Shaftesbury was well-represented in Sturminster Newton last night as MP Simon Hoare answered constituents’ questions on environmental issues. Alfred went along.
The room booked for the North Dorset MP’s climate policy Q&A session at The Exchange can accommodate eighty people, but some attendees had to stand as the Conservative member spent 90 minutes outlining his personal commitment and his party’s approach to action on the environment. “If anyone thinks they need to persuade me, save your breath. I get it. The government gets it too. Trump doesn’t get it,” explained Simon Hoare, who revealed that he hasn’t taken a plane for a holiday since 2012.
Simon was keen to champion what he considers the UK’s achievement in tackling greenhouse gases. “There is year-on-year improvement. Our emissions are going down. Our growth is getting greener. Our energy generation is getting greener,” he said.
The first questions were asked from the floor. Simon was quizzed about websites that suggest he has a poor voting record on environmental issues. He repeated the response he offered ThisisAlfred earlier this week almost word-for-word, claiming that ‘blunt tool’ websites which report statistics don’t put an MP’s voting decision into context. And Mr Hoare warned that the evening wasn’t an opportunity to make political points or ‘kick the crap out of your MP’.
Shaftesbury’s Andrea Jenkins wanted to address politics in a broad sense. Simon applauded her suggestion that an ongoing cross-party committee should address the climate emergency. “The public are more tolerant of politicians working together. They don’t see it as a sign of weakness and very often the public is ahead of politicians,” Simon said.
“This is something which transcends policy politics. It transcends whether you’re an urban market town or rural. Communities are seized of the need for urgent action and united in a desire to see local and national government be as active as they can, in order to make living more sustainable,” he added. “I think the public would welcome serious politicians, irrespective of party. This is an issue that affects Conservative voting areas, Liberal voting areas and Labour voting areas. It affects the country and the international community. We can argue like cat and dog over nurses and doctors, schools and the police. On these big ‘umbrella’ issues, I think it’s common sense to say let’s come together.”
Surprisingly, Mr Hoare commended Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for suggesting that British companies donate technology to developing countries to help them lower carbon emissions faster. “What came across in our discussion this evening is that these are issues which go beyond the narrow boundaries of a five-year parliament. People need to have the comfort that politicians are united in a shared endeavour. Whether there is a change of government or leadership, there needs to be a continuation of policy addressing this,” said Simon. He added that continuity would offer a stable, long-term approach to environmental policy planning and would help businesses make changes.
Simon also argued that business could act to address the climate emergency faster than politicians. “Businesses which are delivering products and services for consumers want to follow the herd. People are not going to go out and buy stuff from the dirtiest, most polluting company in the world. They’re going look for people who are clean and responsible with a good track record of environmental sustainability.”
Simon was interrupted when he referred to ‘consumers’. Some attendees shouted that they preferred the term ‘citizens’. He maintained his position and continued using the word.
Audience members asked for the repeal of the 2015 Infrastructure Act which many argue assists fossil fuel extractions. For example, it is considered useful to fracking operations, allowing exploration beneath properties without it being considered trespass. The MP said that fracking was ‘bonkers’ and he had voted for the most stringent restrictions. He added that he supported the proposed tidal lagoon across the Severn estuary
Mr Hoare criticised Andrea Leadsom for overruling the Planning Inspectorate’s refusal of permission for four new gas-fired turbines at the Drax power station. He said his colleague’s action was ‘indefensible’. The MP said that environmental groups could request a judicial review, and work at the Yorkshire plant could be halted if a ‘JR’ was granted.
Dorset councillor Ray Bryan joined Mr Hoare to offer a county perspective on environmental work. When Mr Hoare was asked whether Dorset Council could, in the future, deny permission for non-sustainable buildings, the MP said that was music to his ears. He conceded the government had made a mistake in reducing environmental standards after the economic downturn, following requests from the construction industry
“We had the slump. The house builders said, ‘We can either deliver houses or the environmental standards. We can’t do both because we’re having to reduce the price of housing as the market has slowed’. The government said, ‘Okay, we’ll back off from higher environmental standards for new build’. Unfortunately, a large number of houses have been built under the older standard,” said Simon.
