“A number of local councils and organisations have declared climate emergencies. What happens now? What’s going to be different?”
tl:dr version: If you want to see what actions and gatherings are happening in and around Cambridge on all things sustainability, see Transition Cambridge’s regular newsletter & calendar of events here.
Friends of the Earth had their Groundswell event in Cambridge earlier today. There were people from all over East Anglia plus London there, though fewer people from Cambridge than I had expected. It was heatwave weather outside though. The Junction’s J2 seemed to have all the seats occupied when I rocked up after the lunch break. I struggle with all day events health-wise, and had a very intense university study-day at the University of Cambridge’s Madingley Hall the day before.
Cllr Pippa Heylings of South Cambridgeshire District Council and Nathan Williams of Extinction Rebellion Cambridge were giving some home truths to everyone in the room on the scale of the challenges ahead, along with Cambridge Cleantech’s Cinthya Anand. It’s not often that you get a panel covering the private sector, local government and out and about environmental campaigning all making the case on the same issue.
Cllr Heylings on the importance of the planning system and climate change
More local councils are declaring climate emergencies – and recently the Royal Institute of British Architects – better known as RIBA, declared one too. So…now what? Will it make any difference to the planning system and future planning applications? We will soon find out just how much of a big deal the Government’s 2050 zero carbon announcement really is when (as they surely will) Stansted Airport appeal a refusal of planning permission to expand following the collapse of Uttlesford Conservatives at the recent local council elections 20miles+ south-east of Cambridge. New councillors will be relying on the new statutory instrument tabled by ministers will be judged as a material factor by a planning inspector and strong enough grounds for councillors to act in the way that they did.
My question to the panel was on educating activists and the general public on how the planning system functions (and malfunctions) as part of the campaign on climate change. Because it’s very complicated. (I tried explaining Cambridge’s planning pages here). And when things are complicated in public policy, all too often it means only the very wealthy interests can afford to buy in the specialist knowledge and advice to make it work – for them. In and around Cambridge, all too often it feels like we’re left with exceedingly bland designs.
Above – on the Cambridge Station North Hotel from Nov 2017.
Can architects work with local communities at design stage to improve design standards and deliver inspiring buildings that are also more sustainable?
The above response from the national charity Civic Voice was welcome. Perhaps this is something a number of other national organisations can contribute towards, with event organisers drawing in contributing speakers and panelists from the local communities around the venues that they book. I also touched on the issue of community consent by briefly raising the case of the Flying Pig pub – at risk from developers, something that has attracted over 12,000 signatures to a petition to save it.
…along with a lot of media coverage too.
We’ve still got a lot of things to thrash out collectively as a city
The Cambridge collective of Extinction Rebellion (XR) has organised a large street occupation for the morning of 06 July 2019 in central Cambridge. Interestingly, the message coming from Cambridge City Council is for people attending the events on Parker’s Piece that day is to use public transport. Protest organisers have been in discussions with the authorities which makes me think that there will be contingencies in place to enable bus services to continue.
One thing I’ve not seen with protest movements before is extensive programs of workshops and training. The ones XR have organised have been incredibly well attended. The de-escalation training has been very interesting to see because transitioning from a high waste, high consumption throwaway society that we are into something far more sustainable is not going to be easy. And as we’ve seen, it generates resistance and anger in some fields – for example with some in motoring circles. Hence it was interesting to see how the new BBC Top Gear chaps coped with a new range of electric cars.
At the moment, we don’t have the institutions or the civic space to thrash out the things that we need to as a city or a ‘sub-region’ for want of another term. We can all think of events and actions where we can think of someone ‘who should have been there’ but didn’t know before hand. Or we can think of institutions that need to start having conversations with each other, or would be ideally suited to providing something that the city doesn’t have, if only someone would do something about it.
At the last XR meeting I went to (there are many neighbourhood-based ones listed here) people discussed some of the teething problems that inevitably rise as a result of bringing lots of people (who’ve never met/don’t know each other) together to solve shared issues. The climate challenge is so all encompassing that there’s no such thing as ‘sitting on the fence’ because ‘sitting on the fence’ or doing nothing is a choice in itself that has an impact. Furthermore, the process of meeting and listening helps break down some of the negative stereotypes that people may have about each other. I admire those activists who have taken on the mentally draining task of responding to the negative and abusive comments on social media left by too many people out there. The patience one needs for such a task of trying to persuade someone to change their mind in the face of abuse is huge. Yet it is such an important function in a world of disinformation.
An open [green] space event (or series) to create organising space for wider civic action?
