“You have chosen a week when I am about the most toxic man in the country.” So said Jeremy Hunt at the beginning of a meeting with a dozen of his constituents to discuss climate change.
The meeting, at St George’s Church, Badshot Lea, on April 29, was a postponement of one in March which Mr Hunt withdrew from, citing “unforeseen circumstances”. This time, despite stating that he was “toxic” and that he assumed that “none of the group had voted for me”, he and the constituents sought to find common ground.
Mr Hunt started by stating that the Conservative commitment to climate change policies is genuine, and that the future of the environment is something that Conservatives must think about, but that “economic growth holds the key”.
Local architect Chris Holmes introduced the main topics that the group was interested in talking to Mr Hunt about – flood prevention, particularly by planting trees on the Farnham floodplain; energy-efficient buildings; and alternative transport. Mr Hunt was particularly keen on the idea of cycling and said he wanted to press for more cycle lanes in Farnham.
He was, however, frustrated by the fact that different councils had responsibility for different aspects of planning, including transport planning. This is something he had come up against when he mooted the idea of pedestrianisation. “Our local democracy is totally flawed,” he said. “We should have a Farnham council with an elected mayor so we know where the buck stops. When I proposed the pedestrianisation of Farnham it was a complete nightmare as, for example, traffic comes under Surrey County Council, the East Street development under Waverley Borough Council, other things come under Farnham Town Council. In the end I called a referendum on pedestrianisation so that Surrey County Council could not ignore it if there were a ‘yes’ vote.”
This structure has an effect on planning too. The group was keen to look at ways that new homes planning could be co-ordinated taking in to account the need for more active travel and lower carbon emissions. The question was raised why new houses had to have gas fuelled heating and cooking rather than renewables or electric which could be converted to renewables later. Why, Mr Hunt was asked, are developers not forced to install solar panels on new houses?
Jo Musker-Sherwood, from the group Hope for the Future, asked why the government policy for zero-carbon new homes had been cancelled. She asked whether, in the light of this, the government was really committed to tackling climate change. This was something that Mr Hunt agreed he could raise with Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
On the subject of transport Mr Hunt said that agreed with Mark Potter of Protean Electric that “We need a paradigm shift so that we can look at other ways of providing transport.”
“I agree we need a paradigm shift,” he said and added: “I pay tribute to Ken Livingstone – and it is not a fashionable day to do that – because he brought in the congestion charge in London and put the money he made into improving bus travel. In London there are more frequent buses, more bus lanes, and in London there has been a paradigm shift.” He said that he wanted to encourage people to cycle because “every one person we can get to cycle is one out of a car or (in London) off the tube”.
He also listened with interest to an idea put forward by Clive Davidson from Haslemere who said that in Haslemere a group had been looking at how it would be possible to use the Hoppa buses to take people to and from the station. The Hoppa buses are on the road after the early-morning time when most cars are used and before the evening commuter period. They wanted to investigate whether the Hoppa could be used to pick up commuters from villages in the morning and take them back in the evening.
Asked what else he would do to address the concerns of the constituents there, Mr Hunt seemed to feel that flood risk had been dealt with as in Godalming a £3.4million scheme to put in flood defences had just been signed off. He also stalled on making any commitments in terms of active travel/alternatives to cars powered by fossil fuels as he said he believed that first Farnham needs to be pedestrianised and then the town could rethink its public transport. He said he believed in “small steps”, though some in the group begged to differ that this was a small step.
However, this is the beginning of a dialogue and, having agreed to let the group know what Amber Rudd said about zero-carbon emissions on new buildings, he said he would be happy to have further discussions after the summer break, perhaps in September.