This event was organised by West Berkshire Council on 28 October 2019 at Newbury College as a logical next step from the council’s declaration of climate emergency in July. There were four speakers in the main hall – local MP Richard Benyon; Tom Heap, of Countryfile and Panorama fame; Giles Perkins of transport consultants WSP; and Stephen Cirell of the Association for Public Service Excellence plus a Green District panel discussion chaired by Nick Carter
There were also various other talks (I attended one given on flood management by Fiona Hartland of JBA Consulting) and ample opportunities to mingle with the other delegates – I’m useless at estimating numbers but I’d guess 400 – and talk to the 20 or so local organisations which had stands in the main hallway.
I have no standards against which I can judge the event but there were a few things that I found a bit perplexing. Firstly, while it’s good that West Berkshire is one of the first councils to run such an event it was slightly unclear what its overall purpose was in terms of progressing the council’s climate policy. As a public-facing event it was thought-provoking and informative but I felt communication from the council itself could have been better. A remark I heard made more than once by other attendees was ‘I thought we were here to discuss the situation in West Berkshire.’
It also seemed odd that the one talk, by Stephen Cirell, which directly addressed what the council could itself do, took place in the afternoon and in a hall that was only about a third full. Unlike some of the other talks, it wasn’t filmed (until Penny realised this about five minutes in, whipped out her phone and made this video).
I think I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt, though: better the event should have taken place with some flaws or confusions than not to have taken place at all. Congratulations to the Council for organising it.
Stepping back from the conference itself, there’s also a problem – certainly a perceived one – with the decision-making process. The Environmental Board, which will frame the policy, comprises only members of the Executive (the ruling party) and officers; the board is fed ideas by a cross-party Advisory Group, but the deliberations of the advisory group are not publicised. This slightly contentious issue was not raised at the event (nor was there any statement as to what has so far been achieved). I find the reasons offered for these arrangements unconvincing. As well as giving ammunition to any claim that the discussions are being conducted secretively, a worse stain is the implication that climate change is a political issue. If that idea isn’t dispelled we aren’t going to accomplish anything. There was an opportunity to do something different and this was not taken up. There was also an opportunity at the event to explain why matters have been so organised. This was not taken up either.
Doing things differently was rather the theme of the day. Richard Benyon referred in his speech to a spirit of ‘hopey changey’: but, as is becoming increasingly clear, something even stronger than hope is needed. All the speakers suggested, none more directly than Tom Heap, that to solve the problem we need to effect the most dramatic changes to the way our lives are lived since the industrial revolution.
With such a challenge it’s almost impossible to know where to start. A lead is clearly needed from the government but this is in a state of dysfunctional paralysis. Councils like West Berkshire and the 270-odd other ones which have also declared a climate emergency have to some extent stepped into the vacuum. The problem is, as was mentioned several times at the event, that there are huge areas of life over which they have influence but no effective power (see also below). Aside from their remit being geographically limited, in many ways they have to work within rules that are determined in Westminster.
What the government or councils have done or should do is one aspect. Steve Cirell highlighted three basic and simple steps which individuals could take. These were (1) use less energy, such as by turning off lights and turning down thermostats and reducing travel; (2) increase the efficiency, such as by insulating or car sharing; and (3) switch to renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and heat pumps.
He pointed out that all too frequently people look at these the wrong way round. Option (3) is more interesting (albeit more expensive) and there are are also plenty of companies which are selling and promoting these. Option (1) costs nothing (besides perhaps the price of an extra jumper). Indeed, it saves money straight away. Moreover it’s the only one that can be done by anyone, not just a homeowner.
These aside, the event suggested that that there are three areas where change is most urgently needed. These are transport, housing and – more nebulously – the way in which the those in power engage with the public; and, indeed, what the nature of the relationship should be.
To have one’s own car has for over a century been one of our most powerful aspirations. In an affluent and rural area like West Berkshire for most people this is both possible and necessary. Public transport, subjected to recent cuts, cannot provide the solution. The event suggested that technology might. Giles Perkins’ address was exclusively on this subject. One of the points he made, which underpinned his later remarks, are that about a third of carbon emissions are as a result of travel.
He observed that the big shift was likely to be a change ‘from ownership to access.’ Perhaps our changing work patterns will help here as fewer people now work the conventional nine to five than 40 years ago. Of more use will be technology, in particular driverless vehicles which can redeploy themselves according to where they are needed. So too will be the use of electric cars, although there are many problems yet to be solved with these, not least in the materials needed for their batteries. As Stephen Cirell observed, R&D in this area has lagged behind the development of electric cars themselves, although this is now being addressed. Finding a cheap, capacious and efficient way of storing electricity, without causing environmental threats even greater than the one we’re trying to solve, is perhaps the current holy grail.
Housing presents a separate problem. With cars, the majority are replaced and recycled over a 15-year period, so allowing better versions to replace them. Houses can stick around for centuries. There’s no correlation (as, to an increasing extent, there is with vehicles) between the purchase price and the running costs and thus the environmental impact. Indeed, quaint old homes, which can cost a fortune to heat, often command a premium.
Various initiatives have been announced to give grants for aspects such as roof insulation although, as Steve Cirell admitted, this is currently ‘a boring subject’ for most homeowners. Retrofitting improvements to existing houses can be disruptive, expensive and some cases impossible. To be truly energy efficient, the only option in many cases is to pull the house down and start again. That’s clearly not going to happen on any large scale. Emphasis thus turns to the government’s proposals for new builds.
