Fresh Perspective by Ryan Hall

A column by Ryan Hall, as seen in MDA and PRSD

Climate Change and Cuts Exacerbate Flooding

Last week large parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands suffered from large-scale flooding, described by some as a “national emergency”, thousands have been forced out their homes, with many expected not to be able to return for months. There is no doubt that we are now seeing extreme weather events happening more frequently. The South West has seen its fair share of this type of weather, with disruption to roads and our railways common place, is this something we should just get used to?

We are all aware of the impact of severe weather on our everyday lives, think back to the storms in 2014 which destroyed part of the sea wall at Dawlish, paralysing the rail network. We are continually facing disruption due to storms in this area. Dawlish is however seeing significant investment to ensure the railway is protected from the sea. Our local Rivers and streams also regularly see high water levels. Though the river Lemon running through Newton Abbot has not flooded the town since 1979, huge surges of water can still be seen flowing through the town following periods of prolonged rainfall.

Large-scale flooding is something which reported in the news. Small-scale localised flooding of roads and properties is also widespread but is not always the result of high river levels. Blocked drains and unmaintained drainage channels are a common cause of more localised flooding. Especially in the autumn when drains become blocked with leaves and other debris. Cuts to local government, mean highway maintenance gets left behind. Under the current rules, water needs to be standing for more than 24 hours after rainfall as ceased for the authorities to act on blocked drains. We all know which local areas to avoid during heavy rain knowing the drains will be blocked and roads unpassable.

Our emergency services and even the Environment Agency struggle to respond to floods. Devon and Somerset are still awaiting the outcome of the “safer together” consultation which will reveal what the future holds for our fire and rescue service, flooding is just another thing to add to a long list of services which we need the fire and rescue service to respond to quickly.

Our natural environment is the best flood defence there is, but this seems to be disappearing and our landscape changing into housing developments and roads, this is without doubt going to worsen surface water flooding in some areas. Climate change is also expected to bring more severe weather to the UK, with this will also come more flooding. We will never be able to eliminate the risk of flooding, but we can do more to deal with the impacts when it does happen. Ensuring local authorities have the funding to clear block drains, before flood water becomes so bad it damages property. Emergency services and other agencies also need the resources to prevent flooding and or, respond to it efficiently and safely when it does happen.

Fracking or renewables ?

Fracking is breaking news in the UK at the moment, the controversial method of extracting shale gas from rock deep underground and the associated environmental concerns make it widely opposed across the UK. Shale gas is, a natural gas used for heating and cooking in homes, its extraction from the earth involves pumping pressurised, water, sand and chemicals into boreholes which then fractures rock allowing the gas to flow to the surface.

There are plenty of justified reasons that campaigners have when it comes to opposing fracking, from water contamination to local earth tremors, which have been widely reported in areas of fracking activity. Fracking is, not only unsustainable but does nothing to combat global warming and widespread climate change. Plans go directly against the commitment of the Paris Climate Agreement to end the use of fossil fuels. And a recent independent government report stated that fracking is simply not compatible with the UK’s climate targets.

Fracking operations in the UK are relatively small scale in the UK, it is quite right to oppose the activity, especially in times when climate change is high on the agenda. However, the UK must also drastically reduce its reliance on oil and gas, if we are to even dream of hitting those targets set out by the Paris Agreement. Latest reports from climate finance analysts, Carbon Tracker warn that global reserves of fossil fuels still significantly exceed the amount that can be burned to stay within Paris limits.

There is, however, some good news stories on the horizon when it comes to climate change. Renewable energy sources now provide more electricity to homes and businesses than fossil fuels. Electricity from British windfarms, solar panels and renewable biomass is now surpassing that produced by fossil fuels for the first time since the UK’s first power station fired up in 1882. An ever-growing sight on our coastlines are offshore windfarms, an increase in energy generated by this sort of technology has seen renewables now account for nearly 40% of the country’s electricity, this is a crucial tipping point in our energy transition.

These large-scale renewable energy generation projects need to work in hand with reducing overall consumption, we will never be able to transition to low carbon if we do not tackle energy efficiency in our homes and businesses. Ensuring all homes are as efficient as possible would drastically reduce the amount of energy we use as well as save us all money. All homes and businesses should all have energy-saving upgrades including loft insulation, double glazing and more efficient heating systems. Building upgrades coupled with accelerated transition to renewable energy is the only way the UK can meet new tougher targets on emissions and become leaders in the battle against climate change.  

Universal Credit

​Universal credit was introduced in Teignbridge in September 2018. It was introduced to replace 6 separate benefit payments including, jobseekers’ allowance, income support and housing benefit. To describe this massive change in the UK welfare system as controversial is an understatement. Since the roll out began it has been plagued with huge delays, mounting costs and blamed for causing hardship for many of those most vulnerable people in our society.

​Charities are blaming it for a huge increase in the use of foodbanks across the country. The Trussell Trust research found the use of foodbanks increased by 30% in the 12 months following implantation, in some areas this use of foodbanks was also shown to increase over time, rather than fall which most would expect. The reason for this is put down to the 5 weeks a claimant needs to wait before receiving first payments. Those struggling to cope are having to decide between hardship now, or hardship later. This is putting immeasurable strain on advice services, council-led crisis provision and foodbanks, with many local charities and organisations taking the strain due to cuts in other services. 

