Horsham District Council’s Big Conversation has opened a discussion across the whole district about climate change, the environment and development pressures. This proved a good initiative, but, as this blog from Tony Whitbread argues, much more needs to be done.

Three separate meetings in Horsham District were led by Jonathan Chowen (Leader of the Council) and supported by key members and officers. Presentations were followed by questions to members, with full opportunity given for people to express their views.  Though each event was fully booked in advance, attendance was disappointing, meaning the room was far from full. A pity, since HDC put in significant effort to make it work.

Councillor Chowen made it very clear that HDC wants the new Local Plan to be environmentally led. This is fundamental and important, yet is often obscure in some Local Plan discussions. The environment is our basic resource; we ignore that at our peril. The climate and ecological crisis should clearly feature highly in planning, and there was recognition of work in progress to this effect. For instance, HDC aim to get their own emissions down to net zero carbon by 2030 and want to put some effort into reaching net zero in the wider district. Their “Wilder Horsham” project in partnership with Sussex Wildlife Trust aims to establish a nature recovery network across the district. But much of the discussion was, understandably, focused on development pressure.

In common with the rest of the South East, the district is under pressure to permit significant levels of housing development. New houses may always be needed but many of us are not convinced by the measures used for calculating housing need that are imposed on the area. Plans for Horsham (and neighbouring Chichester), however, have now been put on hold because of the implications of water stress on a notified rare species – the little whirlpool ramshorn snail. This was presented in a rather pro-development BBC “Countryfile” programme as a small snail stopping righteous levels of housing development. Natural England, the government’s wildlife body, were presented as bureaucrats getting in the way of progress. But to me, the snail should be considered more like the canary in the coal mine.  If the canary gets sick you don’t blame the people holding the canary, you worry about the air in the coal mine!  (Countryfile even asked whether the snail could be moved.  A bit like asking if the canary can be moved when the air in a coal mine gets toxic!). Damage to snail populations indicates how water stressed the area is, and it is the water stress that must be addressed. This is the basis for the current “water neutrality” need. New development cannot take any net extra water from the environment – if water is taken then it must be balanced by water saved somewhere else.

Indeed, water stress is only one aspect of the unsustainability of our current development path. The ecological footprint of each one of us — the number of hectares each of us needs to survive — is about 4ha (see Global Footprint Network).  Multiply this by the number of people in Horsham and you get a figure 12 times the size of the district. Horsham needs an area 12 times its physical size to support its population at its current level of consumption. No wonder the area is suffering increasing signs of stress. The little whirlpool ramshorn snail should be a wake-up call, not a bureaucratic inconvenience.

Local authorities can only go so far in defence of their area. Government pressure and vested interests, along with legitimate need, will mean that ways of mitigating water stress will probably be found. The need for water neutrality is causing delay to, for example, Neighbourhood Plans, and this is regretted by some. But this is just a tiny indication of the mammoth problems we are facing. It’s a small jolt to the system, but such jolts will get bigger and more frequent until we properly address the deeper implications of the climate and ecological emergency. I do not blame our local authorities if they are only able to take small steps – that would be blaming the victim for the crime. Equally, it is not SECA’s job to unquestioningly support the work of local authorities; we are here to push them further than they think they can go.

We should remind ourselves of the severity of warnings from scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Changes needed are urgent, deep, and large scale – we should be looking for urgent systemic changes but those we generally get are leisurely, superficial, and tiny.  We have a looong way to go!

Questions and answers raised at the three public meetings have been collated and published on the HDC website.

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