Belinda Bawden: Practical solutions for Lyme and Charmouth

The new councillor tells Green World about her election campaign, which voters described as a ‘breath of fresh air’.

Cllr Belinda Bawden
Cllr Belinda Bawden
Describe the current political structure of your council.

The gain of a Green seat in the Lyme Regis and Charmouth by-election reduces the Conservative majority to four, since they have 43 seats. The Liberal Democrats have 28, the Alliance for Local Living have four, and there is one each sitting as Independent and Labour and Co-Operative councillors. My election makes five Green councillors.

Dorset Council has a Cabinet system which does not enable the minority parties to be adequately represented in decision-making, except through the allocation of committee places. The opportunities for the majority party to dominate policy-formation seem to be frequent, through ‘whipping’. Part of the reason there was a by-election in this ward was my predecessor’s unease at the side-lining of those he felt had ‘the best brains’ and the most to contribute just because they were in the minority parties. 

At my first council meeting on 14 April, less than a week after I was elected, there was a powerful demonstration of the erosion of democracy by the Conservatives on Dorset Council when the chairman refused to allow any opposition to a contentious and contradictory motion urging the government to increase energy self-sufficiency ‘by all means available to us’ by forcing us to go straight to a vote, following an interruption by two peaceful protestors. 

What was your experience of the election campaign? How did it feel to win?

The election campaign was challenging and invigorating in equal measure. There were people of all political persuasions from the local area helping us with leafleting, as well as superb additional support from Green Party councillors and members from further afield. It felt humbling but rewarding that so many people I’d worked with in the community or as part of previous campaigns – Help Refugees, Devon for Europe and Dorset for Europe, for example – rallied around to support our by-election campaign, irrespective of their political allegiances. 

From the first days of canvassing, we were aware there was support for the Green Party and people seemed pleased by our leaflets which illustrated everything I’d done or been trying to achieve either in the community generally or as a town councillor since 2019. People described the leaflets as ‘refreshing’, ‘honest’ and ‘a breath of fresh air’, and they certainly seemed a contrast to the negative and confused messaging from the Conservative Party. 

Winning was extraordinary. 

I hadn’t dared to hope we might win. We thought it could be close because so many unexpected people had pledged their support, but it wasn’t until 4 to 7 pm on polling day when several families came in together to vote that I allowed myself to think we could edge it.  

The margin of victory was really satisfying (43.8 per cent compared to 26.5 per cent for the Conservative) and reflects a genuine desire for councillors who will take positive action on the climate and emergency crisis, supporting their local communities to ensure no one is left behind. 

At the count, I said I was ‘astonished, humbled and delighted’. I still feel that way!

What are the green issues affecting your local area?

The Lyme Regis town council declared a climate and environmental emergency in 2019 after I joined the council, having felt frustrated by the lack of political action at all levels on the biggest challenge of our lives. 

Lyme Regis and Charmouth are both blessed with a wide range of community groups, charities and social enterprises with many local independent businesses that are keen to operate in more sustainable ways. Helping all these groups work more effectively together to share skills and knowledge to improve the quality of life for our residents will form part of a wide and continuous process of community engagement I’m undertaking. I hope to enable the benefits of transitioning to Net Zero to develop while building sustainable community resilience. 

Charmouth Parish Council is making huge progress and working closely with their community on a number of green initiatives, helping residents to feel involved and empowered, for example, tree-planting and nature-based flood prevention measures.  

As coastal communities, sea-level rise and the increased frequency of extreme storms, coastal surges, and flooding are on our minds, while the geology of the area means landslips and coastal erosion are inevitable. 

Our surrounding farming communities are already suffering from the impacts of current climate change with higher rates of disease in their livestock as we are experiencing increased temperatures much earlier in the year.

Traffic, transport and parking issues dominate the community frustrations, along with litter, over-crowding and other impacts from being a tourist destination – particularly day-trippers arriving by car. 

Both Charmouth and Lyme Regis have ‘Citizen Science’ groups monitoring the rivers and developing good relationships with the water companies and Environment Agency, while encouraging them to do more to reduce pollution and hold them to account. We all want our rivers and beaches to be cleaner!

What do you hope to achieve in the coming years as a Green councillor?

I hope to find practical solutions to prioritise residents’ needs for better public transport and less traffic gridlock, such as community bus services, car sharing, electric bike rental hubs and e-delivery alternatives, as well as possible controls on traffic and parking. We need to work more strategically with other areas and outside the county to ensure full access to clean, affordable, connected and safe public transport for everyone. 

Providing community support for households to reduce their energy costs, insulate their homes and switch to renewable sources of energy through the advice and signposting our Community Energy Champions can offer, should reduce greenhouse emissions while improving everyone’s living conditions. Dorset has huge potential to develop local community-owned renewable energy schemes and create both offshore and onshore wind generation.  

Getting better responses to residents’ needs from housing associations as well as councils or government agencies is high on my ‘wish-list’, as well as dealing with individual cases. I’d like to see more attention paid to reduce the social isolation many of our residents can face and encourage those community groups working hard to create welcoming havens for everyone to join.

Developing several projects from issues which are emerging from the 2030 Vision Community Conversation events will be important this year to engage everyone in the future changes we need to make to become Net Zero. Solutions will be hyper-local and driven by communities but we can learn from others’ experiences, for example through the Dorset Climate Action Network, and county and national organisations with expertise to guide us – we need to be open-minded at the same time as locally-focused. I hope Dorset Council will fully embrace and support these grass-roots initiatives.

To what do you attribute the growing interest in Greens in your area?

As more and more people become aware of both the global and local impacts of climate change and ecosystem collapse, I feel they are crying out for a better sort of politics. Voters want people who work hard for everyone in their communities but who see the bigger picture and are not afraid to challenge those in charge to do more. 

The surge in the Green vote at the expense of all the other candidates in the Lyme and Charmouth by-election felt as if families were coming together to vote for a better world and a better politics, after the years of friction caused by Brexit and divisive ‘culture wars’. 

Several people told me it was the first time their vote had counted as the area had always returned Conservatives, so we need a fairer voting system so more people can feel represented and engaged. 

I’m told the first-time voters were really excited to be able to vote Green and were telling their classmates at school not to forget to vote. Several people much older than me proudly told me it was the first time they had ever voted as they wanted to support me. 

I do feel genuinely humbled and honoured by the wide range of support from every part of both communities and hope I can also earn the trust of those who did not vote for me in the next two years before our elections in 2024. I feel people here voted not only for someone they trusted would work hard on everyone’s behalf, with stubborn optimism that we can build a better future together, but also for honesty and integrity.