finlayson is Director of Communications for the British Conservation Alliance, which launches today. She is a solicitor and has previously stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 General Election and the 2019 European Election.

My first school, in rural North Nottinghamshire, had a beaver as its mascot. Despite understanding the symbolism – valuing hard work and aspiring to be “as busy as a beaver” – my four-year-old self was perplexed at never having seen the rodent, despite living on the River Trent.

Nevertheless, living in the countryside close to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest inspired a lifelong love of nature. Studies have shown that a child who experiences nature before the age of 12 years old is more likely to be motivated to protect the environment in adulthood.

Yet over 90 per cent of the UK population will be city dwellers over the next decade.

With Brexit being the focus in 2019, the word “wildlife” was mentioned just once in our Party’s Manifesto. There were, however, several encouraging commitments to conservation, including pledges to tackle deforestation, introduce a new £500 million maritime preservation programme, ensure farmers farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament, and create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Environment Bill reintroduced in January 2020 has helped re-establish conservation as a Conservative cause. It introduced a mandatory requirement for “biodiversity net gain” during planning, an essential addition to planning rules, given the “requirement” for 300,000 new homes each year.

The Bill went some way to improving long-term conservation with the creation of “conservation covenants”, which allow a landowner and “responsible body” (such as a conservation charity or public body) to fulfil conservation objectives. In the past, conservation obligations were only personal agreements which failed to bind successors in title; conservation bodies had to acquire the freehold of land to secure long term conservation. Now, conservation covenants – as legal commitments – can ensure more permanent preservation of our previous wildlife.

The Bill also introduced a “Duty to Consult”, giving the public an opportunity to understand why an urban tree is being felled and to express their concerns, whilst also strengthening the Forestry Commission’s power to clamp down on illegal tree felling across England – which will be welcomed by right and left wing tree huggers alike.

The improvements in air quality that are brought about by more vegetation are clear; but if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the benefit of outdoor greenery is not just precious, it is crucial; trees not only help clean and cool the air, but improve people’s mental and physical health too.

A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. The opportunity to enjoy nature can no longer be a luxury enjoyed by privileged garden owners. A pandemic poll by the RSPB showed that 84 per cent of people in England support the suggestion that the Government should increase the number of accessible nature-rich areas in the UK as part of our pandemic recovery. Links to nature are also associated with far-reaching positive effects on the brain. Studies have shown that a window with a view of green space can reduce the crime rate by as much as 50 per cent.

Returning to the busy beaver, the water flow control that natural habitats provide is essential for our flood defences. With the number of extreme wet days in the UK increasing and costing the UK economy around £2.2 billion a year and causing stress and hardship for homeowners, as well as unprecedented challenges for businesses, councils and the insurance industry, the beaver is just one example of a self-sufficient water management resource.

In 2015, beavers were reintroduced to the countryside in Devon; the Devon Wildlife Trust found that the beavers’ effects on the surrounding area was profound. They not only reduced flooding through dam-building, but they caused plant life to flourish (boosting other types of wildlife), held water in dry periods which prevented sediment and inorganic fertilisers from being washed from farmland, and even reduced erosion and improved water quality. Since 2017, 13 beaver licenses have been issued by the Natural England, most recently to the rewilding project at Knepp in Sussex.

Despite the positives to be drawn by the Environment Bill, however, there is still so much more that individual local activists and large lobbying groups can campaign on.

The Government has set out how developers should protect much-loved British wildlife, but we must do the same on agricultural land, encouraging areas of re-wilding which have a positive impact on both land use and surrounding nature. This does not need to come at the expense of farmers and their livelihoods.

There are huge opportunities to rethink how farmland is managed with the overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers currently benefit from subsidies such as Agricultural Property Relief. Whilst conservation covenants are a start, why not give farmers a tax benefit for re-wilding? Let’s give businesses economic incentives for wilding land, which can provide long-term public benefit through physical activity and education. Brexit has afforded us the opportunity to view farming and conservation as mutually compatible; improving the quality of our land, which includes reversing land degradation, will also boost our nation’s food production in the long term.

