Challenging times ahead


Photo courtesy of The Galleon


Last Thursday saw the latest merry-go-round in party politics as Labour became the largest party on Brighton & Hove City Council, 8 years, or two administrations, after they last were ‘in control’. However, to get things passed, they are going to have to rely on the support of either the Conservatives or the Greens.  In essence, some things haven’t changed and the parties are still going to have to collaborate for the good of the city.

However, some things will be different. The cuts experienced to date are going to seem like a walk in the park, compared to what are coming. How parties react to these cutbacks could impact heavily on their electoral success next time round.

It’s also worth looking at what Labour said in its manifesto about the environment and the big challenges that we think it will face over the next four years.  Some if its ideas are good, such as looking to clean up the city and instill a sense of pride. Many are recycled and are being done already, such as managing our green spaces in an environmentally sound way, and one or two are rather vague or smack of tokenism, such as the school tree-planting programme. However, to be fair that is probably true of all parties.

The big environmental challenges we think they will face are:

  1. Recycling and rubbish – Labour made great play about the poor recycling record of the Greens who were naive to promise a 75% recycling rate when they came into power.  The Greens also had to deal with equal pay issues which previous administrations had avoided, which led to industrial action and a drop in recycling.  Now that’s all over, will Labour fair better?  We’re not so sure.  Historically our recycling rate has always been low, somewhere between 25-30% and with the incinerator, and a secretive private finance deal attached to that, there is little incentive or ability to significantly up the recycling rate.  Without investment we don’t see how they can achieve this and money is going to be in short supply.  Unless Labour can reach a recycling rate of around 40%, this could come back to haunt them.
  2. Air pollution – during the election campaign the Supreme Court ruled that Government must draw up an action plan by the end of the year to bring air pollution down to legal levels in “as short as time as possible”. This could work in the Council’s favour, if the Government is forced to provide funding for local authorities to improve things, or not if Government try to pass the cost onto local authorities causing them even greater problems. It could rile the motoring lobby who don’t seem to care that at least 115 people a year are dying prematurely in the city from air pollution and believe that you can somehow magic away congestion by widening roads. It could also make developers show that their plans are not making the current situation worse (which could be problematic) but it could ultimately lead to a cleaner and more integrated transport network to the benefit of the city.
  3. The urban fringe – with the Government likely to go down the road of less planning control, and pressure for more housing in the city, the urban fringe could come under even greater attack. Already, the Council has had to concede to building over 1,000 homes in the urban fringe to try and get the City Plan approved and that is still not a done deal.  Were that figure to be forced upwards then many green spaces could be under threat, more than they are already.  Labour has pledged to “uphold strong environmental planning policies” but does that include restricting car parking and will it be able to stand up for the local environment in the face of a Conservative Government likely to further dismantle the planning system?

These are not the only challenges.  The elephant in the room of course is climate change, but without a strong national lead and a willingness to embed climate friendly policies across all Government departments, particularly in transport, planning and business, it is difficult to see how the Council can have any significant impact.  That is not to let it off the hook, as there will undoubtedly be things it can and should do and we will certainly be scrutinising its actions to see if Labour lives up to its promise to consider the environment in all decision making across the council.  This is something that is supposedly done already, but all too often it is nothing more than tokenism.

Will they succeed in these challenges?  Well we certainly hope so and that all parties can set aside their political differences to work for the good of the city.  The next few years are not going to be easy.


National Park 5 years old

Hilary Benn MP with Robin Crane, chairman of the South Downs Campaign holding a signed copy of the Confirmation Order

Hilary Benn with Robin Crane, chairman of the South Downs Campaign holding a signed copy of the Confirmation Order in 2009

After such a long battle to get the South Downs designated a National Park, in which Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth played a prominent part, it seems almost surreal to realise that the designation is now 5 years old.  The campaign could be said to have started in the 1920s when people started agitating for National Parks to be created in the UK.  However, it wasn’t until after the 2nd World War that the legislation was passed in 1949, by the then Labour Government, to allow National Parks to be established.

The critical moment for the South Downs was in 1947 when the National Parks Committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse recommended that the South Downs be one of 12 landscapes that should be designated as a National Park. By the 1990s it was the only one that hadn’t.  That was due to lobbying by various vested interests in 1956, when the South Downs was turned down as a National Park on the spurious grounds that due to intensive farming it no longer offered the required recreational opportunities.  Yet this was clearly a trumped up excuse.  The area is simply littered with rights of way and while it might not have as much open access land as other National Parks, it is one of the most visited of all the UK’s National Parks.  People in effect had voted with their feet and its landscape beauty (which was not deemed to have been diminished by farming) was later recognised when it was designated as two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, as development threats started to intensify and modern agricultural practices were still causing harm to the area, it was people like Paul Millmore and Phil Belden who started pushing the case for a National Park.  However, it wasn’t until 1990 that the South Downs Campaign was formed at Sussex Wildlife Trust headquarters under the chairmanship of Robin Crane, who led the campaign right up to its dissolution in 2010.

