Monday 25 October 2021

Environment Monday - Barnet Council's sustainability smokescreen

 The Leader of Barnet Council has recently published a statement, in which he makes the case for the wonderful work Barnet Council are doiung to be seen as a local authority committed to sustainability.

The original is on the Barnet Council website. This is what he has to say

Barnet Council Leader, Councillor Dan Thomas

In the lead up to COP26, and following the government’s announcement of its Net Zero Strategy, the Leader of Barnet Council has released a statement on sustainability in Barnet.

Cllr Dan Thomas, Leader of Barnet Council, said: “Across London, we have seen how climate change is playing a role in extreme weather events, such as storms and flooding.

These events in the context of the recent report published by the IPCC make it clear that important decisions need to be made at COP26, and we must all play our part in supporting the government’s commitment of being net zero by 2050 and cutting emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels.

We are developing a Sustainability Strategy which aims to make Barnet the leading borough in London in sustainability and ensure we match the government’s ambition that we have a sustainable and prosperous country for future generations.

Our Sustainability Strategy will highlight the work that is already ongoing across Barnet, as well as set out the additional actions Barnet Council will take to contribute to the government meeting, and even exceeding, their targets. It will also state how we will support residents, businesses and council partners to make meaningful changes to facilitate their contribution to these targets.

Above all, our strategy will be our commitment to building a borough fit for the future where our residents and businesses can benefit from sustainable services, amenities and infrastructure.

We will bring a high-level overview of the strategy to Policy & Resources Committee in December, which will include an update and an initial action plan.

The strategy will build on the existing sustainability measures we have already put in place, such as:

  • starting the retrofit of our own housing stock and corporate estate with grants already secured
  • by 2030 Brent Cross Town is committed to achieving net zero carbon
  • the installation of over 150 electric vehicle charge points, in line with our Long Term Transport Strategy 2020-2041 which contributes to our position as one of the boroughs with the most electric vehicles
  • invested £15m in ensuring our waste vehicles are all ULEZ compliant, more fuel efficient and with lower emissions
  • converted our street lighting to LED power, which has allowed us to cut our street light energy usage by up to 66%
  • experimental road resurfacing materials using 240 recycled tyres
  • committed to planting 4,500 trees by 2022.”

Visit to find out more about Barnet Council’s commitment to a sustainable future, what the council has already done to make the borough more sustainable, and tips and suggestions to help residents live a more sustainable life

So lets look at each of these proposals in detail, then have a look at a few other things that perhaps they should be doing. My comments in Red Italics

  • starting the retrofit of our own housing stock and corporate estate with grants already secured
As meaningless statements from the Council go, this is a classic. It doesn't say what they will be retrofitting their housing stock with and there is no commitment to numbers or dates. All they have done is secure some grants to do something. I have no idea who writes these press releases, but is it too much to ask for a sensible degree of detail in them, or some links to some proper detail
  • by 2030 Brent Cross Town is committed to achieving net zero carbon
I am intrigued by this. Does the figure include the concrete and cement production? Is what they are saying that the properties will be zero carbon. Does it include the car journeys of the residents and shoppers? Given that there is no real commitment to better public transport from Barnet Council, beyond a new Thameslink station, it is hard to see how this can be true from a holistic viewpoint. I invite the Council Leader to give us some proper details and tell us what he's left out.
  • the installation of over 150 electric vehicle charge points, in line with our Long Term Transport Strategy 2020-2041 which contributes to our position as one of the boroughs with the most electric vehicles
This is actually quite embarrassing. There are around 395,000 people in Barnet. That is one charging point for every 2,633 people. There are 21 local wards so that is less than eight charging points per ward. If that is in line with their long term strategy, it is a pretty poor strategy.
  • invested £15m in ensuring our waste vehicles are all ULEZ compliant, more fuel efficient and with lower emissions
It is not what Barnet Council is saying here that is embarrassing, it is what they are not saying. I am all for ULEZ compliant waste vehicles, but why only waste vehicles? Surely Barnet should be committed to all Council Vehicles being ULEZ compliant? I would be interested to know if this also includes vehicles provided by contractors. It does not say "all waste vehicles in the Borough of Barnet". 

  • converted our street lighting to LED power, which has allowed us to cut our street light energy usage by up to 66%
This a very typical Barnet Council ruse. I was told by councillors that the move to LED was driven by the fact that it was saving shedloads of money doing it. They did it to cut costs, not to be green. I am all for cutting costs, but to claims some altruistic motive as part of a strategy is a bit rich in my opinion.
  • experimental road resurfacing materials using 240 recycled tyres
Again I'm all for recycling and recycling tyres is a great idea, but it strikes me that the area you could resurface with 60 recycled tyres must be tiny. Barnet is approx 87 square Kilometers. When I walked through Bunns Lane Car Park this morning, I counted 63 cars, which is more than 240 tyres. By my calculations, this would not be enough to even resurface the car park. 
  • committed to planting 4,500 trees by 2022.
This may sound like a lot of trees. Spread across a Borough of 87 square kilometers, I doubt it will replace the trees that will have died over the last two years. Many horse chestnut trees have been affected by a weevil. A huge number have been cut down as every small piece of land that could be developed has been. I am interested to see that Barnet Council has not said whether it expects a net increase in the number of trees in the Borough since the end of 2019. 

My concern is that Barnet are taking us all for  a  ride. There is a Council election next year and they wish to appear green. Regular readers will know that I've been using this feature to lobby Barnet Council to become more sustainable. Read this blog from 2018, where I detail what a real, sustainable enviroment policy would look like and why it can work. 

As a recap, here are the main things that I believe should be at the heart of a sustainability policy

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 suppose we should be grateful that at least Cllr Thomas and the Council have acknowledged the need for a policy. Sadly, our friends at A Better Mill Hill revealed the truth about sustainability and enviromental awareness in Barnet yesterday. It acheived 272 retweets and 414 likes.

Until they actually do something beyond pretending that doing the absolute bare minimum is marvellous, no sensible person will view these statements with anything other than a high level of suspicion. What is most shocking was that this was all they could come up with. I wonder whether they think no one will read these statements or whether they just think we are too thick to realise just how badly they are doing. It is quite shameful

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