Improvements for Nature

WBC’s Full Council meeting has just taken place.  I sadly couldn’t attend in person as I got pinged by test and trace so am self-isolating until Sunday.  Not all councillors can attend anyway because the venue isn’t big enough to host all councillors with Covid measures in place.  If you don’t attend in person, you can ask questions and take part in debates via Microsoft Teams, but you cannot vote or propose or second motions.  In other words, we can’t fulfil our full duties as elected members for our constituents. 

At the beginning of the meeting, the Mayor announced that we wouldn’t get to any motions in the agenda due to time constraints.  We repeatedly have issues with time running out.  Motions are an opportunity for members of the opposition as well as the ruling group to put forward policy ideas.  As members of the opposition, there are few opportunities for us to be a part of steering the direction of the council and to hold the ruling group to account.  There are motions on the agenda that have been on the agenda for months now.  We have a log jam.  Democracy is not happening. 

Tonight, I was due to second a motion that Cllr Ian Shenton is proposing that we wrote with the assistance of the head of policy at BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust).  We sadly didn’t get to it, despite the urgency.  We have of course resubmitted and just pray that we get to it next time.  Here is the wording of the motion:

“This Council formally declares an ecological emergency and will:

  1. Address ecological issues alongside climate emergency actions and ensure that opportunities to gain co-benefits from addressing both the climate and ecological emergencies are maximised. 
  2. Add ecological implications alongside those for climate in committee and council reports. 
  3. Ensure the delivery of biodiversity and environmental enhancements through our planning policy and development control functions by providing guidance through a biodiversity supplementary planning document. 
  4. Strive to enable the development of a 20% mandatory biodiversity net gain policy for Wokingham through the new local plan. 
  5. Create a Developing Nature Toolkit and direct developers to use the toolkit to assist them in demonstrating a net gain in biodiversity, to be used from the very outset of planning new developments, and ideally at the time of selecting sites to acquire for development. 
  6. Re-establish the Wokingham Biodiversity Forum to allow the Council to collaborate effectively with partners and the wider community. 
  7. Where possible, embed ecological initiatives within all council work areas, including Covid-19 recovery projects and programmes. 
  8. Promote woodland planting and rewilding in the right places and with the right species, peatland restoration, natural flood management, wild flower meadows, and habitat creation and restoration. 
  9. Work with local, county, regional and national partners to increase wildlife habitats, green infrastructure and natural capital in Wokingham Borough ensuring robust connectivity between them. 
  10. Manage council services, buildings and land in a biodiversity-friendly manner, including by reviewing the use of harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and taking opportunities to create new wildlife habitats and corridors.
  11. Provide advice for local communities and businesses on how to incorporate biodiversity, green infrastructure and natural capital into Neighbourhood Plans and other initiatives. 
  12. Encourage residents to take biodiversity measures in their own homes by, for example, wildlife gardening and home composting. 
  13. Working collaboratively with the Berkshire Local Nature Partnership, Wokingham Biodiversity Forum, a cross party working group and other stakeholders, produce a local nature recovery strategy and associated action plan with an annual progress report to full council.”

The Mayor stated that he will work with leaders of all groups to try and resolve the issue of not getting to motions.  I just hope that a way forward can be found so we can get the commitment from the council to act on important issues like protecting and improving nature! 

I also didn’t get to ask my ward question due to meeting being extended by 30 minutes (which is constitutionally allowed), being voted down by the ruling group.  My ward question was:

“The My Journey team has developed maps for each school in the borough to encourage more active travel to and from school.  I took a look at the one for my local school, Evendons Primary, and was shocked at what had been put together.  It assumes no children live south of the school, and for those that live north west, actually suggests they walk along a 60mph narrow lane with no pavement.  It doesn’t show the pedestrian crossing or any other paths that can be used, yet shows buses that are seen less frequently than a solar eclipse. 

The school has mapped out where its children live and where the pitfalls are in the active travel infrastructure.  I’ve repeatedly asked for highways officers to meet with myself and the headteacher so we can get a plan in place to make improvements to encourage more walking and cycling.  Please can you instruct the highways team to make this meeting happen?”

On a more positive note, I did get to ask a question of the Executive member for environment:

“This Council, as part of its environmental commitments, needs to ensure that whilst some open spaces like play parks and some roadside verges are regularly cut, it takes the opportunity to improve biodiversity in other public areas by turning them into native wildflower meadows. To ensure that the Council’s grass cutting contractor doesn’t accidentally cut these areas, and to mitigate any complaints from the public regarding perceived neglect of such areas, will this Council please adopt the blue heart plaque scheme, installing these plaques in wildflower sites and issuing a series of public communications to raise awareness?”

The response was that this was a great idea and they will be looking to pursue this.  I also requested, along with Cllr Shirley Boyt, that there is an easy to use system for residents to communicate and nominate sites for rewilding.  It’s very easy to report a problem on the council website, but the same technology could be used for making suggestions of this nature. 

I will work with officers in the background to ensure the positive response turns into positive action! 

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