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Barnsley Council: What Does It Mean To Be An Environmentalist?

Barnsley
Barnsley

Councillor James Higginbottom

Cabinet Spokesperson for Environment and Highways at Barnsley Council, with responsibility for sustainability and climate change.

Cllr James Higginbottom discusses what it means to be an environmentalist and sets out Barnsley’s plans for Net Zero.

It’s a question that, until recent years, few of us have ever really grappled with. Green issues, climate change and the environment have been seen as fringe issues and the preserve of single-issue candidates and political parties. Dare I say it, there’s perhaps a stereotype in some parts of the world – not least in areas that were once the crucible of industrial Britain like Barnsley – that is, to be environmentally-minded was to become Dave Angell, of The Fast Show fame, reincarnate. Or perhaps Swampy…

No more. That image, much like my vastly outdated pop culture references, is simply not relevant in 2023.

The, quite literally, burning issue of how we safeguard our planet for future generations is one that has raced to the top of the political agenda. Local, regional and national government are all, to varying degrees, getting to grips with their individual and collective response to the climate crisis.

In Barnsley, the Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and we have been working hard to map where we are, and where we need to be going, to make the necessary transition to a Net Zero Council by 2040 and a Net Zero Borough by 2045. Most importantly, we’ve recognised that this is not a process that can be driven by town hall diktat or aspirational statements of intent. Barnsley Council is responsible for just 2% of the borough’s total carbon emissions.

We need to be working hand-in-glove with the companies that can accelerate that change. It’s why we’ve set up our Positive Climate Partnership to bring together businesses and the third sector in a joint borough-wide approach.

The key challenge to achieving our ambitious plans for Net Zero is to bring people along with us. We’ve heard the sound and fury from the Uxbridge by-election and the backlash against the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion. An expansion, incidentally, forced upon local authorities and the Mayor of London by Conservative central government as a condition of emergency funding for Transport for London during the pandemic.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual policy, the collective message is clear: we must be able to take people with us on the road to Net Zero. That means a focus on making big, transformative and popular changes. Here’s a few that central government, whatever its political persuasion, could be getting on with:

  • Creating new jobs in the green and digital sectors that will accelerate our transition towards cleaner fuels.
  • Making public transport cheaper, cleaner and more convenient for all to encourage a shift from the private car – not punishing those for whom driving is the only realistic way they can get to work.
  • Revolutionising the skills and adult education sector to enable anyone, at whatever stage in their learning or working life, to acquire new skills, new jobs and new opportunities.
  • Accelerating the decarbonisation of housing stock – across all tenures – to bring down bills and insulate family homes.

Above all, the journey to Net Zero is not something for the back burner. It requires big, bold and active government working with an empowered private sector to deliver change at the scale and pace that is required. Take Barnsley. Forty years ago we were a town built on coal. Generations of Barnsley miners toiled at the coal face to power our country and keep the lights on in homes right across Britain. It was inconceivable that dream would ever come to an end. Forty years later, amidst economic and social devastation, it has. But from the ashes of our proud industrial past lies one potential seed of our future story.

The water under our feet, in disused coal mines, has enormous potential to be harnessed and used to power district heating networks that could power our buildings and communities. Now that would be a message that is distinctly Barnsley. Proud of our industrial past; optimistic about our cleaner, greener and more sustainable future. It would get my vote.

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