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The impact of climate change on the marine environment is not dealt with in the strategy, Chris Lewcock notes.

Post-Covid reboot needed to orient town towards climate change objectives?

Now that the council’s climate change strategy is in the public domain, the voices omitted from helping to form it can be heard. Chris Lewcock, former chair of Hastings Urban Design Group, local government town planner and lecturer in the built environment, wonders whether, when we are past the Covid-19 crisis, a Hastings reboot conference open to all could help us put the climate emergency centre-stage. Below, the Green Party’s Julia Hilton calls for concrete goals and localist action.

Hastings Council has just published an emergency climate change strategy. Great, writes Chris Lewcock.

Did you know that the Council already had a climate change strategy? It was agreed and published in 2012 and immediately sank (or was sunk?) without trace.  Now, eight years after their first attempt, the Council is having another go. Will it be any more effective? Since 2012 the Council has shed hundreds of staff and will be able to do even less.

It may help that an enthusiastic Cllr Maya Evans is now leading the exercise and that there are dedicated staff.  Success will however need all staff and all councillors to be aware of and fully committed to dealing with climate change implications in all their work. And that doesn’t just mean ticking a box at the end of every committee report!

The original Council resolution agreed an emergency plan for Hastings, not just Hastings Borough Council. The ambitions of the strategy are great and will require national and international action to work. That is not a reason to do nothing. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Also, in publicising the strategy Maya Evans has rightly pointed out that the actions that the Council can take by itself are fairly limited. These limitations emphasise the need to get all the other possible “troops” on board to tap in to their ideas, enthusiasm and expertise and to get “buy-in” for necessary actions.  Sadly the Council has pondered almost exclusively in-house for one year, got in outside consultants to submit findings to the senior management team and pushed a final strategy through Cabinet and Council with almost no consultation with the public and potential partners. This is not an encouraging start.

Useful ideas and information

It is nevertheless a start. There are useful ideas and information in the document and some hazily drawn pathways forward. Disappointingly, the immediate next step appears to be to publish the final strategy in glossy covers and campaign to get everybody on board with it. Carts and horses? And then, over the next two years the Council will initiate a wider debate about what should be done leading up to … another report. Did somebody mention there is an emergency?

Hastings Council tries to give a lead by referring to their own efforts. Some of these might be substantial once they are worked up a bit, e.g. reviewing the carbon sink properties of Hastings land management – the Council controls about one third of the land area of the borough. Others are underwhelming and undermined by the requirement in the committee report to show income generation potential. For example, 30 electric vehicle points are proposed – really, is that all?

Climate change will only worsen flooding on flood-prone sites such as Bulverhythe Rec where the Council is planning a housing development, says the writer.

Solar panels were proposed to go in the Country Park. Fortunately this idea, which  would have been in direct conflict with other important climate change matters such as bio-diversity protection, has now been dropped by the Council. Which leaves the detailed proposals even more threadbare.  Something (unspecified) might be achieved in the unconfirmed redevelopment around Bohemia or in the proposed development on the Bulverhythe Rec – the latter site at risk from flooding which can only increase due to climate change.

The document underplays the Council’s role as a major employer and land owner in the town. It mentions but doesn’t get to grips with its partnerships with e.g. the County Council or the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (a key funding agency) or its bully-pulpit power to launch ideas and encourage and enthuse others to get things done.

Leverage

One area where the Council has a lot of leverage is in setting planning policy and handling planning applications. There is presently a Local Plan Review and the strategy indicates possibly prioritising climate change. However, in the current Local Plan there are already some very warm words about sustainability. Support is already given to specific relevant ideas e.g. greenways.

Sadly these words haven’t seemed so substantial when it comes to actual planning applications, e.g. a block of flats approved at Station Plaza across the heart of the greenway. No detail is given in the strategy of what is missing in the existing Local Plan (or other Council policy areas). It doesn’t look as if the climate change team has yet had a chance to drill down into the rules and powers which the Council (and other partners) have to potentially manage climate change day to day. Disappointing after a year’s work.

In planning this might include requiring (and then enforcing!) sustainable travel plans and the highest standards of insulation for new developments. Unless there is precise and clear direction in all policy areas Council departments will understandably carry on with business as usual.

A more technical point is that we need to know as the strategy progresses that meaningful things are being achieved. The existing report has set some broad brush and process targets but no clear connection is made between the proposed actions and climate change outcomes. Unless some clearer measures are set out by which the Council and its partners can be held to account, it is quite likely that rhetoric about “success” will replace genuine achievement.

Trio of actions

One key criticism of the strategy– in strong contrast to the 2012 plan – is that it doesn’t balance the conventional trio of actions required to respond to climate change. The trio are prevention, mitigation and adaptation. The strategy focuses almost exclusively on prevention of excess carbon-based energy use. It dismisses bio-diversity by saying that this is already dealt with in other (unspecified) Council documents. Little or no mention is made of e.g. water, land or soil – all key issues in the climate change debate. A particular and astonishing lacuna is lack of discussion of the marine environment.

