In May 2018 I found myself walking with Green Party members out of Hereford along the beautiful River Wye – which was swollen, angry and tumultuous after a spring of unprecedented snow and rain, in what felt like a time of tyrants and loss. With every step I realised this wonderful landscape – the Wye Valley Special Area of Conservation and SSSI and its fabulous heritage assets – was under a growing threat, as plans for a western bypass bulldozed their way through Herefordshire Council’s psyche.
I had avoided politics (apart from ranting) in the years I spent bringing up my children, but by October 2018 I was totally ready for the launch of Extinction Rebellion and change. On 8 March 2019 I stood on the steps outside Hereford’s Shire Hall with about 100 others, many of them students, listening to events unfolding inside the crammed chambers on the live feed via a phone held to a tannoy. One by one, councillors declared themselves committed to a climate emergency – a loud cheer confirming the decision unanimous. By May 2019 people like me, committed to changing course in light of climate and ecological breakdown, were elected as councillors in the new council administration which swung from Conservative to a green coalition made up of Green Party, It’s Our County and Independent councillors. Where once I felt unheard, it was exhilarating to suddenly be part of a county decision-making body that was compelled by the need to drive forward plans for a more equitable society amidst the changes that the Climate and Ecological Emergency demand of us.
One of the new council’s first moves, guided by newly elected Cllr John Harrington, was to call for a pause and review of major road infrastructure schemes. Social media and the Hereford Times burst into furious reaction – pausing intermittently to blame the new ‘loony greens’ for failing to avert major flooding events, before reverting back to ‘the road’ rage.
On 2 February 2021 the Dasgupta Review of The Economics of Biodiversity, commissioned by the UK Treasury, was published – stating that biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history. It said:
“Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all depend on our most precious asset: nature. We are part of nature, not separate from it,”
“The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it. Transformative change is possible – we and our descendants deserve nothing less.”
It could have been a document written by XR. Coincidentally, that day Herefordshire Council met to make a final decision on the proposed road infrastructure projects, including the western bypass. Armed with evidence presented late last year to the council’s General Scrutiny Committee and subsequently the Cabinet, councillors debated long and hard about their commitment to the Climate and Ecological Emergency and how priorities had changed – and must change further.
Herefordshire, along with the whole of the UK, has committed itself to a programme of decarbonisation because that is what the science is telling us we must do. We cannot keep wringing our hands about the calamity that has befallen us – and do nothing about it. This is no longer even a party political issue; even the UK Government is now onboard. As a consequence of recognising the climate crisis, government policy is now to invest in sustainable transport and modal shift in preference to building roads.
Despite much vocal opposition, Herefordshire’s councillors voted against road proposals that would literally cost the earth. A Southern Link Road, running through ancient woodland, was a botched scheme that had no funding after bad project management led to a business case to unlock the funding not being produced in time by the former administration. Environmental guidelines for the scheme would now fall short. In the light of the changing world this scheme was no longer viable. The western bypass would be 10 years away, had no funding in place and would have cost over a quarter of a billion pounds, or more. All this at the expense of putting viable sustainable transport schemes in place. They were untenable transport options and have finally been omitted from the council’s capital programme. Our council now has the opportunity to make equitable infrastructure investments in a public and sustainable transport system which could be the backbone to economic activity, mobility opportunities for all of society (including the youngest, poorest and most vulnerable) and improving the health of thousands of residents.
Through working together, a major battle has been won – now the real challenge is for Herefordshire Council to engage with local partners, draw up workable sustainable transport schemes, draw down government funding and help change ingrained patterns of transport behaviour that blight the city. As a coalition we realise that this is ambitious and achieving it will be no mean feat, but we intend to be one of the first councils to cleave a new way forward in city transport – not one of the last to invest all its solutions in massively destructive road schemes.