Not the finest day for democracy!

My how my political mood can change! Just two weeks ago I was celebrating our Green Party success at the recent Dorset Council by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward. This was not just a victory for our excellent candidate, Belinda Bawden, and our green policies, but a rejection of the negative Conservative campaign. The local Conservatives threw a lot into their campaign, and had both our MP, Chris Loder, and the Conservative leader of Dorset Council out campaigning. They even made an indirect reference to me (the only Green councillor in West Dorset) as someone who prioritises the abolition of the monarchy over dealing with the harm caused by the misuse of drugs – based simply on the national Green Party policy on drugs and my open desire to replace an inherited monarch with a directly elected head of state. I have never made any comment on the relative priority of these two issues.

One of the consequences of this victory is that our Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council is now up to five, and the overall Conservative majority down to four. This majority would have been down to two had it not been for a recent Liberal Democrat defection to the Conservatives. The first test of this reduced Conservative majority came the following Thursday evening at a full meeting of Dorset Council, and the debate of two rival motions about fossil fuels and the energy crisis. The first motion, proposed by the leader of our Green Group, Clare Sutton, called upon the Council to lobby Westminster to change planning guidelines to allow local authorities to refuse planning applications for energy generation “on the grounds of climate impact alone”. The second motion, proposed by the leader of the Conservative Group, called for permission to utilise any form “of energy generation sourced from within the UK”, and thus ease the path for fracking and local oil exploration. After a discussion with other group members I decided to save my comments for the second debate. Well, that was the plan.

The first debate, though fairly bad natured at times, proceeded without incident and went to the vote – which was won by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority. The debate then moved to the second motion. First the leader of the Conservative group proposed the motion, then a fellow Conservative spoke as seconder – and in doing so spoke in favour of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It was at this point that two supporters of Extinction Rebellion entered the council chamber and glued themselves to a table at the front. The Chair immediately suspended the meeting and ordered an evacuation of the chamber. Whilst I have always been a supporter of the aims of XR I don’t understand how stopping the debate furthered their ends. Yes, the act attracted publicity, but not as much as I had hoped the now interrupted debate would have attracted.

However, things went from bad to worse. After a period of time those councillors that had not gone home were led into a committee room and told that we would finish the meeting there. Except that there was to be no debate. The Chairman of the Council announce that we would go straight to the vote and that she would take no speakers. Many, including me, were furious at being denied the right to speak, and at least one councillor walked out in disgust. Again the vote was won by the Conservatives.

My political mood, in the space of a week, had swung from a celebratory high to a disillusioned low. This was not the finest day for democracy. Although I’m still angry at this event, I’m also angry at myself for not being familiar enough with the Council’s Constitution and it’s ‘Rules of Procedure’. These rules, which I’ve now read, state that “If a motion that the question be now asked is seconded and the Chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed” the debate can proceed straight to a vote. Now, as I remember events, the Chairman simply announced that we were going straight to a vote and that she would take no further speakers. I do not recall a motion to do this being either proposed or seconded. And if it was, it must surely have gone to a vote itself. Moreover, I absolutely fail to see how anyone could consider the item ‘sufficiently discussed’ when the only speakers had been its proposer and seconder. No one had been allowed to speak against the motion. How can this possibly be considered democratic?

The need for local renewable energy

Last Monday saw the publication of the third and final report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This one focussed on the actions we need to take. In short it said that if we want to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees we need to make drastic changes at once. There is no time to lose. The fossil fuel infrastructure already in operation, planned or under construction is more than enough to bust the available carbon budget comprehensively, the IPCC found, so we must stop building more and start retiring what is already in use.

Now I know that many people believe, as I do, that the current energy crisis demonstrates a compelling reason for the UK to become self-sufficient in energy production as quickly as possible. But this self-sufficiency must not be through the use of either fossil fuels or nuclear energy. It doesn’t even make economic sense to do so. The cost of solar and wind energy has plummeted by up to 85% over the past decade, making them cheaper than nuclear, gas and coal. Renewables, combined with better insulation and energy efficiency measures, provide the only way out of the current energy crisis and the only way to prevent climate breakdown.

There is though, a further dimension to this need for a drastic change to our energy generation strategy. To my mind our energy needs to not only be derived from 100% renewable sources (chiefly wind and solar) but also be generated locally.

It is really sad that the application to construct the Navitus Bay windfarm off the coast of Dorset was not approved. Had this windfarm been built is would have been able to supply up to 80% of Dorset’s electricity. I really fail to see how the sight of wind turbines out at sea could have distracted from anyone’s enjoyment of our wonderful world heritage coastline. As we urgently need to make full use of the wind available to us I really hope another application comes forward in the next round of licensing.

One of the advantages of the local generation of electricity is that it limits the energy lost through transmission. An even more local idea is through the establishment of Energy Local schemes like the one in Bridport. This scheme, the first of its kind in England, enables 55 households to form a club and buy their electricity directly from the Salway Ash wind turbine at around 12 pence per kWh. There are plans through the building of a 1 acre community-funded solar farm to supply an additional 250 households in Bridport. Just imagine what could be achieved if turbines were sited on the hills surrounding the town. Evidence shows that objections to onshore wind quickly fall away if local people directly benefit from the power generated. I would love to hear your views on this.

A combination of a large windfarm off the coast of Dorset together with Energy Local clubs established in as many towns and communities like Bridport as possible would ensure that our energy would not only be secure from world events, but it would be lower cost, low carbon and support the local economy. Our local economy could be further enriched by a massive project to ensure that all our homes were retrofitted to the highest energy efficiency standards possible. Whilst the free energy efficiency advice and promotion of ‘energy champions’ by Bridport Town Council is a great start, this needs to be expanded and greatly enhanced by Dorset Council, who need to start showing leadership.

One aspect of this need for leadership should be through the development of a policy regarding planning applications for double glazing in listed buildings and the siting of solar panels on buildings in conservation areas and on land in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Their current approach relies far too heavily on the opinions of conservation officers who, in my opinion, seem to prioritise the conservation of the past at the expense of adapting to the future needs of citizens. This is a topic that I will be returning to – probably quite soon.