Cllr Anna Firth is a Sevenoaks councillor, on the Board of the Conservative Environment Network. She contested Canterbury at the 2019 General Election. Megan Trethewey is head of programmes at the Conservative Environment Network having previously worked as a Parliamentary Researcher in Westminster.  

While much about the upcoming local elections will be different, one of the core issues that remains the same and consistently polls as a priority for voters is the environment. Two thirds of Britons now believe that climate change is as serious as coronavirus, according to recent Ipsos Mori polling. As the party of the environment, capturing the “green vote” should be a key target in the upcoming 2021 council elections.

Before the pandemic, the UK was decarbonising at a faster rate, whilst growing our economy faster, than any other G7 nation. From Margaret Thatcher’s seminal speech at the UN, the first world leader to put climate change on the international stage, to Theresa May under whose leadership the UK was the first major economy to adopt a net zero emissions target, and Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution, Conservatives have an environmental record to be proud of.

Many Councils have already committed to net zero carbon targets by 2030 and many are working extremely hard to reduce their carbon footprint. In Sevenoaks, for example, we have moved away from landfill, replaced some diesel vehicles with electric, installed electric charging points in car parks, and introduced planning standards to ensure new homes have a minimal impact on the environment.

Yet we know there so much more to be done, not just to reach net zero, but to protect and restore the natural environment. Councillors have a key role to play so here are some of our top tips for greening your campaign this May.

Net zero motions or climate emergencies – what’s next? Plan and evidence

With 2030 under nine years away, it’s important to have a clear plan to deliver your net zero pledge this May. That doesn’t mean a fully mapped out pathway, since private sector innovation leading to new green technologies, will almost certainly lead the way but, rather, a clear plan to show that your targets are more than just virtue-signalling. Setting short term goals and consulting relevant groups, like Gloucestershire County Council, who have established a Youth Climate Panel, is a good start.

That plan should also be based on evidence as much as possible – don’t let opposition parties back you into a corner with unrealistic commitments. The UK adopted a 2050 net zero target on the advice of the independent Climate Change Committee. The West Midlands Combined Authority set their target to reach net zero by 2041 after commissioning scientific research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change.

Trees, glorious trees, and other green infrastructure

Trees are infinitely popular, and, when planted in the right place, offer multiple benefits from sequestering carbon, to providing habitats, and even slowing the flow of floodwater. Tree planting is also a great PR opportunity, perfect for Facebook and digital campaigning. For example, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council has plans to plant 30 community orchards.

Also beyond trees, as there is more green space locked up in our gardens than in all our national parks combined, you may wish to campaign for more “green infrastructure” to help local wildlife – meaning hedges, wildlife, “planting for pollinators”, “bird and bat feeders”, “green walls” etc. Nature is more likely to thrive where it has more space to roam, so try as much as possible to connect wildlife hotspots such as parks and woods with strips of greenery. This can form part of England’s ‘Nature Recovery Network’ which is being introduced through the Environment Bill. Solihull Borough Council introduced a new ‘Wildlife Ways’ scheme to plant 64 football pitches of wildflower seeding.

Cleaning up local air and protecting little lungs

Air pollution is estimated to contribute to up to 36,000 premature deaths and cost the NHS over £150 million each year. To safeguard children, who are particularly susceptible from the worst impacts of air pollution outside where they study and play, talk to your local head teachers about implementing school street schemes – timed road closures – in appropriate areas. Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s schemes have been popular after they were implemented following calls for expressions of interest.

Improving local active travel infrastructure can also help reduce traffic pollution, and should always be about creating more choice for people rather than less. Ask your local residents – where do they need a pavement widened, a zebra crossing introduced, or a safer cycle path built? Temporary planters or bollards can save you money and let you trial something before making it permanent. More people are getting out on their bikes, and councils can support them to do so safely. The government has made it clear they will be providing more cash for this so start the work talking to communities now. Schemes won’t last if they’re imposed on communities without proper consultation, so early engagement with residents is essential.

Start at home with council buildings and tap into local knowledge

Look at the environmental footprint of your council’s estate including schools, fire stations, libraries, and main office buildings. Are they energy efficient? How is office waste collected? How do your employees and children, for example, travel to school/work? Maybe ask council staff what green changes they would like to see and how you can support them to be more environmentally friendly. Air source heat pumps, solar panels, energy efficient boiler systems all help maximise green energy consumption and significantly reduce harmful outputs.

Right across the country there are British businesses leading and innovating in clean technologies, and charities pioneering new initiatives, that can help you to achieve your environmental goals. Find them and tap into that knowledge base – you may just have a world leading green business right under your nose that you could visit, interview, and spot-light on social media.

Don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory

You can be an environmentalist and a conservative, look no further than the Prime Minister for a case in point. Since 2010, Conservative governments have shown that you can grow the economy and tackle climate change. You can be pro-business and pro-environment. Forward-looking councils and councillors share the Prime Minister’s vision for a Green Industrial Revolution that will invest in British businesses, create a net zero economy, and support thousands of green jobs across the country.

So don’t be afraid to be an eco-Tory this May. Instead, make it a cornerstone of your campaign and sign up to the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) to meet fellow green conservatives, learn more from other local environmental leaders, and receive key green election briefings.