What will your town’s urgent actions involve to reduce the impact of the urban heat island effect?

Only it was something that the UK Climate Risk Assessment of January 2017 said was an urgent action over the following five years. And we are now six months on from that end point and the mega hotwave is about to hit us.

I quoted the report in my last-but-one blogpost at the start.

“What about the leadership debates – didn’t they say anything about climate?”

I didn’t listen to either of the Tory leadership debates – although others in my family who don’t follow politics as closely, did. And it’s the opinions of those watching that matter more than mine. With the next general election just over two years away, opposition parties will be lining up the quotations to use against their Conservative opponents – and a critical mass of the public will have remembered what they saw on the telly as Government ministers and senior MPs tore into their own party’s record in office.

As for my case, what was the point for someone like me who watches Parliament TV and have them spout the same ‘lines to take’? And in a safe non-Tory seat, anything voting-wise I might do is utterly irrelevant given the once mighty local party that held the Cambridge parliamentary seat while I was at primary school in the 1980s no longer has *any* active functioning branches in its constituency party. (They put it in their AGM which they put online in 2019. Then CV19 hit). Actually, they have appointed a new executive:

…and if you look at the 2019 general election results, over 8,000 people were prepared to back a candidate who was effectively a ‘paper candidate’ who was a councillor in Harlow. He achieved the lowest percentage of the vote for his party since the UK achieved universal suffrage. Which is saying something. Ironically, the national party maintaining the line of backing the First-Past-The-Post system of elections is one of the very things stopping the party from growing. Proportional representation is far more likely to give the party a few seats on the city council.

As The Cambridge Green Party have shown with their now three councillors (all in Abbey ward in East Cambridge – one of the most economically deprived wards in our city), they have been able to use that presence to generate local news items in the local media. They have two motions up for debate at the last full council before the summer break on Thursday – see the agenda here, items 6c on private renting, and 6d on rivers, safe sewage, and swimming.

One of the emerging political battlegrounds is between the Conservatives and The Greens – in particular in areas where large developments are proposed. (The Greens are opposed to the entire economic system that promotes economic growth, so to be against the developments and protecting the environment is a straight-forward argument).

If the current crop of ministers and MPs won’t do anything to deal with overheating buildings and the urban heat island effect, what can the rest of us do?

This is where Jessica Studert’s paper comes in – the one by the New Local think tank here

It’s all about the NHS embracing the community sectors as a means of preventative public health rather than reactive public health delivered by institutions. I blogged about it here and pondered the concept of co-ordinated local public services within specific settlements and geographies – whether a town or city, or whether a group of villages in a parish or district.

Conceptually, most people in and around Cambridge should be familiar with this sort of geographical model of urban and district planning – because it’s a model we live in. On the bottom left is the concept as illustrated by pioneering town planner Thomas Sharp in Town and Countryside from 1931 – which I’ve digitised here.

…and above-right is from Nathaniel Lichfield’s Cost Benefit analysis of town planning in the old Cambridge County from 1966 (pre-dating the current county council’s boundaries) illustration of local centres (in colour-shades) of the towns that surround Cambridge (most of which are outside Cambridgeshire – which complicates things), with Cambridge as the main regional centre.

But as often seems to be the case, ministers and Whitehall seem to be the block – as spoofed by (L-R) Sir Arnold, Sir Humphrey, and Sir Bernard in Yes Minister prior to the Minister of Administrative Affairs becoming Prime Minister.

Above – Yes Minister – a show that became surprisingly popular with one former PM that she asked to feature in a sketch prior to handing an award to the show at a glamorous ceremony in central London in the 1980s.

(Eagle-eared watchers will note that in the original series, Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Applby’s degree was in classics, not politics & economics!)

…So it was interesting to hear one of the candidates for PM – Penny Mordaunt MP (who has been following me & Puffles on Twitter for years!) stating in her closing speech that the politics and political leadership in the UK was broken.

…with me asking about major institutional changes from a local government perspective taking that to be the case.

Towns and cities cannot deal with the urban heat island effect if so many of the powers that are needed are locked away in other tiers of government or sitting in a silo in Whitehall awaiting a ministerial signature.

…such as in the example of approving new lifelong learning colleges for adults wanting to switch careers towards something more practical that does not involve going to university. This case matters because there will be many reasons why older learners will not want to be in an institution full of teenagers – and there will be the inevitable safeguarding issues too.

In Cambridge, a number of schools and colleges re-use their premises in the evening for adult education courses – similar to many other places across the country. But restricting training for career-switchers to evening classes only doesn’t strike me as an ‘urgent action’ to train up a new workforce needed to deliver the renovation and retrofitting urgently needed and at scale.

Furthermore, where are the courses that people can learn? At Cambridge Regional College they’ve started – but only for electric vehicles in their Green Technologies course offer. Furthermore, the Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough does not have the financial powers to raise the necessary funds to pay for a new generation of courses within its skills remit. You can read what they are currently doing here. One option that some of you may want to look at is the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. You can see their short courses here. With the new towns being built around Cambridge, one question worth asking is whether a similar institution but with a wider remit and range & depth of courses could be built in one of the newtowns within walking distance to a major public transport hub – light rail / guided busway / railway station stop. That way it would give people a reason to visit from outside, and reduce the risk of those towns becoming dormitory towns for Cambridge’s science and tech parks.

