Cornwall Greens welcomed Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack as the keynote speaker for their first ever conference on Saturday 21 January.
More than a hundred party members and supporters packed the Council Chamber at County Hall to hear from Amelia and several local speakers. In breaks between sessions, and over a generous and wholesome lunch provided by organiser Julie Bennett, delegates were kept busy at the ‘manifesto marketplace’, which allowed them to give feedback on a range of policies that could be highlighted in the local election manifesto to be launched shortly. Delegates also expressed their solidarity with marchers who had gathered worldwide to protest the direction being taken by the new US administration, particularly with regard to women’s rights, diversity and climate change.
Amelia opened the day with a rousing speech that drew parallels between Cornwall and her own home area, Wales. Both areas are threatened by the loss of development funding, both have a proud cultural heritage, and both suffer from a public transport network that offers ease of travel only to and from London.
“We cannot allow despair to become an excuse for inaction.” Amelia told delegates, emphasising how the Green voice is one of hope, not fear. She stressed how the voice of every party member is important: the voice of the individual members who put forward motions and policies for the national conference; the voice of local councillors standing up for local services, as Tim Andrewes has been doing so effectively on Cornwall Council; the voice of Green MP Caroline Lucas speaking in the Commons against NHS privatisation until silenced by a shameless Tory filibuster; the voices of Green MEPs and of all the international activists in the European and global Green movement – including the Cornish cyclists who travelled to Paris to support the climate change summit.
Amelia announced that she is launching a new Green Party campaign, the 90-Minute Doorstep Challenge, which would challenge Greens in every part of the country to engage personally with people in their local communities to make sure that party policies highlight what’s really most important to them. She stressed the crucial importance of having strong Green voices at local level, saying: “There have never been parties that have won parliamentary seats without first having local councillors.”
Following Amelia’s speech, delegates had a choice of sessions focusing on different aspects of Green policy for Cornwall. The first pair of sessions featured Building Stronger Communities, presented by Greg Matthews, and Air Quality, presented by Claire Hewlett.
Isolated communities and air quality
Greg highlighted the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation that is causing so much harm to people in Cornwall, and that has been made so much worse by the fracturing of communities in the wake of cuts to social services and community facilities. He showed how the lack of affordable housing is making the problem much worse, with many people now unable to stay in the communities in which they were born, while high rents, low wages and financial insecurity mean that people don’t feel that they can afford to go out to socialise.
“The need to build stronger communities is not just a platitude,” he said. “It’s an urgent need to address the causes of what’s building into a massive mental health problem.” And he stressed how every aspect of Cornwall Greens’ local election manifesto would relate to community-based solutions that help to address social isolation.
In the discussion that followed, several delegates described initiatives in their own communities that were having a positive impact, from community agriculture and gardening schemes to online community networks that helped older people gain IT skills.
In her session on air quality, Camelford Town Councillor Claire Hewlett explained how the combination of traffic, hilly terrain and narrow streets created unacceptable levels of air pollution in several Cornish towns. Claire illustrated the all-too-frequent pattern of bypass and road improvement plans being repeatedly shelved, explaining that public transport was not a feasible alternative to driving, with no evening buses and the nearest station a 30 minute drive away (and parking there often impossible). Bodmin was held up as an example of good practice, discouraging town centre traffic and promoting cycling. During discussion, there were also calls for Cornwall Greens to prioritise public transport and promote alternatives to the school run.
Ecosystems and transport
Lindsay, whose session was wittily and provocatively titled What has the environment ever done for us? talked about the Sustainable Drainage System (SuDS) initiative and how it can be multi-functional. She also talked about the Leaf Litter Project in Lostwithiel, using people on community payback to clear leaves from drains for flood prevention, and the positive effect on both the community and the participants. Those who took part, via the probation service, enjoyed a low re-offending rate, a sense of achievement, and the gratitude of the community. And finally, Lindsay could point to a useful product: a very nice compost used on Trafalgar Roundabout in Truro during the WW1 poppy display in 2014. Chris Jones, who shared the platform, talked about use of herbal lays and mob grazing, avoidance of chemical inputs and tree planting: resulting in better animal health and welfare, water management, greater biodiversity, including pollinators, and most significantly the high potential for sequestering carbon in soil.
