Monday 3 December 2018

Environment Monday - Are we a generation of criminals?

When will this disgusting practice stop?
Have you ever read something that stops you in your tracks and forces you to re-evaluate exactly who you are and what you are doing? I had one of those moments yeasterday. I like to think of myself as a decent, honest citizen who cares. As I mentioned on Saturday, I bought diesel cars when th Govt told us that this was the most eco friendly sort of car. I've installed solar panels at both my home and work, to make them as carbon neutral as possible. I didn't eat meat for sixteen years because I felt it was not sustainable, until I was conviced that by eating organic meat it would help make the economic case for eco farming more convincing. Long ago I bought into the "think global, act local" mantra. As a candidate in the local elections, I was the first in Barnet to sign the pesticide challenge commitment (even before Green party candidates).  We eat fresh, organic, locally grown produce, which we prepare ourselves at every possibility. Generally, preparing lunch takes (I am lucky enough to me able to have lunch at home) takes between five and fifteen minutes, depending on what we have (I would challenge anyone who has a microwaves put of gung from a supermarket outlet to say that their lunch tastes better and ours doesn't come in a plastic tub with a plastic lid). I walk to work most days (only driving when I have to be somewhere else). I can honestly say don't believe any of these things has made my life worse in any way.

Having said all of this, I don't live a monastic existance. We have a blast. I've probably seen more live music than any other soul in Barnet and probably played as much five a side football as any other 56 year old in the Borough. I've certainly drunk too much wine and beer and eaten far too many curries from The Mill Hill Tandoori and The Day of The Raj Express. But nothing I do hurts anyone (apart from the odd mistimed tackle on a Thursday evening at Powerleague). Or does it? As I said, sometimes you read something that makes you stop, step back and take a long hard look at yourself.

In his Sunday notes this week, Fr Eamon Raftery, at The Sacred Heart Church finished by asking "Who are our neighbours" His reply was extremely thought provoking.
"They aren’t just the people living next door that are in a ‘space’ near us, but who will come after us, who are neighbours in ‘time’. We should not take more from the earth than that we need. We must decide not to be thieves of earthly resources - energy, food, water, trees, paper  - using them more than necessary, or wasting them, because this means taking them away from those coming after us."
He is absolutely right. Every ancient woodland we tear up for roads or new build development, is a theft from those that come after us. Every species that faces extinction, is lost to them. As to the effects of global warming, we run a real risk of leaving those that follow us a barren, arrid world that cannot support the population that lives on it. I could be self righteous and say "well I've done what I can personally". I like to think I've tried my hardest to do the right thing but have I, or have I made a few cosmetic changes that make zero difference in the real world. Is "think global, act local" simply a sticking plaster to make left wing, urban hypocrites like me feel a little bit better? What could be done by someone like me to make a real difference? The sad answer is that I don't have a clue. But if Fr Eamon is right and we are a generation of theives stealing from our neighbours in time, that is simply not an answer. I have one thing that can make some sort of a difference. I write a well read blog. As I write this there have been 2,585,762 page viws at some point in the last ten years.  If nothing else, it is a start.

The next question I asked myself is what can we do which is not simply tokenism? Lets have a little think about this. Where can we start? I've always believed the best place to start is in an area on which you know you are on safe ground. So lets have a look at something we have a degree of control over (much as I'd love to change Donald Trumps mind on global warming I doubt he reads this blog). Lets start with Barnet Council. As readers of this blog will know, I love a list. So I sat down and thought about what would be the ten things that Barnet Council could do, which would best preserve the future for our "neighbours in time".

1. Properly protect natural habitats and refuges in the Borough of Barnet. We've seen constant attacks on these. Sadly there is no evidence at all of proper enforcement. The debacle of Darlands Lake is perhaps the worst example. This week we had a meeting of "The Environment committee" at the Council. This week the environment committee met. One item was the Parks and Open spaces strategy. There was no mention at all of measures to strengthen protection of our natural habitats. That is bordering on criminal negligence. The first thing we need is a proper audit of the wildlife and the habitats they need in Barnet. I am shocked at how many people are unaware of the diversity of reptiles, amphibians, birds and small mammals in the Borough. I was recently chatting to some young people at the studios I run, talking about our trip to Australia. One said "I wouldn't live anywhere with snakes and spiders!". When I said "Did you know thare are adders and grass snakes inthe Borough?" they were shocked. What sort of education are children getting, when they don't even know of the reptiles on our doorstep? Something is sriously wrong.

2. Waste management. One of the most criminal acts against our neighbours in the future has been the abandonment of seperate food waste collections by Barnet Council. This was deliberately concealed from the public before the last election. That is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Barnet Council and waste. Most of what we produce is sent to incinerators or buried in landfil sites. The council is constantly trying to find cheaper ways to get rid of the huge grey bins full of rubbish we produce every week. When I was a kid, we had one small metal bin. Now we have three that seem to be full every week. The simple answer is to have less packaging. If the govt forced supermarkets to cut packaging, every council would have a huge windfall and our future neighbours would have a far more pleasant planet.

3. Energy management. Back in 2010, I proposed that all libraries and public buildings in Barnet be fitted with solar panels. I made the case that this would have paid for itself in five years and then made a huge profit. Had they done this then, the council would have been £2 million better off and used an untold amount less CO2. Sadly the generous tariffs that applied then have long gone, but there is no reason why the Council should not still invest. The payback would be 8-9 years, but as the recent Saracens deal has shown, money can be borrowed from the public works board at low rates. If this was done over 20 years, the council would see  profit next year on its budget. It is a win-win and one that there is no sane reason not to persue. Every school, library and other public building should do this. When you consider that schools use energy during the day when the sun shines, they would end up paying almost nothing in energy costs for most of the year.