Mr Hoare added that the Secretary of State for Housing has planned to ensure that electric car charging points are offered for every new home. When one audience member stated that Ireland had been proactive in demanding sustainable heating for new builds, the MP said that he hoped that a restriction on gas boilers in new homes would be introduced soon. “You won’t get the certificate to allow you to sell your property. No mortgage company is going to lend money to somebody to buy a house which doesn’t meet regulatory standards.”
Cllr Bryan, who oversees Dorset Council’s environmental policies, outlined a proposed rule for the Dorset Local Plan, a blueprint for development, which is currently being drafted. “If every house that we developed was triple-glazed, it’s amazing how much energy that would save. These are the sort of moves that are going to have that in the plan,” he said. “Then, if the developers want to build in Dorset, they are probably just going have to accept it,” said Ray, who revealed that the county will need to find space for another 50,000 homes.
Mr Hoare had been pressed for quicker action on climate measures during the meeting. “You have to allow the producers of triple glazing, rather than double glazing, to upscale. You have to allow manufacturers of ground source heat pumps to upscale their operations to meet the demand. You can’t just flick a pen and say, ‘Next Tuesday’,” Simon said.
Ray said tree planting is a Dorset priority and developers could face new rules. “If you want to take a tree out of any sort, you should have to replace that tree with another two, or preferably three or more,” said Cllr Bryan, who added that Dorset Council was discussing a major tree planting programme. He was unable to give specifics relating to Shaftesbury.
The conversation danced around topics. Should deposits for returning bottles be reintroduced? Simon wanted more water fountains in North Dorset’s towns. Ray explained that Wessex Water is installing cabinets containing a water supply in local towns and villages.
Some audience members complained about the lack of sustainable transport provision. Ray said there are plans to make cycling safer with lanes alongside the main roads and dedicated routes. Again, he couldn’t offer Shaftesbury-specifics. “I wouldn’t want to be on a cycle using the roads as they are at the moment. I’m looking at opportunities that we can exploit,” he said.
He hopes that bus service provision can be developed. “I am a great believer in the ‘hub and spoke’ where you use smaller vehicles to take you to the central points and the central points will get you the distance. We could use local small buses, preferably electric ones, or they could be hydrogen in a few years’ time,” said Ray.
Mr Hoare read back a list of 22 points from the meeting which he would raise with appropriate agencies or ministers. They ranged from addressing cross party committees, finding out whether there is a need to repeal or amend the Infrastructure Act, investigating subsidies for sustainable power and whether Local Planning Authorities can impose higher environmental standards than the national planning rules. He will also enquire whether 2050 is too late as a net-zero carbon target. Some locals had argued that could result in little action before adopting draconian cuts in 2049. Simon will also follow up a call for a ban on single use plastic and assess moves to make farming sustainable.
Mandy Greenwood, organiser of Shaftesbury’s Coffee Companions, had asked the MP for this session and she was pleased by the turnout. “A lot of people got an opportunity to voice the different topics that concern them. Simon made his position fairly clear on most of those topics,” said Mandy, who added that she was disappointed that most of the attendees were middle-aged and older.
“There is definitely a lot of passion amongst younger people and we just need to work out how to ensure that people come to these meetings where they are welcome and highly respected,” said Mandy. She felt that the answers had addressed a broad range of issues but perhaps lacked precise detail regarding specific and urgent actions to respond to the climate emergency.
XR Shaftesbury’s Natalie Carr had mixed feelings about the event. “I did find it useful in a way and it’s nice to hear that lots of other people from our community are feeling the same. I feel that there was a lot of issue-dodging and ‘ifs and maybes’. It would be nice to hear concrete things such as, ‘We’re going to act as soon as we can, not just sticking to the 2050 target which is not good enough’.” Natalie wants the UK to achieve net-zero greenhouse gases by 2025.
Simon had said this was a listening exercise for him. I asked whether he had learned anything new from his constituents. “Not learned, but I think it reinforces, and that is always rather good news,” said Simon.
Maybe the next event will provide more answers for the public and new information for the MP. Mandy and Simon Hoare have agreed to host these events regularly, in different North Dorset locations. “We’ll announce the date and venue in due course,” Mandy said.