Mon, 25 Mar 2019
DISTRICT councillors were subjected to a double-pronged attack by opposition party members, who accused the Conservative-led administration of not keeping “two clear and present dangers” to West Berkshire’s economy – climate change and Brexit – at the forefront of its political agenda.
West Berkshire Green Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Newbury, Steve Masters, questioned the council’s commitment to implement a “credible, science-based solution” at a full council meeting on Tuesday, March 5.
Mr Masters, who also questioned the credibility of the council’s determination to include environment impact assessments in its decision-making, asked his question in light of a walk-out staged by Newbury school pupils last month, as part of a nationwide climate change student protest.
And opposition member Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) criticised the local authority for not making any contingency plans in its rolling three-year strategy in anticipation of financial demands relating to both climate change and Brexit.
But council leader Graham Jones (Con, Lambourn Valley) said that green issues remained “at the heart of Conservatism”.
The council leader even read out an excerpt from a speech from Margaret Thatcher delivered to the Royal Society in September 1988, when she envisaged that mankind had “unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet” with its significant use of fossil fuels, demographic and agricultural changes.
But Mr Masters responded: “If Mrs Thatcher was such a visionary, why are we still talking about this now?
“Your party – Mrs Thatcher’s party – still continues to back fracking and a third runway at Heathrow. These are incompatible – would you agree?”
But Mr Jones declined to agree with the environmental activist, instead underlining the need to unify in the face of environmental adversity.
Mr Jones said: “We ought to be looking at where we agree to take this agenda forward – not trying to find where we can find divisions between us.”
Mr Jones’ words were echoed by the council’s portfolio holder for energy, transport and the countryside Jeanette Clifford (Con, Northcroft), who assured Mr Masters that assessing environmental impact was already an “integral” part of council planning and decision-making.
Mrs Clifford added that, while working on its new local plan, the council had already rejected a fifth of the sites that had come forward on biodiversity grounds alone.
The opposition bench also levelled criticism at the council’s immediate plans around climate change and Brexit.
Mr Brooks slammed the council for not making any reference to both climate change and Brexit in its Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) – a document which sets out how the council will spend its money and determine its use of reserves.
The Liberal Democrat member said: “There’s nothing in this MTFS regarding something that’s going on in the country, you may have noticed it… what is it again?
“Oh, Brexit – Brexit.”
Mr Brooks continued: “Neither is there anything in this MTFS specifically aboutclimate change.
“So we don’t expect there’ll be some demands on climate change?
“We don’t expect there’ll be a demand from a result of whatever Brexit or dog’s breakfast of a Brexit we’ll end up with?
“Surely, surely, you should have put some contingency in your MTFS against those two clear and present dangers to the economy of the country, the economy of the world and the economy of West Berkshire.”
But Conservative members remained muted in response to the points raised by Mr Brooks.
Mr Jones, however, mentioned the £210,000 funding that the council will receive from the Government to assist it with its Brexit preparations.
The funding will be divided into two years – £105,000 in 2018/19 and £105,000 in 2019/20.