An interview with Maya Evans, Hastings councillor, peace activist and the Council’s new ‘climate change champion’.

What does the role of climate change champion involve? 

My portfolio title is climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development – it’s a thematic remit which embraces all other portfolios. On a practical level that converts to me needing to know what is going on across the Council and ensuring that climate change is prioritised. 

So, for instance, if there’s a planned new development of housing, I will be flagging up that homes need to be zero-carbon. I’ll push for them to have things like insulation, solar panels and electric vehicle charging points. 

Or, in the case of procurement, I will be lobbying for the Council to prioritise contractors who are carbon neutral or are at least trying to off-set the negative environmental consequences of any works done. 

The overall aim of the Council is to go carbon neutral by 2030 – it’s a really tall order but we need to at least try.

You can’t introduce green policies into a vacuum, you need to take into account that there are 14 million people in this country living below the breadline. They don’t have the headspace or economic security to be thinking about how they can go carbon neutral. 

Resolving social injustice and stopping the climate change crisis must go hand in hand. If we’re serious about halting global temperatures from increasing by 1.5C in less than 12 years, then the most economically marginalised in our society must be prioritised. Green socialism is part of what Labour have coined the Green Industrial Revolution – practical solutions coupled with the awareness of putting the most vulnerable first, while fuelling the economy.

“The overall aim of the council is to go carbon neutral by 2030 – it’s a really tall order but we need to at least try”

Maya Evans

What has Hastings Borough Council pledged?

HBC passed a climate emergency motion back in February, in which we pledged, among other things, to set up a working group and develop a procurement policy that reduces our carbon emissions. 

Our objective is to make Hastings Council carbon neutral by 2030 and aim to supply 30% of the town’s electricity through local sustainable energy, generated on Council-owned land and buildings. I’m pleased to say a number of Council buildings have already been fitted with solar arrays, for instance Summerfields Leisure Centre, Castleham Business Centre East and Muriel Matters House. 

We have a major hurdle in that HBC doesn’t actually own that much land or property, we are very limited in available spaces, especially spaces which are south facing, can host a substantial number of arrays, and are located close to a mains which will feed electricity into the national grid. 

We’re currently looking at all potential sites, some, like the country park, are controversial for some people; others, like West St Leonards retail park, are not so much. 

Central government have made it extremely difficult to generate sustainable energy, at the end of March they ended the feed-in tariff for people with domestic solar arrays, and in 2015 the Government, under the reign of Amber Rudd as Energy and Climate Change Secretary, ended subsidies for onshore wind turbines. 

The Council is faced with either sitting on our hands praying for a Labour Government who will revolutionise energy generation; or pressing ahead with plans in areas some would consider not ideal; but will move us closer towards the goal of sustainable energy generation. 

I’ve already heard very helpful suggestions such as “why can’t solar arrays go on the Pebsham landfill”? 

I’ve inquired about Pebsham dump, though, I’m told the land is still too unstable for use. However, I’ve also been told by others, outside of the Council, that the landfill site could be made safe and usable. And therein lies a quandary – do we take a potentially expensive gamble with public funds, ignore one set of advice and possibly end up with egg on our face if we go with another recommendations? Can you imagine the headlines: “Council sinks into the stink of the dump”… I’m quickly learning that my new role involves taking risks, but it’s also essential to be responsible with tax payers’ money. It’s a tricky balance.

My portfolio also includes protecting and developing biodiversity, and this is a very good example of ‘conflicting experts’. So, in relation to the solar arrays in the country park, some say it will be detrimental to biodiversity, while others say it will enhance it, or not have an impact either way.

I’ve already set up several working groups to promote biodiversity; one is a political campaigns group and the other is an apolitical community group with a crossover of growing experts and artists. The aim for both groups is to increase education around the importance of biodiversity and to help people appreciate that the continued existence of humans is inextricably linked to the survival of other species.

