West Berkshire Council is blue – so, so blue. We have 47 Conservative councillors and only five Liberal Democrats able to offer modest resistance to them. After four years of deep cuts, even some of the Tories are depressed.
But this is a story of hope. While West Berkshire Green Party did not contest the 2011 local elections, we fielded 11 candidates in the 2015 elections, winning one second place and finishing in front of Liberal Democrat, Labour and UKIP candidates in several wards. Now – after four years of campaigning, challenging the council executive with questions and building our profile with the public and the local media – we are going into the May 2019 elections on the verge of getting seats on the council and are working very hard to make that happen.
Inspired by the Bristol City Council Green councillors' Climate Emergency proposals, I set up a petition for West Berkshire in November. I couldn’t begin to imagine we would get the 1,500 signatures needed to force West Berkshire Council to debate the proposed Climate Emergency.
I hadn’t counted on the efforts of our members and other locals to take this thing and run with it. We spent two to three hours every day over the Christmas and New Year period collecting signatures in Newbury. I also didn’t count on the enthusiasm of the public. Meeting them showed that there is an appetite for action; there were no more than a handful of overtly negative responses.
The petition gathered 1,976 signatures and was presented to the executive on January 17. The Conservative council executive members are resistant, claiming nothing can be done without a plan – but formulating a plan is one of the first steps in the proposed declaration. The Liberal Democrat councillors have signalled some support in principle but winning over the largely Tory chamber will be key and I have requested the leader of the council to allow a free vote.
The petition is now being checked for duplication and other errors: the verification process is something of a mystery as we believe this is the first time any petition has secured a full council debate in West Berkshire. We had hoped to be debating it in March, but the March meeting is the annual budget meeting and therefore petitions cannot be on the agenda. We go to the polls on 2 May and expect that the petition will be debated shortly after then.
Let's be clear on this: just getting to present the petition and force the debate is a remarkable achievement and I am incredibly proud, not only our members here in West Berkshire but of the local community who helped collect the signatures and of the people who queued up to sign.
Make no mistake, averting the climate breakdown will need the full attention of council, community and local businesses
There is still a long way to go. West Berkshire Council is stunted in its ambition and the dominance of one party, wedded to the old ways, lacks ambition – but a drastically different vision, of a sustainable green economy, is possible. Currently, the council aligns its targets with the government’s, so to to achieve Zero Carbon by 2030 will require a shift in mindset as well as policy. Should we be successful in May we will be working in council rather than outside to ensure our speculative, hopeful attempt will be successful.
With the same kind of resolve, hard work and dedication from members and supporters we can make the transition from outside to inside the chamber and be part of a greener future here in West Berkshire.
In order to achieve the ambitious target we plan on presenting our own Green Vision, working with other groups across the political and non-political landscape. During the presentation of the petition I highlighted areas where particular focus could be concentrated – transport, industrial and commercial activities, as well as improving building insulation, encouraging sustainable, local power generation and other similar measures.
Make no mistake, averting the climate breakdown will need the full attention of council, community and local businesses. I believe it can be done and every effort should be made to achieve it. As we head towards the elections we have to hope that we have turned a corner, turned our backs on a miserable, blue future, and that May will see spring bloom here in West Berkshire with the first Green councillors taking their seats in the chamber. If we act decisively now, we still have time to give our grandchildren hope for their future.
Steve Masters is the Green Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the Newbury constituency. @AnothervoiceWB