‘Planet Shaftesbury’ Launches Climate Change Campaigns At Packed Town Hall Meeting

Climate Change could strip Duncliffe Wood of its bluebell carpet and chalkland streams could run dry. Those were two worrying visions of the future, shared with over a hundred people who filled the Town Hall for Thursday’s ‘Planet Shaftesbury’ meeting.

Now the town’s newly formed environmental group is confident there’s clear support for action. ThisIsAlfred Keri Jones was there.

It’s 7.30pm on Thursday evening and the organisers of Planet Shaftesbury have realised that they have too few chairs for their inaugural meeting. In a way, that’s a satisfying problem. Volunteers made three trips upstairs to borrow more seats from the Town Hall’s Council chamber.

As people chatted and exchanged ideas, there was a palpable buzz and a sense that Shaftesbury was witnessing the birth of a brand new community force. “The energy of the people in this room has been fantastic. And the age range of people who care passionately about the environment is really inspiring to me,” recalled guest speaker Gary Mantle.

Gary Mantle addressing the audience

It was standing room only as Gary, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s CEO, began his talk. His diverse audience was crammed into this space because they share a passion for the planet – or at least our small part of it.

Event organiser Robin Walter was pleased to see so many new faces. “There are loads of people I’ve never seen before, so hopefully it’s reaching out to all kind of parts of town and different people.”

During his hour-long presentation, Gary shared examples of how climate change was affecting Wiltshire. The overhead projector presented two powerful black and white images of the same scene, decades apart. In the first, a young man surveyed a landscape rich with elm trees. A second photo of the same person as an elderly man and at the same site revealed a bleaker vista, with a wire fence where a hedgerow had once marked a field boundary.

Gary warned that the winterbournes – seasonal streams across chalkland – could soon run dry if climate change remains unchecked. “The changing patterns of rainfall mean that we can end up with the water coming onto our land very quickly, and people wanting to get it off the land quickly,” explained Gary. “It doesn’t soak into the aquifers and then we have hot dry summers, so the water table falls very rapidly and we haven’t recharged them as fully.”

Gary says that those watercourses may shift. “It may be many miles further downstream because there isn’t the water in the aquifer anymore. The winterbournes may simply dry up, upstream.”

His warning of the threat faced by North Dorset’s spectacular springtime bluebells did cause some concern. “Bluebells are out early in the year, before the trees are in leaf. The sunlight can reach the woodland floor and the bluebells can thrive. But if trees start coming into leaf earlier, in response to a change in climate, then it starves the bluebells of light and moisture. The bluebells may only thrive on the woodland edge. It’s an indirect impact that’s having a major effect on the bluebell,” said Gary.

He urged the audience to consider their level of satisfaction, rather than pursuing material items. He explained that the nation of Bhutan measures its citizens’ level of happiness. Gary applied this theory to the UK housing market. He’d support a move for smaller homes, where quality of life was integral to their design, rather than the trend for larger status properties.

“They build four-bedroom and five-bedroom houses. But the local community are saying that they need one or two bedroom properties. We’ve got people who might be in a five-bedroom property and they want to move into a bungalow, but nobody builds bungalows anymore. So we’ve got the wrong kind of housing,” said Gary. “Maybe people want to move from a draughty, large house that’s expensive to heat into something that’s energy efficient with a greater sense of community and neighbourhood. Where can they move? The properties aren’t there. It’s about building the right kind of houses, in the right places and actually making sure they are environmentally sensible. They’re good in terms of energy conservation, water conservation, and they’ve got gardens and places for wildlife, such as spaces for swifts in the roofs.”

Gary’s talk covered multiple topics but the broad themes of reducing waste and energy consumption were, apparently, well received. And Robin was inspired by examples of Wiltshire communities working together to tackle climate change. “I really like the climate friendly neighbourhoods, where a street got together and decided they wanted to cut their emissions by 20%,” said Robin.

Robin was particularly taken by one example given by Gary. “I thought the one about reducing waste – the lady who would reduce the waste to a jam jar full – was amazing,” he said. Gary had explained how one Wiltshire Wildlife Trust employee had completed their Waste Free February challenge by fitting a month’s worth of rubbish into a glass jar. That’s impressive. He had suggested an initial target of producing no more waste than would fill a carrier bag.

Planet Shaftesbury isn’t forming a committee as such. But one of its drivers, Rachel Bodle, called the room to attention and asked people to write ideas and goals on large, poster-sized sheets of paper. Each sheet followed a theme and encouraged engagement.

“They address everything, from how we do our gardening, how we grow our food, how we buy and cook our meals, to how we insulate our homes, how nationally we get our energy and campaigning to have more action taken by the government,” said Rachel. “It’s big and it needs all of us. We can all put our own little bit in. For some of us, that will be a very little bit. For others, it’s an opportunity to vent some frustration.”

Rachel says the session showed that many Shaftesbury people want to engage with climate change. “It tells me that if the government was to introduce some fairly rigorous and challenging policies, the population at large might find them acceptable rather than resist it. This is really telling me that it’s time to get on with it and stop all the other things that they are talking about.”

So, what’s next? Robin said Planet Shaftesbury won’t be just a talking shop. They do want to effect change. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not just a talk on climate change. We’re trying to convert this into action. That’s the real test,” said Robin.

Gary says he could sense that people had turned up because they want to make a difference. “There’s passion, energy and commitment,” he said. “Of course, this is the inaugural meeting. People are curious to find out what it’s all about, what they can do and how they can get involved. There’ll be an initial surge of enthusiasm for that. But all around us now, there are people buzzing. They are writing things down. They’re taking ideas. It’s about energy consumption and energy use. It’s about people energy as well, to bring about changes of behaviour and changes of values.”

It’ll take the Planet Shaftesbury core team some time to read through the dozens of ideas and suggestions scribbled on the sheets. Robin says these ideas will direct the group’s next steps. “We’re going to sit down and have a look through these. And then in a couple of weeks time the people who are really committed to doing something will come and think ‘what is the next step for a waste free town, transport in Shaftesbury or nature conservation in this area?’”

That next meeting is scheduled for the 1st of February.

“We’ll organise ourselves in a workshop style meeting. It will become clear at that meeting what we require of Planet Shaftesbury, how that over-arching umbrella network might operate. We might also decide how we affiliate to national action, like the Extinction Rebellion” said Rachel. “Extinction Rebellion is their own organisation, but we could be an arm of that.”

The organisers seem pleased at the response to the first event and the support they receive at their next meeting will be important in keeping that momentum going. With so many Shaftesbury people clearly sharing the same concerns, it looks like Planet Shaftesbury will become a key part of local life. “It’s nice to find that we’re not alone on the planet, isn’t it?” Rachel laughed.

You can connect with Planet Shaftesbury on Facebook, @PlanetShaftesbury.