4. Electric vehicles. I simply cannot understand why Councils do not use them. Birmingham Council had a whole fleet of them decades ago. Barnet must commit to ensuring the next generation of vehicles are fully electric. Volvo have announced the launch of one with a range of 200km. As far as I am aware, that is more than ample for Barnet. I would ask the council to commit to electric for the next generation. We can't win all of the battles today, but we must start planning for the future.

5. Encouraging walking and cycling. Barnet has appalling air quality by major roads. The undercroft of Mill Hill Broadway station has been measured as having the worst air quality in Western Europe. That is scandalous. We urgently need to reduce the number of car journeys. There are several practical ways that this can be done. I would start with the school run. I would give precence to all applications for schools where parents commit to walk to school. I would then give schools the ability to sanction parents who make a commitment to walk and then renege. As for cycling, Barnet has an appalling record in providing safe cycleways. I believe that this is vital not only to protect our neighbours in the future, but to regenerate our High Streets. I have long wondered if there is any way that Councils could be encouraged by reductions in business rates, to get more customers cycling. As someone with a background in card technology, I was wondering if we could have a system where customers who use a cycle dock could get a 5% discount on products etc? If this was funded by a Business rates cut then it would be good for all. Now I am sure someone will say "who will pay for this?" The answer is simple, bicycles cause no wear and tear on roads. When we see potholes on roads, these are caused by cars and lorries. It seems there are no official studies that show increased cycling reduces highways maintenance, but it is clearly something Barnet Council should study. Another point worth considering is that walking and cycling improve health (except when bad car drivers become a part of the equation). This will save in healthcare costs. If we start planning eco friendly, viable foot and cycle networks now, our neighbours of the future will surely have less reason to hate us.

6. Tree/shrub planting. Where I live, I have the M1 motorway at the bottom of my garden. When I walk my dogs to Mill Hill Park, we cross both the A1 and A41 trunk roads on the Watford Way. The Road has a grass verge. It is generally full of litter and really adds no value to anything.  I discussed this situation 20 years ago with a leading UK environmentalist. He suggested to me that we should replace all such grass verges with hedgerows, trees and shrubs. He explained that species with sticky leaves actually pull diesel particlautes out of the air, making it cleaner. This reduces asthma. It also gives a habitat for birds and small mammals. Noise is reduced  and rather than staring at concrete, we have a pleasant shrub/tree lined vista. Urban greenways are the way of the future. I believe that citizens of the Borough would buy into such spending. The associated improvements in air quality would also have benefit for health budgets.

7. Action on littering. Littering is perhaps the most widely seen anti social activity that is tolerated by society. I completely fail to understand why this is. A litter strewn street or park is pehaps the most depressing sight of all in our borough. Over the last year, local citizens in Barnet have been forming litter picking groups, but I'd like to see Barnet Council, schoos and local enforcement agencies take a far more proactive role in addressing the problem. There are three simple measures that we should do. Schools should educate children to realise that littering is anti social and boorish. Sadly the worst places for litter in the Borough are outside some of our schools. The second thing is that Barnet Council should ensure that the bins are properly emptied and the final thing is that anyone caught littering, even with cigarette butts, should be given the choice of a large fine or have to participate in a litter picking session. As my wife broke her arm in October after being tripped by a piece of litter, I realise this not simply a matter of tasteful ambience.

8. Pesticides. Barnet Council uses dangerous pesticides to kill weeds on pavements etc. There are alternatives. We have seen decimation of bee populations, that poses a clear and present threat to the food chain. The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated. Barnet should take the lead by banning them ASAP.

9. High Street regeneration. You may wonder what this has to do with protecting the environment. The answer is quite simple. The carbon footprint of a pint of milk you buy when you walk to your local shops is far lower than the one you buy after a car journey to a superstore or when an online delivery brings it to your house. In Mill Hill, we are lucky to have Marks and Spencers, Tesco's, Iceland, Gerards Butchers, Mill Hill wines and a range of great convenience stores. Shopping in these and cutting out the car journey makes a big contribution to reducing your carbon footprint. The more shops we have, the less need there is to travel far and wide. Sadly the council has no policy on trying to protect our High Streets.

10. Planning Policies. This is the biggest one. I've left it until last. My views will not be universally liked. There is a housing shortage in Barnet, as there is across London. There is a labour shortage and there are homeless people.  Whatever we do in terms of planning, has to address these issues first. A cursory glance at the planning portal on Barnet Councils website shows a plethora of planning applications. I can see virtually none that address these issues and none that demonstrate joined up thinking in relation to the issues that face our society. My view is that any speculative building must be forced to address these issues in some way, shape or form. Barnet needs robust guidelines that developers know will be enforced. Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of planning in Barnet is the antagonistic relationship between the Council and the Mayor. Between the two of them, they have a responsibility for planning. Barnet's Conservative Council passed a politically charged motion declaring the Labour London Mayor an "enemy of the people". This was 100% guaranteed to ensure a bad working relationship. We need an end to name calling and a council and Mayor that puts the real issues first. If the Council and Mayor can't they will both be quilty of crimes against our future neighbours. One other thing Barnet Council needs to do is take enforcement seriously. For too long, developers have thought they "can simply get away with it". If the expectation was that Barnet Council will enforce the law, they would soon change tack. Barnet Council should announce a zero tolerance policy towards breaches of planning law. In the long term, this would save money, as developers would soon take the hint and comply with the law.

I personally will make this commitment. From now, Monday is environment Monday. We will post regular blog dealing with the issues of enviroment in Barnet and London. If you have a contribution, for a guest blog, please get in touch.

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