In 2019, after 10 years of merging back-office operations, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils became East Suffolk – the newest and largest (by population) non-metropolitan district council.
The environment is one of the principle foundations of the council’s first administration, led by Cllr Steve Gallant, and I am responsible for developing and implementing this vision and engaging with all stakeholders.
We declared a climate emergency as soon as possible. We know we need to lead by actions not just words, to question the status quo and to make bold changes in how the council functions.
The environment is not just about the trees we see outside – it is also about jobs, employment, houses, consumption and waste. So, our environmental policy will involve working alongside business, not acting as a separate pressure.
Development can be positive if it uses fewer resources more efficiently and leaves a smaller carbon footprint. It is not a binary relationship. We do not choose a tree over a house; instead, they must, and should, work together. This is the message that often fails to reach residents.
It is crucial in local government that themes and visions thread across all divisions. The environment should not be locked in a silo, so we are embedding environmental considerations in all policy formation and council decisions.
“We do not choose a tree over a house; they must work together”
Often, the environment debate is focused on one aspect – carbon reduction, for example – but these issues should not be considered in isolation. In East Suffolk, we have proposed clean-energy projects, but these national infrastructure works can also have an impact on the environment, such as on biodiversity or a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The lesson is not to have such major works at any cost, but to look at the full picture. It’s perverse to solve one aspect of the environmental conundrum while destroying something else you want to preserve and nurture.
We need to move away from talking about just the effects of the more environmentally friendly ways of doing things, such as increasing recycling or driving an electric car. We also need to look at how we can change long-term behaviour, such as buying and wasting less in the first place, or adopting more sustainable forms of travel – such as cycling or walking – where possible.
The key is to encourage residents to think about alternative ways of behaviour, and the coronavirus crisis has forced us all to act and think differently. Once we are all fully back to work, I want to make sure that East Suffolk continues with a different office mentality; working from home, hot desking and remote meetings are now top of the agenda.
Planning policy has a big impact on the environment, so we are working with officers on an extensive guide that will act as a reference point for our environmental vision. We are actively encouraging tree planting and less cutting of grass verges, but these changes need to be led by parish and town councils.
District councils, in particular, have an important role to play in leading by example and empowering local communities to do something. No matter how small the changes in our behaviour, any should be celebrated. It’s these small changes that will make a real and lasting difference over time.