My take is that at some stage, Cambridge is going to need to host what is effectively a big open space gathering for the specific purpose of organising actions for people, groups and institutions to take in response to the climate challenge. At the moment we’ve got too many disparate groups who are not co-ordinated with each other, and furthermore the structure of local government means too much effort and resource is wasted when it could make a difference.
Where would you start lobbying if you went down the local political route?
On top of all that, Cambridge has a very high population turnover – especially with young adults, students and early career researchers. People stay for a few years and then move on. This phenomenon is not new. Eglantyne Jebb, Lella Secor Florence, and Baroness Trumpington are but three examples of women who moved to Cambridge, achieved great things for us, and then moved on to pastures new. At a contemporary level, Astronaut Dr Jenni Sidey-Gibbons is one of our modern heroes. An expert in combustion engines before being selected to become Canada’s first woman astronaut, in conversation she told me all about the hidden dangers of one of the environment’s most dangerous pollutants – shipping fuel. (As with aviation fuel, it is not taxed – which is a scandal in itself).
As a city we should have learnt by now how to get the talent that arrives pretty much every autumn, up and running without said individuals having to put in a huge amount of groundwork time and again to do it themselves. From my perspective, integrating our international talent into our systems of governance (and improving said systems) is essential. Not an easy sell with existing voting systems and restrictions.
“How might a large open space event work?”
Have a look at the pitching session from UKGovCamp from a few years ago.
“Hi, I’m me. I want to talk about ABC – it’s important because DEF. Come along to my session!” 30 seconds to pitch your idea before the whistle sounds.
Such a pitching session alone would also scope out what is happening across the city as well – something that is not nearly as clear as it could be. Again, the fragmentation of our public sector and local government institutions is one of the major causes of this. Just off the top of my head, here are some strands that come to mind:
- Protests and demonstrations – Extinction Rebellion
- Carbon reduction/neutrality – Carbon Neutral Cambridge
- Big finance – divesting in fossil fuel investments – Cambridge Zero Carbon Society
- Permaculture and sustainable living – Transition Cambridge
- Sustainable living – Cambridge Carbon Footprint
- Food – Cambridge Sustainable Food
- Restricted urban sprawl around Cambridge – Cambridge Past, Present & Future (previously the Cambridge Preservation Society)
- Conservation research – Cambridge Conservation Forum
- Liveable Neighbourhoods – Smarter Cambridge Transport
- Sustainable transport: – Smarter Cambridge Transport
Again, this is not new – in 2013 I wrote about the number of environmental groups and networks in and around Cambridge.
Interestingly, I’m not aware of a local pedestrian or walking group in Cambridge, even though there has been talk of setting one up every so often. A month before I was hospitalised in late 2017 there was a Cambridge hack event looking at solutions to improve the journey by foot from Cambridge Railway Station to the city centre. I don’t know if this was followed up. I’m aware the Cambridge Cycling Campaign has expressed an interest in supporting a pedestrian/walkers group to carry out the functions it does for cycling in Cambridge, but for walkers and pedestrians. This might be something people in existing community groups might be interested in taking on, forming a local group of Living Streets and drawing on the latter’s resources. The recently formed Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group did similar when they formed – and are now a constituted membership organisation (I’m one of the founder members – see here if you’d like to join).
“Yes – but what about specifics? What needs to change and how do we achieve it?”
The most up-to-date place to go to is the regular newsletter/calendar from Transition Cambridge which goes far beyond what its members do.
For me, the big game-changer was Dr Colin Harris’s idea of a Cambridge Light Rail Underground.
I could spend all day looking at maps and things. See Cambridge Connect here. Also, history matters. How did Cambridge get into this transport mess in the first place? I had a look on Lost Cambridge here. Yes, we could have had an electric tram network.
Improving things at a much smaller scale – such as improving street cycle parking in residential areas is something that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is leading on.
And finally … Politics matters
With the system that we live in, someone’s got to stand for election to ensure that local councils can pass budgets and get waste collected and recycled. That means getting to know some of your local councillors. You can start by finding out who they are at https://www.writetothem.com/ (you only need your postcode) & dropping them an email. Or alternatively, see what individual parties have to say:
(They are responsible for the content of their sites – not me!) Note too that a number of parties have calls for evidence on future policies. One of the most high profile of late is Labour’s Planning Commission that held one in Cambridge very recently. The public can still send in their views – see https://labourplanningcommission.co.uk/consultation/
One of the things that has been missing in all of this are the party political exchanges on public forums (face-to-face as opposed to online) so that the public can meet politicians and also so that activists can find out first hand what some of the political barriers to further actions on climate change are from those inside the institutions. (You get to find out why I bang on about local government reform – because without it local councils will struggle to make an impact not just on climate change but on a host of other areas too).