We are already aiming to eliminate single use plastic in council buildings, festivals and events held on Council land, but this is an area we don’t have an incredible amount of jurisdiction on. I wish we could be like New York State and ban throw-away plastic bags from all shops in Hastings, but sadly we don’t have that power.

Containers made out of biodegradable products are obviously a better way forward, however they only really work if composted. If they go into the sea it’s still potentially harmful for a marine creature who eats it or gets trapped or injured by it, and then if a corn starch cup gets mixed into recycling then it contaminates the process. 

I personally feel we should do away with single use items, but that would take action from national government; however it’s entirely possible to bring in a scheme whereby there are four or five standard-sized returnable glass bottles which everything from milk to washing up liquid comes in. 

On transport, we are talking to supermarkets about installing electric vehicle charging points and we will be scrambling through the thickets of bureaucracy that surround available grants for funding off-road walking and cycling. 

What would you like to see the council doing over the next year?

I’d like to see the council making a substantial inroad on the above pledges, as well as working through the ‘33 actions a local authority can make’ recommended by Friends of the Earth in its March 2019 briefing. I’d like the Council and the community to work together on creative initiatives which educate and elevate everyone in society. 

I’m also thinking about how Hastings can successfully launch a new green business drive by attracting green tech industry to the town, while also making carbon neutral industry attractive to small local businesses. 

Hastings needs to be ‘open for green business’, making use of our natural resources such as wind, tidal and solar power. We’re a town famed for tourism, foreign language students, sustainable fishing and looking after the sick, elderly and vulnerable – we need to use these assets to harness business opportunities. Green industry is the future and I want Hastings to be at the forefront of taking advantage of this opportunity which will provide employment while also supporting sustainable development.

Are there any successful schemes you can draw on?

Nottingham Council has done pioneering work on ultra-low emission zones, using parking charges to channel into better public transport. London is aiming for 80% of journeys to be by foot, bike or public transport by 2041. Greater Manchester has committed a 10-year plan to build 120km of segregated cycle routes on main roads, and over 1,400 new or upgraded cycle and pedestrian crossings. 

Ipswich and Cambridge have included a requirement for all new homes to meet a higher  Code for Sustainable Homes level (Level 4). Local authorities can also help homes and businesses link up with grants, for example the Warm Up Bristol and Better Homes Yorkshire programmes. Solihull plans to switch all its 24,000 street lights to well-designed and well-directed LED lights by 2024, cutting its total energy costs in half and reducing its own greenhouse emissions. 

Several London boroughs are investing in renewable energy projects. Enfield has formed an energy company that aims to provide lower carbon heat and hot water to around 15,000 residents. Setting up an energy company is something HBC has talked about, and we’d very much like to follow in the footsteps of Bristol, Nottingham and Norwich and put this into action. 

Sheffield has recently committed to only buying green energy, this is something we could look into in the interim. Manchester has supported a charity-run ‘Carbon Literacy’ project to help individuals and businesses better understand climate change and how to tackle it. I’ve already initiated a similar project from the Sustainability on Sea Festival. 

There’s lots to be done. I’ve already written to Jeremy Corbyn’s office suggesting a conference to share local authority best practice on tackling climate change. It’s all about joined-up thinking.

How can we as individuals make a difference? Do we have to go without our cars and holidays abroad?

I don’t want to focus on all the things we need to give up, I want to sell an alternative lifestyle which will be more attractive to the one we already have, a lifestyle beneficial to health and good for the environment. I want to promote the romantic image of everyone growing vegetables, people walking and cycling, exploring the beautiful British Isles as a key holiday destination – the generation of our grandparents lived like this, there are lots of benefits to this lifestyle, it’s not like we’re going back to the stone age, it’s just going to be a bit different. 

We do have the ability to change and change fast: channelling industry towards a sole purpose – look how this was done during the second world war. It’s completely possible, and beneficial on many levels.

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