The concept of the local public state as a partnership

The fragmentation of, and the selling off of so many former publicly-owned assets by successive governments makes this a much, much harder task under the existing system of governance. Let’s look at some examples – starting with one of the most controversial companies in Cambridge’s recent history, Brookgate.

The first two images are at Cambridge Railway Station. ‘Come and watch the tennis on our big screen!’ was the general gist. Problem was that the big screen was powered by a portable fossil-fuelled generator. And the whole square lacks the shade making it very hot in the summer – also requiring extra power for the big screen to deal with the bright sunlight. A similar situation with the paving over of the Cambridge North Station and hotel area.

One other thing to remember is the concept of the privatisation of public squares. This is something that author Anna Minton (see her books here, and here) has written much about. As things stand, there is nothing that anyone in local government can do to make the land owners retrofit to deal with the urban heat island effect.

Below, the Cambridge Leisure Park – a huge missed opportunity on a site that The Junction sits on. And just to get The Junction founded, a previous generation of teenagers and young people had to have a riot just to get the basic venue built. The impact of austerity in the 1980s at a time when many-a-music and social venue in Cambridge was closing. Fast forward to the early 2000s with the Cambridge Leisure Park and we end up with property speculators and big land investors gaming the planning system to create something that made some firms a lot of money at the time, but now looks more like the missed opportunity that it is.

Above (L-R) – Cambridge Leisure Park’s blank north-facing wall, The Junction’s original building made from basic concrete blocks, and a smashed up bus stop with a car illegally parked behind it. An awful example of highways engineering.

But again, we don’t have an empowered and properly funded local public state to take action on any of these to deal with with the problems associated. It’s not like we don’t have any examples of buildings in Cambridge covered in shade-loving plants that creep up walls – if you’ve ever been passed St John’s College on the river.

The original part of The Junction for me is now beyond its lifetime use. The pre-CV19 plans have long since fallen through so they are having to go back to the drawing board. And as for the urban design of the road junction, the less said the better. It’s too late in the evening to think about what partnership would have to be formed – and the administration required – to get that overhauled and pedestrian-friendly.

In the three examples below, we have (bottom left) a bus stop advertising board which on the opposite side has an electronic screen with the piece of street clutter next to it. Do we ***really need to waste electricity*** on such things? I don’t recall seeing solar panels on the bus stop roof powering it.

Above-centre, pavement parking deliveries. It’s long beyond the time when Cambridge should have built an out-of-town freight exchange for deliveries to be moved onto electric vehicles and/or cycle and e-cycle-based couriers. But again, this is not something that can be done by a local council alone. This has got to be something done nationwide so that local councils can benefit from economies of scale when establishing the facilities, and so that businesses don’t have to order bespoke vehicles. And then finally above-right, I don’t know whose idea it was to cover Lichfield Road in the darkest shade of thin asphalt they could find, but tomorrow it will be hot enough to cook your dinner on it. (Also that extreme heat won’t be good for the trees and plants either).

Community notice boards – go to where the people are. The problem is that our local public state does not seem to do this. Bottom left, and bottom-centre are bus stops – the middle one being Drummer. And nothing happening. It’s particularly depressing with Drummer Street given it’s a major commuter bus station with lots of people waiting.

Above-right – a major supermarket’s notice board. People use it, but it could be in a far better location, and have a separate board next to it for official notices or council-run events.

In the cases below, the Greek Orthodox Church on Hartington Grove, formerly the United Reformed Church and before that the New Cherry Hinton Free Church – what are the plans for dealing with community buildings (irrespective of ownership) that have dark roofs?

Above – centre: The Cambridge Job Centre – caught later in the day, but the south-facing windows cannot make this building comfortable in hot summers. Above-right: How would you re-design Mitcham’s Corner? Because of the nature of the wider road layout, much as it would be nice to pedestrianise this section, or have it for cycles and pedestrians only, it would involve extending this to the Museum of Cambridge and beyond westwards, amongst other places. But again, the wide roads inevitably contribute towards the head island effect.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Five minutes from Lichfield Road is Hills Avenue. And then one of my favourite buildings in Cambridge, the old Fosters Bank (now Lloyds) with its wonderful clock tower

The clock tower for me has always been an important local landmark in Cambridge. K Lynch in his book The Image of the City (1959) he notes the importance of having such landmarks as locators for people – whether residents or visitors.

“It was always to the steeple that one must return, always it which dominated everything else, summing up the houses with an unexpected pinnacle.”Lynch quoting Proust.

There’s a Ph.D waiting to be written by someone as to why ministers failed to meet the urgent recommendation to deal with the urban heat island effect. Some may attribute it to things like leaving the EU, or the CV19 pandemic. But even if there had been no outbreak or if Cameron had won the referendum, the existing political, financial, and economic system would have put far too many obstacles in the way to have made the rapid progress we so urgently need. Would Conservative ministers have put in place the necessary legal powers and provided the financial resources for local government to act accordingly? Unlikely. Would they have tabled the necessary legislation that would have compelled land owners and building owners to take action? Hard to see it.

Could a community-powered model work? One involving co-operation between communities the local public state, and property owners? It’s worth exploring, but those doing so need to be crystal clear on where they come up against an immovable barrier that can only be shifted by a change in the law – no matter how radical it might be for a large property owner. For there is no life in a dead city.

In the meantime, I’m following Samuel L. Jackson’s advice that he gave for CV19 in the early days.

Stay cool.

Please support my research and writing on all things local democracy in and around Cambridge -> https://ko-fi.com/antonycarpen

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