Along the way there were many ups and downs and Brighton played a big part in rejuvenating the campaign in 1995 when the Council (then Labour) tried to sell off the downland estate and faced a huge backlash with a 12,000 signature petition opposing the sale.  This was no mean feat before the time of social media and electronic petitions.  The Council backed down and then to its credit got behind the National Park campaign, with full cross party support (Conservative, Green and Labour).

The 1997 General Election was also a key moment, when Farmer Harmer decided to plough up a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Offham Down.  He was well within his rights, but the situation was not helped by a weak and underfunded Government Agency, unable to properly protect these valuable sites.  However, it made great media and resulted in John Gummer (then Secretary of State for the Environment) having to order a Stop Notice to protect the site during the General Election campaign (only the 4th that he had ever issued).

After the election, Michael Meacher became the new Secretary of State and was instrumental in creating the right framework for the National Park to be created.  We received strong support from the city’s MPs, particularly Dave Lepper and Des Turner, and a wealth of other people too numerous to mention.  And despite being almost tripped up by the poor decisions taken on the New Forest National Park, we finally achieved the South Downs National Park in 2009, with the order confirming the designation coming in to effect on 31 March 2010.  It covered a much larger area than could have been anticipated and that was down to the keen interest and enthusiasm shown by the then Secretary of State, Hilary Benn and his minister Huw Irranca-Davies.  They in effect finished the job that the Labour Government had first started some 60 years earlier.

Today, Margaret Paren, a former member of the South Downs Campaign, has chaired the National Park Authority since its establishment and overseen its development and progress.  Already, it is taking a more strategic and consistent approach to planning.  It has supported nearly 200 local community projects, secured funding for research, restoration work and investment in new cycle routes throughout the National Park.  It has produced a Management Plan and this year embarks on its own Local Plan.  There is much to do and the threats to National Parks are increasing as Government slashes the already very small National Parks’ funding and presses ahead with dismantling the planning system and spending money on new roads.

On a day of celebration, it was appropriate to see the Brighton & Hove bus carrying Paul Millmore’s name heading to Lewes and beyond.  But we must also realise that the future of the South Downs is not guaranteed.  It may be in a better place than it was 5, 10 or even 20 years ago, but it faces some very big challenges over the next few years.  If it succeeds in overcoming these, then we will know how successful it has been.


Parking Mad

Group criticises draft planning document

Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth (BHFOE) has submitted a critical response to Brighton & Hove City Council’s consultation on its draft Parking Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), which ended on 27 March.

BHFOE is concerned that if the SPD is adopted as it is currently drafted it could lead to the long term increase of cars in the city, creating more congestion and pollution, delaying bus services and harming the local economy.  It believes that the SPD may not be lawful if it leads to an increase in air pollution and delays the time that areas already above the legal limits take to become compliant [1].  It is also concerned at the unintended consequences of the standards which could see the loss of front and back gardens for parking when properties are redeveloped and the loss of historic streetscapes.

Chris Todd, planning and transport campaigner for BHFOE said:

“While we fully support the need for local parking standards what is currently proposed could be highly damaging.  It could lead to the loss of green space within the city as front and back gardens are tarmacked over to provide parking.  This would be detrimental for residents and would also harm the city’s historic streetscapes.

“Overall it will increase the number of cars in the city which will only mean more congestion and pollution.  This is at a time when more and more evidence is emerging about the harm that air pollution is causing.  The UK has an obligation to reduce air pollution to below legal limits as soon as possible.

“All new development within the city centre needs to be ‘car-free’ so that it improves the current situation, not makes it worse.  Allowing development which will bring more cars into our strategic bus corridors in the heart of the city is madness.  In the long term it could bring the city to a grinding halt and seriously damage the local economy.”

[1]        Large parts of the city centre are within an Air Quality Management Area and have nitrogen dioxide levels above legal limits.  The worst areas are around North St, Western Road and the Clock Tower.  The UK has already missed the deadline that it was mean to have met to reduce air pollution to safe levels by and recently lost a European Court Case due to its lack of action to tackle this serious issue which leads to at least 29,000 premature deaths every year in the UK.  It is estimated that 115 people a year die prematurely in Brighton & Hove due to particulate pollution, although the number who die prematurely due to all air pollution will be higher.

Today, Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth launches its BHFOE Manifesto 2015.  It is designed to raise awareness of the importance of looking after the environment for our benefit, both social and economic.  Unless we do that we risk increasing long term costs in terms of bad health and in some cases death through to paying more to clean up our water supply or to try and keep the NHS afloat.  Far better, as we argue, to tackle some of the issues at source.