The narrowed focus is clearly not enough to address the range and gravity of the relevant issues. And, as noted above, by focusing solely on and prioritising energy issues it gives a free pass to placing solar panels on areas important for protecting bio-diversity or to building on our increasingly vulnerable flood plains.

A neglected but important aspect of the strategy should be the differential social and economic impact of climate change concerns. This should be key, both locally and, given strong links between Hastings and the rest of the world, internationally.

It is the relatively better off who will best be able to shield themselves from the adverse impacts of climate change. Can you afford to insulate your house?  Will your landlord be bothered to do so?  What then happens to your rent?  Can you afford to trade in your reliable old diesel banger for an electric car? How should we account for the resources used in our cheap imported food and clothing which provide jobs in emerging economies?

Linking with energy poverty

Hastings has already done work on energy poverty, this could be explicitly linked to climate change concerns. There are also strong voluntary groups who could help to define and then perhaps find answers to such questions.

The timing of the strategy is unfortunate since it has run straight into the Covid-19 crisis. This will change the economic and social context for any actions. The immediacy of recovering from the pandemic may make us even less likely to think about the long term. It may on the other hand make us realise our vulnerability to nature and the risks we run in our blundering meddling with it.

Re-building the economy may well get priority over cleaning up our act and Government funding for the worthiest projects may shrink as debt is drawn back down. On the other hand Government funding may expand to help reboot the economy. If only for party political electoral purposes the latter is likely!

The Council has already stopped the clock on major projects during the Covid crisis. Some serious re-thinking post-Covid of these and other key policy areas, including the Local Plan Review and the Climate Change Strategy, will be needed.  Developing a set of “oven-ready” Covid recovery and climate change related regeneration projects could be just what is needed. The starting point could be a “Hastings ReBoot” conference late Summer. This time perhaps fully engaging the extensive locally based experience and expertise.

Concrete goals and localism required

It’s good to have an overview of the challenge ahead but it’s surprising it took a year just to come up with broad brush figures, most of which have been in the public domain for many months, writes Julia Hilton. We urgently need to see concrete goals in place. For example, assuming there are around 30,000 individual domestic buildings that need retrofitting, that’s 57 a week even if we started now.

The plan has a narrower focus than the motion, mentioning commissioning a carbon footprint report for council buildings. We need town-wide figures for a base line.

No mention of local procurement. In the aftermath of Covid-19 it will be even more important to create a locally based economy. For example the ambition to retrofit our housing stock brings an opportunity to develop a local workers coop to do this, linking up with training at local FE colleges, but also empowering local people to be co-owners of local coops, not just workers. The same could apply to local food growing.

There is mention of a communication and engagement plan but no real appetite, it seems, for supporting a proper town-wide conversation on these crucial issues.

In the next six months, the local plan, the Town Board plans are all up for consultation. There is money set aside for both these processes. As all decisions made about the town need to have climate action and mitigation at their centre, surely it makes sense to roll these into one big conversation.

The writer, left, is also a director of Energise Sussex Coast, which in March signed an agreement to work with the council to achieve the 2030 carbon neutrality goal. Here with, from left, Cllrs Peter Chowney and Maya Evans and ESC’s Richard Watson.

There is no need to wait for the end of social isolation, the government gave permission for digital methods of holding council meetings. This is a great opportunity to do council meetings differently and indeed more interactively. How about some zoom question times with councillors and officers? Thanks to the creativity of local people and some funding from Leisure and Learning, HVA and Common Treasury, the Observer Building is hosting a local TV station, Isolation Station, that could be used for conversations around these issues.

Finally, the report separates biodiversity from climate action. The two must be looked at in tandem in every decision.

Who will be on the climate change programme board? There needs to be wider input than just local councillors and officers. We need to be sharing good ideas from elsewhere.

Posted 15:33 Friday, May 15, 2020 In: The HOT Planet

1 Comment

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  1. Anna Sabin

    Hastings Re-boot could be beautiful but we have to envisage it to make it happen. It gets a bit embarrassing after a while to have so many plans and reports in the archive with so little difference made to the town’s street life or well being or carbon output.

    For Hastings’ health, happiness, inclusivity and carbon emission reduction we should be doing what today’s cars and vans are doing on foot, by bike, by e-bike, by cargo e-bike, by family-sized e-trike, by e-podbike and by cargo e-bike delivery service and those old cars travelling in town at no faster than 20 mph. But much of this isn’t happening because 30 mph motors are bullying it off the road contributing 25% of Hastings’ carbon emissions in the process.

    Rather than another plan or feasibility study it would be good just to watch solar panels proliferating over roofs and the shopping streets and seafront busy with cafe tables, shoppers and cyclists rather than car traffic. That’s what the Department of Transport wants us to want.

    Renewable energy and active transport should be stitched into every decision and every request HBC makes. That will require a lot of discussion and training because they are not there yet. A September ‘Hastings Re-boot’ conference would be immensely helpful but only if decision makers have informed themselves and thought through the problems and solutions thoroughly. The emergency is to make a town which works for everyone on zero carbon before the climate gets even rougher.

    Comment by Anna Sabin — Friday, May 22, 2020 @ 11:35

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