I was brought up in a family that had a real focus on environmentalism, a long time before the crisis became quite as apparent as it is now. When I collected our childhood books from my parents to read to my daughter, I found an old favourite - ‘Oi, Get Off Our Train!’ (published 1989), where a young boy and his dog meet a series of animals whose lives and habitats are threatened by human activity. It made me realise how long climate concerns have been voiced and warnings have been sounded. I remember a shocking moment of realisation at a climate meeting of the Northampton Borough Council (as it then was) when a teenage representative referenced ‘preserving the planet for our grandchildren’. I realised that this is a mantra that has been repeated for over forty years, and that, for this young person, it was far more likely that it would be his children or even he himself who witnessed the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. It made me think the phrase that I’ve thought many times in the years since ‘We’re running out of grandchildren’.
It was for this reason that my climate concerns came most sharply into focus last year when I had my daughter. Like many people of my generation, I seriously debated the decision to become a parent in the face of the climate crisis and, like many others, decided on a path of hope through activism and action.
For me, a large part of that comes from my role as a councillor and through the action that we can fight for locally.
I believe that climate action needs to be one of the main considerations in everything that WNC does and that strategy to tackle the climate crisis should be at the heart of WNC’s planning for the future.
As the Labour Group recently pointed out through a motion on Air Quality that we brought to Full Council, a huge part of the action needed is to plan for an Air Quality Strategy and a comprehensive Active Travel Strategy for West Northants.
I remember reading a while ago a statement which said, ‘anyone who becomes a councillor should have to make three journeys around their ward: one on a bike, one with a buggy and one in a wheelchair’. As a regular cyclist previously and now as a mother with a buggy, I have extensive experience of two out of the three. Through this, I have become acutely aware of the Active Travel deficit that we have in West Northants.
With roads that are ill-designed for non-car transport methods, cyclists and scooter riders, rightly or wrongly, often choose to use pavements as a safer alternative, leaving pedestrians, wheelchair users and mobility scooter users sharing the same small space with cyclists and scooter users. This makes active travel a struggle for some and near-impossible for others. A thorough investigation into ways to create safe routes through and around West Northants for cyclists and scooters, as well as pavement users, and a commitment to investing in such routes, is a necessity in order to create any kind of long-term impact.
Current bus timetables, bus routes and bus designs also present a challenge for those seeking to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport. The majority of Northampton routes, particularly, require travellers to go all the way into the Town Centre and out again, rather than take more direct routes. This was particularly evident to me when I was recently travelling regularly from Abington to Kingsthorpe, finding that walking directly took the same amount of time as using the bus would have. There is also a need to think about the accessibility and equity of public transport. The buses that serve West Northants have just one wheelchair space and one pram/buggy space. This means that the number of wheelchair users and parents with babies who can access a bus is very limited, leaving those travellers with little option but to travel by car or taxi when attending work or important appointments. West Northants should look carefully at the public transport on offer and should work with providers to commit to more regular, affordable buses and a redesign that allows for more equity for travellers with different needs.
Whilst there are numerous other actions that WNC could take, these are just two examples of ways in which WNC could make a decisive, positive impact for the climate. WNC has the capacity to change our local area for the better and model to the national government why climate action is so vital. Before we run out of grandchildren.
Councillor Zoe Smith, WNC Councillor for Abington and Phippsville