Erica Popplewell 15 May 2019

To what extent is the environment shaping national politics?

This month voters in 259 councils across England and Northern Ireland went to the polls – to create a string of upsets across the country. There were well-publicised losses for Conservatives and Labour with the Liberal Democrats and Independents taking many of these seats. The Liberal Democrats gained control of 11 more councils while 36 fell with no overall control. The Green Party enjoyed one of its best ever local elections performance, averaging 11% in the seats where it stood and winning over 175 new council seats.

Where they did keep power, in many councils, the ruling Conservative or Labour parties now have very thin majorities.

So what does this mean for local politics and the issues CPRE care about? Of course, national politics, and by this I mean Brexit, was certainly a big factor in turning people away from the two main parties but is that all the story?

Analysis by the London Greenbelt Council (LGBC) shows that where authorities had proposed development on Green Belt land, the ruling party in each case had been voted out of office or its majority substantially reduced. Many of the independent candidates were standing of a platform of opposing local planning issues.

In Guildford, for example, a newly formed ‘Guildford and Villages’ group, which stood on a platform of defending the Green Belt, won 15 seats, and an existing local party, the Guildford Greenbelt Group, won an additional seat, giving them a total of four. LGBC say that the defeated council leader, Paul Spooner, admitted after the election that local concerns about building on the Green Belt had been crucial in determining the results.

In other areas environmental issues sparked enough public interest to win candidates seats, too. Kirsteen Thompson won a seat for the Green Party in the Blaby District Council elections. A political novice, she stood for office after becoming fed up with the air quality in the area, with her child having an asthma attack at a school sports day.

Beyond the local elections, public interest in environmental issues have seen a resurgence, with thousands taking to the streets to back Extinction Rebellion’ call for the declaration of a climate emergency. There are increasing demands for action on reducing plastics use, following David Attenborough Blue Planet and more recent documentary. It now looks like public interest is translating into political traction, with activists from the Extinction Rebellion network meeting with top figures from the Labour Party as well as environment secretary Michael Gove.

Looking ahead, the political water for Theresa May and the Conservative party remains very choppy, with a General Election a strong possibility and, of course, EU elections later this month. There will certainly be new groups playing their part in upcoming elections. Under the name Climate Emergency Independents, linked to Extinction Rebellion, nine candidates will stand on 23 May. New kids on the block, Westminster Change UK, are fielding 70 candidates in the EU elections. Will we see local issues again playing their part in influencing voters in future votes?

One thing is for certain - there is lots for local communities to focus on. CPRE’s annual State of the Green Belt 2018 report shows that there are currently 460,000 homes being planned to be built on land that will soon be released from the Green Belt. At last we could see many of the issues dear to CPRE’s supporters’ hearts look set to play their part in shaping our national politics.

Erica Popplewell is head of government affairs at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)

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