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The European Journal
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Saqib Bhatti MP

Environmental Localism

The father of modern-day Conservatism, Edmund Burke, said that “Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Given the last twelve months, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Covid-19 pandemic is the greatest challenge of our time. In fact, it has only served to signify the peril that our planet faces with the destruction of our natural world.

In the wake of Covid-19, we all have read the stories of ‘nature hitting the reset button’, as flora and fauna gradually creep back into habitats from which they had vanished. For the most part, this did not come as a surprise to us.

The before and after maps of air polluted with CO2 in China should have brought to us all the stark reality of humanity’s devastation to our climate. In response, we have witnessed a multitude of countries set new targets to be net-zero, under the advice of the United Nations.

Of course, this is a much-needed step in the right direction and its value must not be understated. We must now look to enhance our approach to preserving and improving the natural environment.

The conservation of our natural world is an inherently conservative principle. It is the Conservative Party which is leading the way and a Conservative government which is leading the world in environmental standards and ambitious targets. The Conservative party has often been branded as the ‘natural party of government’ and being good in government is about creating opportunities for future generations and prioritising the quality of life for the people who are here now – and protecting the environment aligns wholly with these ambitions. The father of modern-day Conservatism, Edmund Burke, said that “Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” As conservatives, and as lawmakers, it is incumbent upon us to always consider the real impact of every decision we make to the prosperity, security and wellbeing of our electorate and this responsibility is never more obvious than when considering the health of our planet.

When in government, we take fiscal responsibility seriously because we do not wish to burden future generations with debt, and similarly with the environment, we cannot afford to make decisions that put our planet in peril and lessen the quality of life for its future inhabitants. As conservatives, we must do as Burke, and many since advised, we must remember our traditions and ask ourselves what state we are leaving our world in as the “temporary possessors and life-renters”, we must never allow ourselves to be those who “leave to those who come after… a ruin instead of a habitation”

While national frameworks and strategies are important in mitigating our impact on the environment, we must not fail to recognise the importance of local structures and organisations and the decisive role they will play in the implementation of sustainable environmental policies.

In order to understand the benefits of localism, we do not need to conduct vast amounts of research. As an example of this, we see much of road and pathway maintenance devolved to local councils in the United Kingdom. Tindihis has proven to be beneficial to both local and national government in a variety of ways. Of course, there is the element that local governments understand which roads and pathways are used more often and for what reason, and so they are able to target funding for repairs or illuminating the route at night. Ultimately, it is the local government that listens to its electorate and acts upon their demands; albeit for increasing safety and brightness of roads and pathways or any general repair. Another benefit of localism in this example is resource efficiency. As local governments understand a particular area, they are more capable of attributing the correct solution to the problem first time. This saves in financial resources and mismanaging people. Even with something that is so politically sensitive, such as the National Health Service (NHS), localism is finding its purpose. The NHS’ Integrated Health Plan sets out how health and care services in the United Kingdom will be localised to a level never experienced before. This Plan is explicit in its view that localism will drive down the levels of bureaucracy and mismanagement within the health and care systems. The conservation of our environment should not be treated differently; if we allow services that are vital for our communities’ survival to be devolved, we should surely also pursue devolution in environmental policy.

In ensuring the success of localism, national governments must also play their part to the fullest. By setting ambitious targets, we can encourage local governments to pursue the approach that best suits their area. In the United Kingdom, the Government has put forward its 10 Point Plan, which is integral to its Green Industrial Revolution that will create roughly 250,000 new green jobs; the Clean Air Strategy, which the World Health Organisation described as “an example for the rest of the world to follow”; and, of particular focus is the government’s Environment Bill, which is an innovative piece of legislation that will create a governance framework for the environment, a new course for resource and waste management, improving air quality, enhancing our water efficiency, improving our green spaces and updating our laws on chemicals.

When I delivered my maiden speech to the House of Commons during the second reading of the Environment Bill, I did so with great pride, knowing that I was speaking in favour of a landmark piece of legislation which sends the crucial message that Conservatives care about our natural world. The Bill has a realistic potential to deliver a cleaner, greener and a more resilient country for future generations. It will redefine our political and social culture surrounding the environment. In order to capitalise on this potential, we must vociferously promote the localism agenda; ensuring that we can further adapt and progress our social, political and economic cultures towards a healthier environment.

In moving towards a political system in which local councils have a greater level of responsibility over the protection of the natural environment in their area, more must be done than simply legislating in Parliament. We must go further to harbour a culture of local responsibility towards our climate. More encouragement is needed to promote co-operation and collaboration between local and national governments, that also puts at the heart of policy local needs and concerns. Local bodies and national government working together must be understood as a necessary component of localism; it is not a policy that can be pursued in order to alleviate national government of any responsibility. On the contrary, the role of national government in providing for local governments adequate support and the correct set of standards is vital.

It is important to emphasise the necessity of all three tenets of localism, people, local bodies and businesses, working together to achieve our environmental ambitions. We cannot be complacent in suggesting that we need only aim for a single tenet of localism to function properly.

When reaching towards the goal of further localism, we must be clear that this is not a lofty and untenable idea. In fact, localism can be found across the United Kingdom to be in perfect working order. In my constituency of Meriden, the local authority Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council has been putting into practice a local environmental agenda, through the Greener Solihull for Success programme. Solihull Council is approaching environmental issues through a number of initiatives, ranging from a greener local economy to a greener housebuilding programme. As a result of the local initiative, Solihull Council has pledged that the borough will be net-zero by 2030, a target that supersedes the national ambition by two decades. This is not an over-ambitious target with little chance of reality, it is a plan backed by local politicians and people of all political stripes and ages. The success of this pledge hinges upon three critical factors: I) that the national government has given adequate provisions for the local government to pursue this policy; II) that individuals feel a sense of responsibility for their environment, through the genuine acquisition of localism in their area; and, III) that Solihull Council’s ambitions brings together all aspects of the community, including individuals, local bodies and local businesses.

It is important to emphasise the necessity of all three tenets of localism, people, local bodies and businesses, working together to achieve our environmental ambitions. We cannot be complacent in suggesting that we need only aim for a single tenet of localism to function properly. There should be the understanding that all tenets must shoulder their share of the responsibility to the natural environment, in order to ensure success.