Make it easier and more pleasant to walk and cycle and more people will do so.  This will improve their health and happiness, leading to better productivity and lower absenteeism at work.  It will also make them less susceptible to disease and ill-health and so place lower demands on the NHS, saving it money.  A more pleasant environment as proposed by the Valley Gardens scheme would also be attractive to visitors, supporting tourism and improve the environment for local traders.

Another example is around warm housing, where investment in insulation is not only good for reducing carbon emissions but it can help keep vulnerable people warm in winter.  This will help to reduce the excess number of winter deaths and save people money in fuel costs.

Our manifesto, does not profess to cover absolutely everything, but it is intended to cover some of the big challenges facing the city and suggests ways that we might start to tackle them.  We hope that politicians from all parties will back these proposals to help create a city for people that is better for everyone.

We have responded to the consultation on the proposed modifications to the City Plan, which ended at midnight on 16 December. While we support much of what is proposed we have issues with three main areas:

Air pollution:  despite agreeing with the Council to proposed modifications on this issue earlier in the year, recent events (European Court Ruling and emerging research) mean that the proposed wording may be unsound as it does not go far enough to reduce air pollution and act to bring it down below legal limits as fast as possible.  In fact developments could still be approved that will make it worse.

Urban Fringe development:  we have pointed out errors in the Urban Fringe Assessment which undermine the figures for housing in the urban fringe.  We have therefore questioned whether it is justified to have an allocation of 1,060 homes in the urban fringe.

Watering down of energy efficiency:  we have objected to the watering down or energy requirements in new development, not least because as a city we have consistently missed our carbon reduction targets and need urgent action to bring us back on course.  Indeed the fact that we’ve missed our targets year on year, means that we have emitted more carbon than we should and so need to cut our levels even more to compensate.

To see our full comments and links to references, see our submission.

The examiner will now look through all responses to the consultation and see whether any areas warrant further investigation or debate before deciding whether to accept that the City Plan is sound and can be adopted.  The is an important moment for the Council as without a agreed Plan it is in a very weak place to prevent damaging developments.

Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth (BHFOE) is pleased to see that EON is progressing with the Rampion windfarm with the announcement that it will be using 116, 3.5MW turbines, with a tip height of 140.2 metres in a smaller array than originally planned.   The wind farm will provide enough electricity for 290,000 homes and save 600,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

BHFOE is also welcoming that fact that since the start of the initial consultation, the width of the wind farm has been reduced quite significantly.  In the latest plans, the field of view has reduced from 33 to 10.6 degrees when viewed from the Heritage Coast and the distance of the closest turbine (to the Heritage Coast) has also been increased.  These changes, along with the fact that EON has selected a turbine which is only 140 metres tall, mean that the visual impact from the Heritage Coast and the South Downs National Park is very much reduced.

Chris Todd from BHFOE said:

“This is really good news as it brings us another step closer to reducing our carbon emissions here in Sussex.  We also welcome the fact that EON has altered the size and layout of the wind farm which will dramatically reduce the visual impact from the Heritage Coast and the wider South Downs.

“We look forward to the wind farm producing its first electricity in 2017 and being fully commissioned the following year.  Given the current failure to properly address climate change both in this country and abroad, this is a much needed development.”

Other wind farm facts:

[1]   The wind farm will be built in an area covering 72 square kilometres compared with the 122 square kilometres it was given permission for and the 167 square kilometres that it first proposed.  EON was also given permission to build up to 175 turbines.

[2]   Energy generated in 1 year is estimated to be 1,366 GWh.

[3]   From Devil’s Dyke the field of view has reduced from 58.3 to 28.2 degrees, although the distance to the nearest turbine is about the same as before.

´The Bee Campaign´: after a two year campaign which fired community and individual actions all over the UK and also involved focussed governmental lobbying, we now have a pollinators strategy in place for this country. It will apply from next year. It does not mean we can individually or in our groups and communities, stop helping bees – they need our everyday actions, helping provide their nurturing plants and flowers, and protecting their habitats from commercial and agricultural attack. But it means the government is backing our efforts and recognising that pollinators are a vital component in our food chain. If you want to continue to do your bit please do sign up to the Bee Cause, maybe, like us, you could create your own bee world (we have supported the creation of bee worlds in St Nicholas churchyard and in Hollingbury and Burstead woods) or even make your own bee and bee in the back garden
Other current FoE successes in protecting nature all over the world are detailed on the national FoE website (http://www.foe.co.uk/), where you can also find out about the new Robin Hood Tax petition (http://www.foe.co.uk/news/sign-robin-hood-tax-petition), which aims to capture ´financial crisis´ reparation taxes from the banks duly responsible, and use the revenue to fight against poverty and climate-change .

FoE is also raising funds to help a school go solar, as part of FoE´s ´Run on Sun´ national campaign, https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-a-school-run-on-sun


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