You don’t need to search very hard to find stories of those suffering at the hands of this cruel welfare policy,locally and nationally people are forced into homelessness at the hands of a system which supporting those who need it most. Tenants are getting into arrears and facing evictionbecause of the long wait for money, with many ending up on the streets. Coupled with mounting debt trying to pay for the rest of life’s necessities, this is leading to increased anxiety for many. With half of claimants reporting worsening mental health whilst waiting for payments, leading to many preventable deaths. 

Rather than acting as a safety net to ensure vulnerable people do not face destitution, the stories from across the country seem to be telling a very different story of the realities of living on universal credit. The current levels of benefits coupled with rising rents and living costs, are locking people into poverty. Instead of helping those with disabilities and long-term health conditions, the system is having the opposite effect, making daily life harder. 

Universal credit was supposed to make life easier, instead it has reversed many of the things a well-functioning welfare system is supposed to provide. The whole system is an unmitigated disaster and should be stopped in its tracks. It should then be replaced with a fully integrated, NHS style of social security, there for those who need it in times of need.

Integrated Public Transport

Personal car ownership is on the rise, with many families owning more than one car, this has put pressure on our towns and city centres, but also on residential areas, our towns cannot cope with the amount of traffic on the road. Residents are increasing frustrated by sitting in traffic for hours after a long day at work. Traffic in Newton Abbot and our ever-expanding outskirts will only get worse, as Teignbridge council adopt the local plan, which involves building residential and employment developments across the district.

                With the climate emergency on the agenda on all local authorities, including here in Devon and Teignbridge. Planners are tackling the increase in traffic by building new roads across our countryside, but is this the only way of beating congestion?

                While new roads shorten journey times for most commuters, ambitious plans for the district to be carbon neutral will not be achievable unless we see major changes in transport provision. Whilst I advocate the use of electric cars, a complete transition to this would be too slow to meet targets set by 2030. A different approach is needed one that aims to put fast, reliable transportation services within walking distance of as many homes and jobs as possible.

                Whilst Newton Abbot is lucky to have the main railway line connecting the SW to London and beyond, this is not a luxury which is in reach of everyone. Many of those not living within easy of reach of the railways, especially those in the surrounding residential areas and villages, know the difficulty of trying to get home after a train journey.

                The lack of integration and coverage of local public transport is the reason that many have no choice but to get into cars when travelling to work. The reason for this lack of integration is probably down to the fragmentation of our transport networks, all owned by different companies, with the major interest being profit, instead of providing a reliable, efficient and cheap service for passengers.

                By fully integrating all modes of public transport we will see social, environmental and economic benefits for all. A bus can take 75 cars off the road, with obvious benefits in terms of relieving congestion and cutting pollution, more consideration needs to be put into integrating better public transport into our local communities, enabling everybody to access, work, schools, hospitals and high streets with ease.

                Ideally, we need a nationwide public transport system planned, implemented and managed by a single authority. Local authorities should be investing in public transport if they are serious about cutting carbon emissions and cutting congestion, better planning is required for new developments to ensure they can be accessed by sustainable, affordable and efficient public transport.

Local Authority Cuts

Many people are confused about which council does what, in brief; Devon County Council is responsible for education, health & social care, and highways; Teignbridge District Council is responsible for rubbish collection/recycling, maintaining green spaces, car parks, and most public toilets; Town/Parish Councils are responsible for allotments, upkeep of footpaths, café pavement licenses, and local museums, and are statutory consultees to the District Planning Authority on planning applications.

Since 2010 local authorities have seen their funding slashed, but with increasing, aging, populations, and a constant need to provide health and social care for the elderly and vulnerable, some things are being neglected by councils, since they have no choice but to prioritise spending.

As funding is cut, councils need to make difficult financial decisions. Things like education, though still cut to the bone, will need priority funding. Many councils are now struggling to meet their statutory duty of care to their local people, let alone providing for the extra community projects that would enhance the towns they serve.

Notable concerns to many people are those things which visibly blight the neighbourhood; potholes and overgrown weeds, for example. The highways department will now only attend to these sorts of things if they are likely to cause a major hazard to drivers or pedestrians. I have seen plenty of local footpaths unpassable, but not deemed a severe enough hazard to be dealt with quickly.

Recently, we have seen stories in the local media of small armies of volunteers who have been hitting the streets to litter pick, tidy flower beds, clean road signs, and clear paths of obstructions. Whilst this is commendable, councils should not be encouraged to neglect essential maintenance because they think, if it gets bad enough, the public will be convinced to take care of it.

Councils, and councillors like myself, must be continuously lobbying for better funding, to allow us to maintain regular upkeep, without relying on unstable, volunteer manpower.

In Newton Abbot, grass verge cutting, which is the responsibility of Devon County Council, is not being done regularly enough, if at all, which is not going unnoticed by local people. The Town Council is currently looking into a solution, with the possibility of taking this on as an additional responsibility, but it will not come for free, and will need to be carefully budgeted for, to ensure the solution is sustainable.

Town and Parish Councils are taking up the slack for underfunded County and District Councils, which means many of the things provided by the most local councils would disappear forever if they were unable to take on the commitment.

Well funded councils build attractive, sustainable, communities; which encourage visitors and buyers alike to come and enrich our towns, and our local economies.