Tim, who has represented St Ives East on Cornwall Council since 2013, is vice-chair of the Council’s Transport Committee. His presentation was aptly titled Bringing Cornwall Together, and he showed how Green transport policies could do just that, outlining plans for an integrated transport policy – including half-hourly trains along the Cornish mainline, linked to more frequent buses – by the end of next year. Tim explained how reducing the need to travel, promoting ‘active travel’ in the form of walking and cycling, and improving public transport, can help communities to flourish and encourage social cohesion. There was also discussion of car-sharing schemes, which are being established in Falmouth and Truro.
After the morning break, Martin Corney presided over a panel discussion on Renewable Energy, featuring Amelia Womack, Amanda Pennington of WREN, Claire Gibson of Hayle Wave Hub and James Miller, who also works in the renewables industry. Delegates heard about the wide range of technologies becoming available – from wind turbines to wave hubs, and from solar panels to hot rocks. The discussion shed light on technical aspects of the debate and the difficulty of balancing different Green concerns. This was highlighted when discussion turned to the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, and whether the positive outcome justified the environmental impacts of quarrying and transporting building materials. Other problems included inappropriate wind farm sites that had alienated public opinion, hostility and changes of policy from Westminster which had destabilised business plans, and of course the might of the fossil fuel lobby.
However, the outlook was positive: renewables have the potential to localise energy supply and ensure that profits generated are used for the common good. Above all, Greens need to present their arguments in support of new energy sources in clear and simple terms and to emphasise the practical and cost benefits to consumers.
Another fringe session featured John Schofield on the Importance of Economic Policy. John gave a big picture view, suggesting that the concept of money-creation needs to be rethought, so that money supply is brought under democratic control and directed to socially and environmentally useful purposes rather than (as at present) towards investment in in property and financial assets that further enrich a tiny minority. This, he argued, would lead to a truly sustainable economy that was not dependent on perpetual growth and inflation. Delegates attending the session suggested a number of ways in which Green policies can ensure that money is used in ways that help to build sustainable communities in Cornwall, including local currencies, credit unions and more local sourcing of Council contracts.
Affordable local housing
In an inspiring talk on Community Land Trusts (CLTs), independent Cornwall Councillor Loic Rich described a project he is involved with in Truro that is helping to provide genuinely affordable local housing to people who would otherwise be priced out of the market. The importance of such schemes was highlighted by the fact that 90 percent of people who work in Truro don’t live there – a situation which puts great stress on them personally as well as on transport systems, and reduces the time they can spend in their own communities. Loic described how CLTs focus on developing homes on brownfield sites and reclaiming derelict sites, and how the Truro scheme is creating apartments designed to excellent design and energy-efficiency standards. He stressed the importance of getting people involved in decisions about the homes they will live in, and described how money was available to develop CLTs, not least from the levy paid by private developers to Cornwall Council.
After lunch, the main session was another panel – this time on social enterprise. Steve Angove chaired a panel that featured Amelia Womack; Tarn Lamb, Chief Executive at Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change; Councillor Loic Rich; and Manda Brookman of the CoAST sustainable tourism network. After outlining what social enterprise is, and emphasising its importance in building social capital in communities as well as distributing profit to community stakeholders, Steve drew interesting responses from the panel members.
Amelia pointed to inspiring examples of how cooperatives in Spain have filled gaps that businesses and government to fail to fill and helped reduce levels of crime and domestic abuse, and of community renewables schemes in the UK using their profits to train young people in skills needed for this growing industry. Tarn pointed to the urgency of finding better ways of engaging people in economic activity, especially when some Cornish communities have seen seven or eight generations of unemployment. She also suggested that Cornwall needed a Cornwall Social Fund to ensure that any replacement of EU funding for social enterprises is spent in ways that truly benefit local communities. Manda suggested we need to rethink what companies do – and that the focus should not be on just doing things less badly but on producing social and environmental good. There was general agreement that councils should not be putting contracts out to tender in a way that makes it inevitable that they will go to the ‘big boys’ rather than to locally-based social enterprises, and that social enterprise should not be seen as ‘philanthrocapitalism’ or a way of passing the buck for services that should be provided by central and local government.