Post-Brexit, we must take the lead in environmental legislation; previously, it took EU subsidies to change soil quality. With a relatively small land mass, we cannot afford to be complacent. The Government has supported the ban on pesticides to protect bee pollination, but has yet to oppose the herbicide glyphosate. Some local authorities such as in North Somerset, Bristol, and Lewes have decided not to wait for Government intervention, and have already imposed restrictions on the herbicide, which various studies have labelled as having serious health implications.

And we must not ignore international cooperation in the wake of Covid-19. Whilst the UK government has implemented a far-reaching furlough scheme, many of the world’s inhabitants do not have such government support, leaving them vulnerable to exploit natural resources (primarily precious forests and oceans) to survive. In the Global South, this is likely to have a devastating long-term impact on the natural world. The Prime Minister’s commitment to cooperate internationally in order to introduce wildlife corridors, cut deforestation and protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans will be welcome.

Damian Green: We have a chance to show the world what Conservative environmental leadership looks like

5 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

As we approach the depressing depths of the Covid winter, let’s cheer ourselves up about one of the other big global challenges. It’s been a good couple of months for global action on climate change as some of the biggest emitting countries set net zero targets.

China started off the chain with a surprise commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2060. In the last few weeks, EU governments agreed to make their 2050 net zero target legally binding, while Japan and South Korea committed to a 2050 net zero deadline. And finally it looks possible that the US will also join the net zero club.

Heading into next year’s UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, the British presidency has momentum, which it must now capitalise on.

In the past month, the UK has also made good progress on its domestic climate policies, with a new £2bn Green Homes Grant for households to insulate homes and a commitment to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity. In his upcoming net zero speech later this month, the Prime Minister should show his commitment to climate leadership once again.

In particular he should announce two policy ideas from the One Nation Caucus’ ‘Building Back Greener’ paper, including an earlier 2030 phase-out date for new petrol and diesel car sales and a multi-year home retrofit scheme. Insulating Britain’s homes better than we do is profoundly unglamorous but amazingly effective.

A strong domestic record matters because it gives the UK credibility on the world stage when we try to persuade others to clean up their act. Crucially, we can provide an attractive example that other countries want to follow, by showing that ambitious emissions reductions can go hand in hand with economic growth. This is especially important at the moment as countries decide how to kickstart their economies after the Covid lockdowns.

There is one audience in particular where the UK’s record on clean growth can really resonate around the world: among conservatives. In many countries, conservatives have historically eschewed leadership on climate change. Sometimes they’ve been sceptical of the science of man-made climate change, or they’ve rejected what are perceived to be left-wing solutions. Sometimes they’ve been ignored or overlooked by the climate movement, who have often preferred to speak about climate in language that appeals more to the left.

Whatever the cause, the net result has been that climate is perceived as a left-wing issue. Yet this really shouldn’t be the case. There is no more conservative idea than intergenerational responsibility, and no more important application than climate change. The alleged trade-off between climate action and economic growth – if it ever existed – has been comprehensively shattered by the dramatic reductions in the costs of clean technologies and the proliferation of jobs in the booming clean energy industry.

We also shouldn’t forget that the first significant international climate change speech by a major global leader was delivered by a conservative – Margaret Thatcher – 31 years ago this month.

Conservatives are essential to solving climate change because they are in power across the world right now. They control the public investment, regulation, and taxation policies of many national economies, and so they have to be part of the solution. Some conservatives, like Norway’s or Germany’s, are already doing fantastic work on tackling climate change, and we should make common cause with them. Others such as the US and Australia have made some progress in recent years, particularly at state level, but still have a way to go.

Conservative Environment Network (CEN) research has revealed that a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from countries with conservative governments. On top of this, even where conservatives don’t control the national government, they form a sizable share of electorates, they sit in large numbers in legislatures, and they run many municipal and state governments. We can’t ignore this third of global emissions, any less than we can ignore the significant proportion of the global electorate with conservative values who need to be brought with us on climate change.

