Time for everyone to act

This article was written by Damian and published in the Herald group of newspapers on the 9th July:

"Last week over 30 East Hampshire residents joined a 'virtual lobby’ organised by the Climate Coalition’s ‘Time Is Now’ campaign.   I was pleased to be able to join them, and I’m not surprised so many local people took part, knowing what a keen interest there is in East Hampshire for climate and other environmental matters. 

Unable to repeat last year’s event in Westminster, the online format gave us the opportunity to talk about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, as we look beyond the immediate crisis of Covid-19. 

This pandemic will inflict a huge financial, economic and social cost to the world; the scale of which we are only just beginning to appreciate. Countries across the globe are dealing with the unprecedented impact of a highly infectious disease, and one that we don’t yet know how to beat.  

But we must not lose sight of the physical strain that our world is under and has been under for some time. Our oceans, weather systems, natural resources and eco systems remain under enormous pressure from how we as humans live our lives and some of that has been laid bare by the lockdown we have seen in recent months. 

The grounding of planes, the removal of traffic from our roads, the lack of people on our streets and reduction in public transport. The growth in walking and cycling, buying local produce, working remotely, staycations, and managing much more of our lives online. There has been a major shift in both attitude and behaviour.  

This crisis has upended the status quo, and with that comes opportunity.  

As Boris Johnson said in his speech last week, we need to ‘build back better, build back greener, and build back faster’ and that ‘green’ ambition will need to be reflected in more of our policies as we look to kick start our economy. Safeguarding the environment and economic recovery are not necessarily at odds with each other. 

Britain has a world-leading record on the environment as the first major economy to commit to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and the first major to set a date for ending unabated coal. 

An important area that we discussed in the forum related to transport and improvements for our town centres, and this is something that we have already seen acted upon in recent announcements by the Transport Secretary, with a package to support a new era for cycling and walking and help relieve pressure on public transport. There is also the £1.7bn Transport Infrastructure Investment Fund to improve roads, repair bridges, and fill in millions of potholes, and the creation of projects to help lock in improvements in air quality experienced during the lockdown. 

Plus of course the provision for e-scooter trials, the funding for our automotive sector to develop advanced technology to cut carbon emissions, and support for business developing recyclable batteries and state-of-the-art motors for electric taxis, cars and vans.  

And we’re seeing signs of this locally, with a new ‘pop-up’ road scheme being introduced By Hampshire County Council in Petersfield, to give more space for pedestrians and better access for cyclists and buses, and of course, the recently- launched Cycle Alton initiative which aims to make the town more cycle friendly.

House building and standards was another concern raised by constituents, and this is another important structural issue for our economy. We know the pressure we have for new homes, particularly affordable homes, and also the opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of our existing housing and building stock. This is supported by the announcement this week of a £3 billion green investment package to include grants to households for green home improvements, and funds to decarbonise public sector buildings and help create new jobs.

Another question on how climate issues are reflected in our schools curriculums was raised, and through my previous role as Education Secretary, I know that there is already a great deal of scope for this within the national framework for schools. I also recognise the value of young leadership on this issue, and that is evident from engagement so many local students and schools have already on this. 

As ever, there is a very important role for government in determining the policies and investments needed to ‘move the dial’ on this, but there remains a vital role for individuals to play their part.

We’re fortunate in East Hampshire to have a very active community that supports engagement on these issues, including both Alton Energy, Alton Climate Action and Network (ACAN) and the proposed formation of the Petersfield Climate Action Network (PeCAN).  But we all have the opportunity to make a difference through the choices we make; whether that is to reduce the waste we produce, improve what we reuse or recycle (or even, upcycle), how and where we shop, or how and where we travel. 

Lockdown has had a profound impact on all of us, and in some cases opened our minds to alternatives we might not otherwise have considered. It is time to act."