Here the situation is complicated by two things. Firstly, local councils do currently have the power to insist on higher standards than national building regulations, providing these are incorporated into the local plan and are approved by the examiners. However, a survey by the Association of Public Service Excellence in early 2018 revealed that many planning authorities were unaware that they could do this. Government obfuscation must surely be at least part of the reasons. This principle is known as the Merton Rule, after the first council which took advantage of it. I understand that, to a greater or lesser extent, about half the planning authorities have established higher standards in this way. I’m unsure if West Berkshire is one of them.
However, all this may be set to change. The government plans to introduce a new set of regulations, currently under consultation as the Future Homes Standard, by 2025. Crucially, this will remove the Merton Rule so that councils will all have to follow the national regulations. Having these consistent across the country obviously leads to clarity but one concern is whether the standards will be tough enough. I understand that, even in its present form, the FHS is less demanding in certain areas than those which some councils have adopted under the Merton Rule.
The government is in an equivocal position. It has pledged to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050 which will require raising building standards. It also has pledged to build 300,000 homes a year (a target it’s some way short of) which can most easily be accomplished by relaxing them. This paradox will not be easy to resolve. This is also played out against the backdrop of the government’s complex relationship with private developers, to whom the whole business of home-building has effectively been outsourced. Private developers, however, exist primarily to make a profit, not to execute government policy.
Ultimately, consumer pressure should help resolve this tension. If it becomes apparent that houses not built to the highest standards become hard to sell, or if it becomes recognised that the extra purchase price of an energy-efficient home also means virtually no fuel or electricity bills due to the renewable-energy systems that have been installed, then developers will build more and more homes of this kind. At present, we seem to be some way from that point. The extra costs (estimated at 5-10%) for maximum efficiency need, in addition to their environmental advantage, to provide the best level of return on investment for both builder and purchaser. As the average period of home ownership is about seven years, it may take some time for this to become a mainstream and instinctive consideration.
So, what can West Berkshire Council do? The first is to ensure that, in its current local plan, it has adopted the highest possible standards under the Merton Rule. Even though this may not be in force for much longer, the work may not be a waste of effort as it will demonstrate to the government that yet another planning authority believes that standards should be high.
The second is to use all its expertise and influence, possibly working with its neighbouring councils, to lobby the government to ensure that the FHS is as stringent and as future-proofed as possible. It’s likely that other interest groups will be arguing the opposite case. This might be the last serious influence West Berkshire can have as thereafter it’s likely that all authorities will be operating under inflexible national regulations. If these are not set high enough it will not be a quick or simple job to amend them.
The third is that it should also lobby for more funds for enforcement officers, whose role will be even more important as the regulations become more technical and the standards more demanding.
A new relationship
The extent to which this issue will change the relationship between those in positions of political power and those who elect them is vastly more complex but just as important. For centuries, we were subjects. In the late ’70s we started to become consumers. Some new status is now needed: citizens, perhaps?
However this develops, something fundamental in the relationship will change: or rather, it will have to change if anything is to be accomplished. I have already suggested that West Berkshire’s current approach is flawed in that it operates within an essentially adversarial political structure. It’s also worth reflecting on Brexit which has done more than anything in my lifetime to bring the established political processes into disrepute, as Richard Benyon himself wryly admitted in his address. It seems clear to me that our systems of governance and representation are at best in need of reform and at worst totally dysfunctional. How they might be amended or what might replace them is less clear.
This is part of a wider debate which also involves the growth of technology, the dominance of a small number of disproportionately influential global companies and the role of international organisations. In many ways, national governments can control fewer things than they could even 20 years ago. Whether this is a good thing or not is another question: what is clear and certain is that the world is interconnected to an unprecedented extent. There is no better example of this than the issue of climate change.
It’s worth ending with a few thoughts from Tom Heap’s address which, perhaps because it was the most general, was also in some ways the most thought-provoking as it addressed aspects that needed no local, political or technical knowledge.
• Our civilisation has, for millennia, been built on fire (burning fuel to create energy). This needs to change.
• A number of improvements have been made and there is much that government can do; but the main problems that remain can only be solved by changes in personal behaviour.
• Previous environmental groups have repeated a didactic message which has so far not produced the intended results. Groups such as XR and the student protestors need to become more focussed on practical steps to win more mainstream support.
• An advantage of positive and clear action by a local council with regard to its own behaviour is that it helps offset any accusation of hypocrisy.
• Politicians react to broad swathes of opinion rather than side issues and are also aware that votes are rarely won by demanding that sacrifices be made. Action and commitment therefore needs to be widespread.
• The current assumption in, amongst other things, planning that the needs of the individual or the company are more important than the needs of the environment needs to be challenged. For instance, cycle lanes in new developments should be as essential as car access.
• Plastic and supermarkets, two demons in some debates, are not the number-one enemy as regards combatting climate change.
The most telling phrase, however, was his remark that we need ‘a new definition of ‘a good life’. I can think of no better summation. For centuries, this has been based on a comparative measure of consumption, with those consuming more coming out on top. Now, the perception is reversing. How this effects our live and what other accepted definitions emerge remains to be seen. All revolutions – for, in a logical and constructive way, that is surely what is required – have uncertain results. Many attempts have been made to change the status quo but in many cases these were defeated because enough people believed that keeping things as they were would give them a better life. All the evidence (including that offered at the Conference) suggests that, with climate change, the status quo is not an option.
West Berkshire Council invites everyone (whether they attended the conference or not) to complete this survey by 17 November to give your feedback and comments about the event and the issues it raised.
This is a massive and complex subject. The Conference was only able to touch on some of the issues and I have only been able to touch on some of the matters that were discussed. This is my view of what took place and what might or should happen next. Your view may be different. Whether you were at the Conference or not, Penny Post welcomes any comment, criticism or correction you might have. If you use the box below, your comment will, once approved, appear at the foot of this post. If you would rather contact me directly, or if you would like to contribute an article of your own, please email [email protected]