Conservatives in the UK now have to join up with our counterparts overseas. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle climate change since well before the Climate Change Act was passed nearly unanimously in 2008. During the past ten years of Conservative Governments we’ve enjoyed the fastest decarbonisation rate of any G20 economy and have established the world’s largest offshore wind sector. We now need to share these conservative success stories with our political allies, and embolden them to lead on climate change in their countries too.

I am delighted to be working alongside colleagues in CEN to reach out to conservative legislators in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, and elsewhere to build a global centre-right alliance in favour of action on climate change that supports economic growth and job creation. I look forward to their international launch event on 9th November with the Alok Sharma, the COP President.

International climate leadership is the perfect role for global Britain in the 2020s, and the year-long countdown to the Glasgow summit has got off to a terrific start. With the UK at the forefront, I hope to see conservatives leading this next decade of decarbonisation.

Jo Gideon: Clean air is a basic need. Not a luxury

26 Sep

Jo Gideon is the Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent Central

This year, the connection between our health and the environment has never been clearer. We have seen how wildlife trafficking and habitat loss are making animal-borne diseases like Covid-19 more likely. The cleaner air during the lockdown has also made us more cognizant of the harmful impact of traffic fumes. So it is timely that the Environment Bill is returning to Parliament soon, requiring the government to set targets for improving our environment, including the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of air pollution. But ambitious targets must be backed up by action to make it easier for people to choose cleaner forms of transport, such as electric cars or cycling.

Clean air should be seen as a basic need, not a luxury. In the UK, air pollution is the leading environmental risk to our health, and is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year. Public Health England’s conservative estimate of the cost of air pollution to our NHS and social care system in 2017 was £42.88 million, of which £41.2 million was due to PM2.5. This noxious pollutant is made up of tiny particles from fuel, tyres, brake discs and road dust. In the latest World Health Organisation report, 30 towns and cities in the UK exceeded the recommended limits on fine particulate matter, including my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent.

The public wants to see politicians taking action to clean up our air. Polling commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows that 68 per cent of people in the West Midlands support the creation of car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off time, even if this makes the school run less convenient. A majority are also in favour of the government offering incentives for people to change to an electric vehicle, as well as strengthening air pollution laws and investing in walking and cycling.

Accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and active travel will be key to building back cleaner air after Covid-19. Earlier this year, the UK launched a consultation to bring forward the phase-out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, and I would urge the government to be even more ambitious by setting the date for 2030 if feasible in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice. Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, with annual sales of new EVs expected to reach 200,000 by 2021, and in the most recent Budget I was pleased that the Chancellor extended the Plug-In Car Grant to help people with the purchase costs.

The mass adoption of electric vehicles will require a nationwide charge point network. A mixture of public grants and private partnerships have enabled some local authorities to install charge points, but uptake is far from universal. The government has made great strides in addressing this issue. Yet at the moment with just nine charging points in total – equating to one public charging point for every 268 local EVs – Stoke-on-Trent is one of the worst areas for EV charging in the country. There’s no shortage of ambition from our council to rectify this, provided they have central government support, however. That’s why I welcomed the £500 million funding announced in March to help the rollout of high-powered, open-access charge points.

The government is also supporting councils to create more walking and cycling infrastructure, with a £2 billion funding package and a new strategy for cycling and walking – setting an ambition for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. The West Midlands is already seeing the benefits of this: the new Starley Network, funded in part by the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, will join together 500 miles of cycle routes across the region. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have 18 miles of canal pathways which offer a unique opportunity for cycling routes.

And of course, underpinning all of this, must be a world-leading target to tackle the toxic PM2.5, committing in the Environment Bill to achieving the World Health Organisation’s current air quality standards. This would once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to having higher environmental standards than the European Union after Brexit. Achieving this standard – which is feasible according to the government’s own study – would also deliver annual health benefits of £6.8 billion.

As with our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, the UK would be the first major economy to make such a commitment, and it would complement our climate change target by encouraging the widespread uptake of electric forms of travel and heating.

Leaving the European Union presents us with a historic opportunity to create a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations. Let’s not waste it.