Q&A with our new Green county councillors
Green Party councillors Wendy Maples and Johnny Denis have just secured seats on East Sussex County Council for Lewes Town and Ringmer. So we asked them how they intend to make a difference to the council’s climate and environmental strategy.
Wendy Maples now represents Lewes ward and Johnny Denis represents Ringmer & Lewes Bridge.
What are your initial priorities as a new green councillor on the county council?
Wendy: The Green Group has a very crowded priorities list that includes fossil fuel divestment, local and regional clean air initiatives, and improving sustainable transport and mobilities.
My two initial goals for the Town are: 1. To follow up the good work that’s been done on School Streets at Southover so that this initiative can hopefully resume as soon as possible. 2. To make Lewes more walkable for more people. There are creative, sustainable and cost-effective solutions that can improve health, wealth and local environments and that are part of wider ‘appropriate mobilities’ strategies (cycling, micro-mobilities, public transport). There is overwhelming support for practical solutions, but Town, District and County Councils (and potentially South Downs National Park Authority) need to coordinate to make it happen.
Then there is individual and group case-work, covering a very wide range of issues and, at the other end of the scale, policy change, which will involve cross-party conversations, collaborations with other tiers of government and various partnerships.
Johnny: One of my goals is focused on changing policy around vehicle speed-setting. I have successfully suggested edits to the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Police and Crime Plan to acknowledge the impacts that speeding and antisocial driving have, not just on the numbers of people killed and seriously injured, but on residents and communities. The Chief Constable has taken this on board with the appointment of a new Safer Roads Chief Inspector and an enlarged roads policing team. The Local Community Safety Partnership has adopted this as one of its priorities and the countywide Safer Communities Board has also acknowledged this. The missing link in setting safer speed limits – particularly around setting 20mph limits (the World Health Organisation’s target for residential streets) – is East Sussex County Council. Most of Lewes Town now benefits from these limits but much of the rest of East Sussex, its towns and villages, do not.
Another is sustainable, cleaner transport. The County has done nothing to target reduction in the need to travel through its strategic travel function. Their involvement in the Transport for the South East even suggests reductions in cycling and walking! The Council’s own plan for Cycling and Walking lacks any kind of ambition, there is no on-street electric car charging in East Sussex, new flexible bus travel between villages and between villages and towns need rethinking, and rural broadband is still patchy, acting as a discouragement to homeworking for many.
What is your longer-term wishlist for the ESCC environmental strategy?
Wendy: It’s a long wish list! I’ll just focus on one area where I hope to have some influence. I will be on the ‘People’ Scrutiny Committee, which deals with schools, child and adult social care and wider education provision. Lockdown reminded those of us who needed reminding just how important access to green space is for our physical and mental well-being and that degrading green spaces is to our (and the planet’s) immediate and long-term detriment. Things like forest schools, nature-walks for mental health, and green space education for all ages may sound like ‘nice-to-haves’, but the evidence is clear to me that they’re essential, with very positive returns on investment. I’ll be looking for opportunities for funding, piloting and roll-out of green space learning.
Johnny: For me the reductions in CO2 emissions need to be brought forward. ESCC’s present target of 2050 makes a nonsense of the term ‘Climate Emergency’. Without ambitious targets and year-on-year reductions of a greater scale than imagined, the Council will not just be ineffective in its own services and estate but will not be leading our community in carbon reduction. The Corporate vision of a new dualled A27 across unspoilt countryside will be devastating to countryside and communities alike AND will unlock further unsustainable greenfield development in the Low Weald, leading to even more car use.
How hopeful are you that ESCC can become more proactive and take real leadership on climate change and reducing the level of emissions generated by the county?
Johnny and Wendy: We understand that ESCC works within a number of constraints, not least of which is a massively reduced budget, across all departments. And, however much we believe there is scope for agreement on specific, progressive actions, there are fundamental differences in beliefs and priorities between Greens and other groups — that’s why there are different political parties! That said, we feel there is an appetite for change amongst many members, across all parties, as well as amongst officers. It’s too early to say, but perhaps the significant rise in Green votes, here in East Sussex and in many places across the country, has already had a good effect: councillors — and councils of all hues are having to take notice!