Wherever you are in the UK (and increasingly, beyond), it’s likely that your council (or local authority) has declared a climate emergency or is in the process of planning to.
Following Wokingham Borough Council’s recent climate emergency declaration and the related initiatives announced, we caught up with Councillor Gregor Murray, the Council’s Executive Member for Climate Emergency (impressed that they have one..?).
On the evening before the declaration was announced, it was a pleasure to meet with Councillor Murray and his Wokingham Town Council colleague, Daniel Hinton. The pair are behind the a new ‘Wokingham Borough Environmental Ideas Facebook page’ and associated website (where you will also find some of our articles).
We think it is extremely promising to see Gregor, Council leader John Halsall and colleagues placing environmental issues at the heart of things and greatly look forward to seeing the Council continue to develop and implement its ideas.
How did you come to your new role and why are you passionate about environmental issues?
“I decided to stand for the Borough Council in May’s elections because I have two young children and I want to ensure that the town that they inherit is worthy of them and ready for the lives they will live. I believe that the only way to get the future that all of our children deserve, it to create it, and that meant not relying on others to act in their best interests, but to stand up and do it myself.
While I was campaigning I lost track of the number of younger residents whose questions weren’t about Brexit or Council Tax but the environment and making Wokingham Greener. Daniel Hinton experienced very similar, which is why we have started to work together.”
What are your hopes and priorities?
“Hope and priorities are different things. My priorities are firstly to identify what the carbon footprint of our Borough is. Secondly, to crowdsource ideas, identifying and prioritising as many means as we can generate to first reduce and then secondly to offset that footprint. I need to find the funding and support to make those initiatives happen across the borough and I need to find ways to ensure that each of the Borough’s towns, parishes, neighbourhoods and streets work together, to share learnings and best practise, to replicate what has worked and quickly course correct when it doesn’t.
My hopes are that we get to Carbon Neutral before 2030, that in doing so we plant more trees, create more green spaces, become sustainable in terms of energy, housebuilding and infrastructure planning, remove single use plastics, send zero waste to landfill and become a role model for other towns, boroughs and councils who are looking to achieve the same objective.
Success for me would be achieving both the priorities and the hopes and being able to tell my children that we are carbon neutral because their daddy, and many many other wonderful people just decided that we should be and then found a way to make it happen.”
And what are the Council’s and are others behind you?
“The amazing thing is how much work is already happening that perhaps the Council haven’t done a good enough job of telling residents about. For example, did you know that last year we sent less than 9% of all our waste to landfill? That in 2019 it will be less than 2% and by the end of 2020 it could be Zero?
Did you know that the food waste collections are already ahead of target? That the food waste is used to generate power? And that as a result of its success our neighbouring councils are looking to replicate the scheme?
Did you know that Twyford is in the processes of agreeing and installing a green wall to help cut air pollution? Or that many items left at the RE3 centres are recycled and sold to raise tens of thousands of pounds for charity?
There is so much happening. Part of my job is to co-ordinate it, share the best practise and replicate what works. Fortunately there is so much support for making change from across the council, something that can be seen from the unanimous support for the Climate Emergency from across all parties in the council.”
Tell us about the Council declaring a climate emergency. Why now and what does it mean?
“Why now is simple, because it is the right thing to do. It’s not yet too late to make a positive impact on our environment and, despite this being a global problem, local actions can make a difference.
It means that we will now start to look at everything that the council does with an added lens of sustainability. I would expect things like the Local Plan and building guidelines, our highways programmes, leisure and energy programmes to be heavily influenced going forward now that we have declared a Climate Emergency.
It is also a means by which residents can hold us to account. Everything we do has to benefit them and the environment is clearly a big factor.”
Tell us about other projects and initiatives?
“The biggest announcement is that we will be seeking to install ethical solar panels to the roofs of our suitable schools, leisure centres, libraries and other council owned properties. Suitable is an important word here. Some of our schools are older than me, so there are unique challenges to adding state of the art electricity generating equipment to older architecture, within proximity of our children. We will do this, but we have to do it right, safely and considerately.
With over 160,000 residents we are going to need to get creative in terms of how we first reduce and then offset our carbon footprint. Our priority should be, where possible, to remove as much of the carbon emissions from being put into our atmosphere in the first place, but there is only so far that can take us.
Adding trees, flowers, shrubs and grass to our communities, neighbourhoods and towns is proven to be one of the most effective ways of offsetting the emissions that remain. It has the added benefit of looking nice as well.
So we will look at planting trees, re-wilding, adding flowers and shrubs, building living walls and using otherwise unused spaces to add greenery to our Borough.
If you go to New York you will see a lot of roof top greenery, whether they are usable terraces, or just simple garden boxes and planters, every leaf helps. I would like us to start looking at spaces that way. I have also recently seen things like community herb gardens in public squares, and, as most people know, Wokingham is adding allotments as well, for residents to grow their own fruit and vegetables.
I would ask residents, if you know of a space that could be used differently, for the benefit of the environment, please let us know.”
Will we be seeing a zero waste shop coming to the town soon?
“I hope so, but the business model needs to stack up for the retailer, with prices that are attractive to customers. There are a few sustainable businesses being established in Wokingham, from market stalls to others online. I wish them all success. I would love to be able to support a zero waste shop and other sustainable businesses. I suggest that they contact me and we can have a conversation.”
What’s next in Wokingham?
“All of the above and hopefully more. I am genuinely so excited about what those ideas will be, the impact they could have and the future they will help create. Change! Big change! I can’t wait.”
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