Thanks to Mandy Greenwood (and Tansy – sorry don’t have surname) for setting this up with Mr. Hoare, who then arranged a two hour Zoom meeting for himself and fourteen participants, from Shaftesbury, Gillingham, Verwood, Blandford and elsewhere in the county.
It was intended after the initial chat and formalities were done to devote 25 minutes each to three topics – food and farming; travel, transport and air quality; energy with regard to housing stock/newbuilds – allowing some time after this for any other questions. In the event, the first took well over an hour, the other two were progressively truncated, and other questions just jumped in wherever they could..
Former Green Party candidate Ken Huggins prefaced the opening section on food and farming with an outline of his own view of the situation. He spoke of the need for radical changes to agricultural practice in the light of climate change and destruction of the natural world – a shift to de-industrialisation, conversion to organic methods, no-till and re-wilding where appropriate. Farmers would, he added, need to be incentivised. Was Mr Hoare prepared to help make such radical changes?
At this point, our MP invited other lobbyists to add questions before he spoke. Half a dozen other comments/questions followed, broadening the range but at the same time enabling him greater latitude to pick and choose which points he actually returned to. There may be a lesson to be learned here in how we approach ‘digital democracy’ in practice. One question followed by one answer at a time.
Mr Hoare began by referring to the 2020 Agricultural Bill now passing through Parliament. A brief summary of this proposed legislation can be found here: https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/agriculture.html
With reference to a comment by one of the lobbyists regarding the ageing population of British farmers (average 60+) he spoke of his ‘expectation of a generational shift’ as a result of the Bill’s emphasis on re-appraising and re-evaluating the role of agriculture. He spoke of ‘agri-tech’ and a ‘harvesting of technology’. The only reference I picked up to Ken Huggins’ original question was a vague hope expressed that the Bill would ‘address these issues’. I’m not too sure that high-end technological innovation and de-industrialisation are a guaranteed match, however.
In fairness, Simon Hoare does appear to share some of the lobbyists’ concerns. He expresses firm support for the NFU’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 and shares concern about future trade deals and their potential to lower food standards. He was a prominent supporter of an amendment to the Agricultural Bill that would apparently have guaranteed high standards for food and drink entering the country post-Brexit – which, perhaps unfortunately, was not passed. From what he told us, he continues to work towards this end, though we might bear in mind that his perception of ‘high standards’ may not coincide with all of ours.
Other issues were raised in the course of further question/comment sessions – these included land-tax, education and school-outreach, consumption of meat and dairy products, animal welfare and bio-diversity loss. A clear knack was demonstrated by our MP throughout the debate for sounding both friendly and sympathetic, employing a ready wit and occasionally scoring points. But at a fundamental level, there was little common ground. When the subject of organic farming was raised again, for example, it was clear that – while he was not opposed to its development – it would have to find a way to make a wider impact on the marketplace. While the need to make organic food ‘accessible to those on low and fixed income’ brooks no dispute, I suspect that many of us would disagree with the idea that the marketplace should be the arbiter.
This lengthy debate, its extension self-admittedly encouraged by Mr. Hoare’s interest in these areas, eventually gave way to a shorter discussion on transport. Bronwen Thompson, a resident of central Blandford, spoke of vehicle drivers’ preference for driving through the centre of the town rather than using the by-pass, as an example of air pollution. This prefaced a discussion regarding vehicular emissions and the ever-pressing need to minimise them. Once again, Mr Hoare sympathetically agreed with many of the points raised. He spoke in favour of improving public transport, encouraging cycling and pedestrianisation, though made no personal commitments to this end. Nevertheless his faith in technology and the marketplace was key to his thinking. He spoke of the growing default to internet shopping as a potential traffic reducer; the development of a market for electric/hybrid/hydrogen powered vehicles (on which, he said, all research and development by manufacturers was now focused); and of a re-booting of the economy (‘new jobs, new industries’) that, along with existing laws would somehow take care the problem. It’s going to be ‘carrot and stick’, he told us, economic incentives would drive environmental improvements. I suspect the myth of progress is one in which he still firmly believes, while the idea of reducing consumption garners little support.
By the time we got onto energy use, not much more than ten minutes remained. Pam Rosling raised the issue of continuing and increasing subsidies for oil and gas industries. A direct answer to this was sidestepped. With 60% of our energy now coming from renewables, we were told, the ‘direction of travel’ was ‘clear’. Environmentalism, once seen as a fad, was now ingrained and embedded in the minds of the population and policy makers. The closest he got to answering the question was to tell us that amendments to the Infrastructure Act would be required but that he was unsure the government was ready to make them.
My apologies to anyone present at the meeting who raised issues that I have not covered or have covered inadequately here. I’ve tried to condense this from several pages of notes taken, and of necessity have left out a lot. Towards the end of the meeting I was suffering from Zoom fatigue and some sort of allergy to political Teflon, so the quality of my annotation deteriorated. I hope I have managed to convey some sense of how the meeting went and the frustration that a majority of lobbyists must feel (except perhaps for those with generous donations to offer). At the Planet Shaftesbury hustings meeting last year, Simon Hoare spoke of the importance of ‘pester power’ in the campaign for environmental improvement. I guess we need to keep it up…
This was certainly amongst the conclusions drawn at a ‘debrief’ Zoom meeting last night (July 2). As and when further meetings with Mr Hoare take place, it was agreed they would benefit from clear, well thought-out questions incorporating a requirement that he take some specific form of action on any of the issues discussed. As further government inaction leads to an inevitable worsening of the climate breakdown, perhaps more common ground will appear. (File under ‘slim hopes’?)
Thanks again to Mandy and Tansy and all who participated. For more information on the Climate Coalition and ‘The Time is Now’ lobbies, go to: https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/thetimeisnow