Extinction Rebellion activists fill the streets of London and the pages of newspapers and it’s brilliant. Its a movement of the young, which is even better and it’s full of energy and enthusiasm and determination – the usual dismissive complaints bemoaning the thoughtlessness of the protestors, seems even more out of step this time. Boris Johnson stating that he won’t be put out by nice young people begs the question, why are you allowing nasty ones to. For once, it seems that a movement has arisen and taken the mainstream, the old power and money by surprise. Excellent.
What does it mean though from this point on… I’m a town councillor in Totnes, a small town in south Devon. We have a reputation for being at the forefront of environmental development thanks to the innovators Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst who came to next door Dartington in the 1930s and started to explore new ways of forestesting, farming, teaching and living together. This in turn attracted the philosophers and the creatives and this tradition has continued with various experimental schools and the birth of Transition Towns here – a global movement looking at how we can live more sustainably.
We as a council, declared a climate emergency a couple of months ago and because we have an energetic Green county councillor, this declaration was taken onwards and upwards, but from a grassroots level, what does it mean and how can we implement real change. So much of the immediate response is tokenism – let’s introduce water fountains, declare ourselves a fairtrade town – all good things to do, but nothing which indicates a real fightback. So much of what has gone wrong recently, at local level at least, can be traced back to the government’s disastrous austerity programme. Our councils have been starved of money, starved of staff, starved of the ability to function in the best interests of those who they should be looking after. We spend so much of our time, staving off one disaster after another, that its difficult to take a step back and think imaginatively and hopefully of how the town can work in the future.
I am part of an independent group here, following the success of councils like Frome, Portishead, Buckfastleigh, Preston and many others who have bought into the ideas of Peter Macfadyen and the Flatpack revolution. Having an independent majority in a council gives us a real chance to change things for the better and to step up to the challenges facing us. Being an independent councillor as part of an independent group, doesn’t just mean that you’ve eschewed party politics at a local level, it means that you are working with other people with similar aims, interests and vision and that you can transform what is essentially, a governmental mechanism for maintaining the status quo, into something that challenges it. By changing the way a council works, it can be freed to tackle the specific issues facing a specific town much more effectively.
One of our major challenges, as for many other rural towns, is the government’s ruinous housing policy. This for me, is about road pollution, about the environment, about local democracy, about wildlife and about our health and wellbeing – how we deal with this will affect how we deal with long term climate change. The government has cleverly, well George Osbourne cleverly, declared a housing emergency. The obvious emergency was not that of a lack of houses but the fact that houses are too expensive for people on average local wages. The sensible answer to that would have been to work to bring house prices down, build social housing and protect private renters. The government created a situation where they could declare they were doing all those things, but as it turns out, in name only and in the meantime they were satisfying Tory donors, building lobbyists and the landowning classes who vote for them. Whatever the flaws of the new housing policies, they’ve proven incredibly successful for the large developers, who have pocketed record profits and absolutely ruinous for the green spaces within towns, the environment around them, local people and local wildlife.
Housing is a very difficult subject to tackle when it comes to activism. The spectre of nimbyism is always hovering overhead – it’s a tricky one in terms of old fashioned, divisive politics based on class. We’ve been cajoled however, by this government into believing that house ownership is absolutely desirable, that the minor inconvenience of a huge mortgage is worth it. We are not building houses we need though, houses for the future, we are just building because it suits the market. Encouraging giant estates of energy inefficient houses to be built on important green lungs, is insane. We concrete over wildlife corridors, pour housing into flood plains, ignore local materials, ignore locals, but the bullying mantra of growth is good, supersedes all. For whatever it’s worth and whatever personal preference might be, the government’s propaganda campaign has meant that the market has been let loose to service it.
The situation at the moment is not a happy one. Instead of a council being able to make planning decisions based on its own research of local need, housing figures are handed down by central government in accordance with what the markets want. Developers get the pick of local places, which are normally the areas on green fields or on protected land. If councils object, then they can be taken to appeal and be fined heavily if they lose. They have no funding for enforcement officers, or planning staff or anything else very much. Developers are running circles around them, promising S106 monies (money to offset a development by paying for footpaths, or affordable housing etc) and then finding reasons to not pay it, building higher, more densely, more expensively. Small villages and towns are finding traffic increasing, school fields disappearing, giant housing estates growing and none of it seems to be for the people who need it, but very much for the people who profit from it. There are endless loopholes – you can clear a field or wood and then send in the ecologist, who will state that there are no more trees and no more wildlife, so no reason not to build. Councils are brow beaten, bullied, threatened and paid off – its all very destructive and as its endlessly stated, once a wood has been cut down and built on, it will never come back.
I’d like to see us being able to fight properly for a sustainable future in house building. I’d like to see my own council do this, we have to really. We must take the reins up ourselves and build proper, decent, climate-friendly, social housing and fend off the giant housebuilders, who decimate our land and fleece local people.
These discussions are about localism as well. Britain has one of the most centralised governments in the world. There is little to no power locally, everything is organised from Westminster. We need to look at changing that too, proper localism, not the devolution that Osbourne promised, which turned out to be just another way of giving business groups public money. We as a council need to be able to invest in our town, to raise money and commit to only spending it locally. We, like Frome, must invest in reopening dilapidated buildings and giving them a community use, we need to invest in local business, protect local assets, fight back against outside developers, come up with new, clean, green initiatives for transport and heating and energy etc. We need to be at the forefront of change, to be able to react to the energy and initiative of Extinction Rebellion by coming up with our own imaginative ways of taking our towns forward. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem. It’s not impossible, we just need to be able to decide on how to do it.