The first of the afternoon fringe presentations covered the World of Multi-academy Trusts (MATs). Joanne Dean – a primary head – gave a brief history of the academisation of schools which had begun under the Blair government. Focusing on Cornwall, the presenters showed how competition, “masquerading as parental choice” had established itself and how MATs had been made the norm through the promotion of fear in the education sector and, failing that, by compulsion. This had brought about what is, in effect, an NHS-style internal market with schools competing and growth – bizarrely – seen as a measure and inevitable outcome of success. Richard Clark – from the secondary sector – drew delegates’ attention to the geographical remoteness of the new MATs; one, which controls five Cornish schools, being based in Doncaster. There was also a risk that buildings and land would be sold off, and that profiteering could intrude into purchasing and salaries.
Culture and heritage
In the second fringe event, Linda Camidge offered a Green take on Culture and Heritage. Linda spoke enthusiastically about Green Party policy and showed how it offered far more than the “tree museums” that stereotyped representations of the Party might lead the public to expect. Linda showed a wide range of examples of community-based arts events, organisations and venues, from the building of the Minack Theatre in the far west to the Charles Causley Trust and Festival in the east. Three suggested policies to focus on in campaigns were protection of libraries, free admission – especially to the Cornwall branches of the national museums – and support for local arts associations.
Being a councillor and dealing with waste
The afternoon break was followed by two more fringe events. In the Grenville Room, Tim Andrewes gave his second presentation of the day, this time an informal explanation of what it was like to be a Cornwall Councillor. Tim’s aim was to energise prospective candidates, so that we can establish a Green group and have a bigger presence on the committees and a more effective voice. This process begins with parish and town council representation, and there is still time for prospective candidates to come forward and have a try at standing in May.
Over in the Council Chamber, Euan McPhee’s presentation on waste highlighted Cornwall’s mediocre performance in Household Waste Recycling and the need to move up from landfill and incineration to recycling and – even better – reuse, minimisation and prevention of waste. Euan also showed how much material currently has to be moved long distances out of Cornwall for recycling, and argued that more could be done through small-scale local recycling operations. The ensuing discussion raised a number of issues and ways forward, including a suggested mandatory ban on single-use plastic bags, better communication of recycling information by Cornwall Council, and the potential for community compost schemes for food waste.
Manda Brookman ended the day on a high note, with an inspiring and powerfully delivered presentation. Manda, winner of the 2016 Cornwall Sustainability Award for Individual Contribution, began with the negative aspects of 2016: the migrant crisis, Brexit, an ever-widening wealth divide, the extinction of species and global warming. But she left delegates with hope, and with a road map for the future based on “creative disruption.”
Manda focused on the need to “reclaim our lexicon” and examine the true meanings of terms such as growth and resilience. She pointed out that collaboration originally meant working – labouring – together, that ecology and economics originally meant knowing and managing the household, and that thinking of the disciplines in this way would help us to adopt sound policies and apply sensible solutions. She sent delegates home with a clear vision: including how emperor penguins do a better job than humans at working together for the common good; a reminder of our duty to speak truth to power; understanding how cognitive dissonance can lead people to reject change; and that to develop our own views and communicate effectively we need to listen carefully to opponents and consider what they have to say, while challenging the narratives that have got us into this mess. Manda emboldened us to tell different, more inspiring stories.
Many thanks to the delegates, the speakers, and particularly to Julie Bennett for coping with everything from booking speakers to buying biscuits; from setting out policy posters to setting up tea urns; and generally for organising a day so full of hope and inspiration for the future.