It is tempting to view the big issues facing society as either local issues for local councils or national issues where governments should take responsibility. Vix Lowthion wrote eloquently, in these pages a few weeks ago, about COP26 – where a third level of international decision-making was called upon.
The reality is that most of the big issues facing us will only be solved with bold decision-making at all tiers of government and with broad cross-party support. No more is this the case than for the environment and climate change. While global co-operation is essential, much damage is caused by the way our society is orientated, town by town, street by street.
Here on the Island, the Isle of Wight Council has a key role to play. Supported by a proactive Island community, the council has made considerable progress in tackling green issues. We exceeded our recycling targets in 2020 and are in the top quarter of local councils across the country.
Ninety-eight per cent of waste is now diverted from landfill. In 2019, the Isle of Wight was named as a Biosphere Reserve, the third place in England to be awarded such a status.
We are a top destination in the country for cycling and walking and we are improving facilities and infrastructure all the time.
However, there are still big challenges facing us and only a whole systems approach will lead to proper lasting solutions. In July, we saw widespread flooding during the summer months. In Bembridge, the village which I represent, we saw the high street turn into a river and water entering homes. All over the Island there is huge pressure to build more homes, putting too much green-field land at risk. Repeated ‘overspill discharge’ into the sea is threatening our water quality and health.
I am calling for new policies that ensure all decisions that the Isle of Wight Council makes are informed by an assessment of the environmental and climate impact. It is no good assuming that solutions lie in discrete policy decisions. We cannot work successfully in a compartmentalised or disconnected way.
To most councillors, it is plain that key parts of our drainage infrastructure are not fit for the rainfall events we are now being exposed to. Regardless of the outcomes of COP26, this is the reality we are already facing here on the Island. We should view operational issues – like better street cleaning – as a climate change issue: our drains need to work at capacity because of global temperature rises which have already happened. So, too, the repurposing of disused brown-field for building sustainable new homes to tackle the housing crisis. Regardless of the challenges of securing it, the old Camp Hill prison should continue to be a priority in the draft Island Planning Strategy for affordable housing, not least to reduce pressure for development on green sites in our small towns and villages.
As the new leader of the 18-strong Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council, I am looking at new ways to work cross-party to ensure the environment is at the centre of everything we do. Point scoring, about who is greener than whom, serves the Island no useful purpose. I am grateful to opposition councillors who I have been able to work with particularly on planning and flooding. We all want what is best. Protecting our Island, our country and ultimately our planet will take a huge collective effort. All councillors must join together and use the powers the council already has to make the difference.