Don't blame us,we're only the council!
In Transition we recognise that the stories we tell in every aspect of life are both limiting and enabling factors – they can keep us in a state of hopeless frustration or, free us into action. The whole movement after all is based on the optimistic story that what we do together about Peak Oil and climate change will be
“just enough and just in time”
Reading the social reporters blogs for the last six months gives a heady sense of the narrative about food that runs through Transition. We are careering along in our knowledge and development and everyone, but everyone is involved. It comes as no surprise to me that this week the blogging team has been desperately reluctant to write – everyone is out there “playing midwife” to a thousand struggling seeds and as I fend off the pull of the allotment this Sunday afternoon, I wish I was with them.
Local councils carry, through the English Local Government Act (2000) a responsibility to act to promote the economic, social and environmental “well-being” of the residents of their areas. All local authorities must have ”community strategies” and seek out and consult those it feels should participate. Now we also have Eric Pickles Localism Act (2011) which, according to its rhetoric, is intended to:
“shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils.”
So now residents may instigate local referendums on any local issue and community groups can challenge local authorities over the services provided. Communities with a Neighbourhood Plan may approve development without the normal planning consent requirements. Cynics may claim that the plans are hollow “ a community can (only) approve the same or greater level of development as that already set down by the borough or district council” but early adopters such as Dawlish in Devon, say that their community views are now feeding back into the district plans, informing the Teignbridge Core Strategy document in a way that has not happened previously. In practice Neighbourhood Plans are approved if 51% of local voters back the proposed strategy – so however many thousand your overall area population is, just a few hundred people may sway local planning in a low turnout. It seems like an opportunity that Transition initiatives need to take, if only because their objectives may be all the more difficult if Neighbourhood Plans are drawn up that do not consider such elements as sustainable transport or local food production and distribution.
To bring the whole “Our council “ debate back home I come to two stories about Lancaster. First the Transition view: Transition City Lancaster in common with most initiatives has used the idea of creating a “timeline” of the way we want to see the area develop as it “powers down” over the next 20 years or so. The experience of getting together in little groups with the felt pens and post it notes, plotting out the future is distinctly comforting in the face of the depressing facts of climate change. You get to know people well as they pour their hopes and dreams out onto those recycled flip chart sheets and you discover how often we nurse similar hopes about our streets, play spaces, city centre and traffic issues. But my experience of that difficult task of pinning down dreams into time restricted objectives known as “back casting” was of reading one great objective after another that would not be possible without local (or county) council support.
Fired with this new understanding I went along to the Lancaster City Council consultation on the Local strategic Plan about land use in the district. It was held in the library – several people in suits sat behind a table piled high with thick photocopied documents. In order to comment on the plan you needed to read two 20 page documents and then fill in some boxes on another sheet putting your comments next to the relevant code numbers for parts of the document. Lost? I was, pretty soon. I sat down and after an hour I had worked out that the land use document only discussed housing, parking, public spaces and traffic issues. Despite being surrounded by farm land, no consideration was given to its use and development except for housing and roads. I duly pointed out the need to consider food production and the encouragement of land use for market gardening. I asked the man in the suit why there was no mention of food production. He looked vague and said he thought it might be in another document. I asked him whether he thought this method of consultation was inclusive, given the reading requirements and the venue. He looked vague again and said they were going out to visit parish councils and we could organise our own if we wanted.
Our food production timeline requires some revival of the market gardening which once encircled our city but clearly it was nowhere on the council officers’ agenda. Worse than that it aroused no interest, at least in the senior planning officer I spoke to. That was a depressing experience and one which led me to take the big step of getting involved with the Green Party. If the officers who do the detailed work in the district are not interested, I reason, at least the councillors can attempt to influence their overall strategic planning. And that is definitely true in places like Brighton with its majority Green council and Lancaster where enough Greens are elected for the balance of power to require their votes. Even in these straightened times, Lancaster City council can be seen to be leading the way by putting £750k of reserve into Invest to Save and installing as many solar panels as possible on its public buildings and social housing. Would that have happened without the Green councillors on Cabinet? I am pretty sure it would not.
So where are we when it comes to the stories we tell about our councils and how we relate to them? You would think from the above stories that I thought it was all gloom. But as Wednesday’s blog will show, councils have many departments and one story does not limit progress unless you want it to. My observation of Transition websites all over England is that links are made, support is found and good relationships between Transition and initiatives reaps benefits like the Lewes Market or the Deal group which meets regularly with councillors and is listened to. Some of these stories are well hidden and it strikes me that if we want to encourage local councils to get involved we need more encouraging pictures of mayoral chains and men in suits, more websites with a dedicated section for local government.
One final comment which is a bit political. We all know the story of Somerset Council and its brief glory as a Transition Local Authority. We know too of Monteveglio, Citta Di Transizione, and I guess we wish it might happen for some of our councils that they publicly embrace
“ the benefits of a more frugal and sustainable lifestyle”.
In truth that can’t happen unless members of Transition initiatives embrace the politics of both their locality and of the environment and there is a problem there because Transition is not party political. Either you join the Greens and take on the whole political agenda or you grasp the nettle of going it alone - getting elected as an independent is a truly monumental task. For some of us, I think the political route is necessary even if it means compromises and difficulties in our Transition roles. However, if we don’t use the political fast track, it is the slow progress route of working with council officers that matters in the long run. Tomorrow’s blog from Chris Hart will look at the best ways in which we can achieve that.
Eric Pickles; Lancaster solar pv installers; Monteveglio Transition logo