Covid and a tale of two plans

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m losing my critical edge, but in many ways I’m starting to feel sorry for Boris Johnson. This is partly because he is so far out of his depth. His ambition to be a Churchillian statesman exceeds his ability by such an extent that it is embarrassing to watch. But mostly it’s because that responding to this Covid pandemic would have been challenging for any Prime Minister, no matter who they were or from which political party they were drawn (with the possible exception of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern of course). We have not been in such a situation before, so no politician has any experience to draw on. And for each decision there are multiple competing considerations – the hard science, our economic wellbeing, our mental health as well as our physical health, and our human rights. And as following the guidance of one will often clash with the guidance of another, you are bound to get criticism from different factions no matter what you do. Quite simply, there is no right answer to any problem or situation.

Having said that I’m surprised that the libertarian wing of the Conservatives have not been more vocal in the their opposition to the various restrictions imposed upon our freedoms – perhaps they are scared of ‘getting it wrong’. However, there have been protests against the wearing of masks (though these have not been getting much press of late) and I have heard people argue that the repeated lockdowns deprive them of their liberty and human rights. I’m a big supporter of Human Rights (I’ve been a member of a small group that has helped Bridport to declare itself a Rights Respecting Town) but we need to understand two things: Human Rights are human constructs not ‘God given’ and inalienable; and they have to be balanced by responsibility. So as well as having the basic right to do certain things like meet and socialise with who we like, we also have a responsibility to protect the fellow members of our community by doing everything we reasonably can to prevent the spread of the virus.

Dorset Council is currently in the process of consulting on two major, and highly related, projects: It’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan and it’s draft Local Plan (the plan for the future development of Dorset which guides decisions on whether or not planning applications will be granted for the next 15 years). A major factor in both is transport. Transport is the single largest sector for carbon emissions in Dorset. My original Climate Emergency motion to Dorset Council (which, despite going to Council 18 months ago, still has not been debated) called for “a Dorset wide transport strategy that discourages car use, encourages walking and cycling, and drastically improves rail and bus services.” Whilst transport comprises one of the 9 sections of the draft Strategy and Action Plan, there is nothing close to the comprehensive transport strategy that I think is needed, particularly when reducing the need for travel is a major consideration in the draft Local Plan. I would like to see much more vision and ambition in both plans. I would like to see us develop a network of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls eco-towns: small, self-reliant communities connected by an efficient and cheap public transport system. The aim would be to break our dependency on the motor car and to focus on the development of our local economies.

Next to transport, I think that planning decisions constitute the most important set of considerations with regards to a net reduction in carbon. Not least in these considerations are the number of new homes we need to build. I read recently that the actual construction of a building contributes to over 50% of the carbon emitted over the life of that building. One of the big factors in any local plan has been the Government’s Housing Needs Assessment – an assessment, based on a standard formula, for assessing the number of new homes each local planning authority must build. So some potentially good news this week was the announcement that the Government is backtracking on its plans for changing this housing formula. These new, new changes will see more of a focus on the North and the Midlands, and the prioritising of building new homes on twenty urban brownfield sites across the country. Hopefully this will mean a large reduction in the number of new homes Dorset’s new local plan has to deliver.

But do we need to go further than this change of focus? Do we need to rethink how we live? Where we live? Should we consider a total ban on any development that requires the destruction of green fields? Despite my smugness at living in such a beautiful location, I have to admit that there are many eco-benefits of city living. Not least of these are transport. If I lived in London I would not even consider owning a car. But should we also start rethinking the size of the properties we aspire to? Should we give much greater consideration to the sharing of resources? To community living? I haven’t got answers to these questions, and I accept that any debate could quickly become very heated, but I do think it something that eventually we will be forced to consider – so it may be worth starting now and feeding the results into forthcoming local plans.

A piece of political mischief making?

Last Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council contained one of the least edifying experiences of my time as a councillor so far. The final substantive business was a motion proposed by the Conservative councillor Louie O’Leary that was both unnecessarily divisive and seemingly a complete waste of time. It was even questionable as to whether a debate on the motion should have been permitted at all. In the end, however, despite a proposed amendment (which failed), the motion was passed. But what was actually achieved by the farce?

The motion, as proposed, was:

On Remembrance Day when as a nation we pause to recognise the sacrifice made by those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life activists from Extinction Rebellion hung a climate change banner in front of the Cenotaph.

That Dorset Council condemns the behaviour and actions of Extinction Rebellion for their actions at the Cenotaph and their total disregard of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice; and for their continued disregard of the law.

In the first place I fail to understand why we spent time debating it. Surely there are more important issues to debate? Issues that directly affect the lives of Dorset residents! It was even questionable whether we should have debated it. The Council’s ‘Rules of Procedure’ state quite clearly that to be valid a motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district, or is about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the Council or the district.” An event that occurred in central London is obviously none of these, and although this point was raised by several councillors, somehow the motion was deemed valid.

Secondly, I fail to see what the motion claims: It accuses Extinction Rebellion (XR) of displaying a “total disregard for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice”. How? Their banner read “Honour their sacrifice” and their wreath was laid in a respectful manner by a British army veteran. A letter sent to all Dorset Councillors by West Dorset MP, Chris Loder, attempted to paint a different picture, claiming that “He walked over wreaths that had been solemnly laid”. Now I know that these things are all down to interpretation, but I watched a video of the event (posted by the Daily Mail on YouTube) with close attention, and to my eyes the person laying the wreath trod very carefully to avoid disturbing wreaths already laid. Further, after laying the wreath the person stood in solemn silence for two minutes. How can such actions be deemed a “total disregard for those whose who gave the ultimate sacrifice”?

The motion also talks of XR’s “continued disregard for the law”. I am not aware of any law having been broken at the Cenotaph, and have read no claims that they were. This, though, brings us to the what I think was one of the reasons for the motion. In order to bring in charges of a disregard for the law you are required to go beyond this particular act and comment on their wider actions, a move which drew the Council into condemning Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing campaign as a whole. I think many Conservatives, particularly the Leader of the Council and the portfolio holder responsible for our Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, were aware of this, and were at pains to point out they were not condemning the campaign (which they have to work with) as a whole. This move, of course, played to the Conservative ‘law and order’ card, so was bound to get support. But let’s not forget how important breaking the law has been for so many campaigners over the centuries, as a colleague of mine pointed out in the debate.

I fully accept that not everyone approves of their campaign tactics, but XR’s attempt to awaken us to the realities of climate change will be viewed by future generations with both gratitude and respect. Awakening us to these realities may well require a few lines being crossed (including legal ones) and a few feathers being ruffled. The bottom line here is these inconveniences will be nothing compared to those we will suffer if we do not take many of the actions XR is calling for, including armed conflict in pursuit of scarce resources and habitable locations to live.

There was though, perhaps, another reason for the motion being proposed. For a reason which I failed to understand at the time, there were vigorous calls for a recorded vote. This means that the minutes record not only the total number of votes cast in support, against, and those abstaining, but how each councillor actually voted. Why was this deemed necessary? It certainly was not because it was such a vital vote they wanted to be extra careful of mistakes. No, the only reasons I can think of is that certain councillors think it will be an advantage to be able to ‘accuse’ other councillors of supporting what they perceive as a law breaking political campaign. These councillors are probably ‘climate sceptics’, if not out and out anthropological climate change deniers, who see the changes that XR are demanding to be at best unnecessary, at worst part of some radical left-wing plot to bring down ‘the establishment’, and who want to be able paint certain other councillors with the same brush. If I’m correct, it looks as though politics may start to get a little livelier at Dorset Council!