Date posted: 19 April 12, 10:13
By Alastair Sawday
In the latest in our series of Ideas Notebooks on the elected mayor for Bristol debate, we asked publisher Alastair Sawday to write about how he would like a new mayor of Bristol to address green issues.
The debate about a mayor for Bristol is a glorious muddle. Hardly anyone knows what a mayor could do, why the debate is happening at all, and why on earth anyone thinks that a mayor with new powers would succeed where all else has failed. The quote below from a Bristol website campaigning for a new mayor reveals the emptiness:
Our group’s aim is simple – to make Bristol into the city that it could be, and to improve the quality of life of everyone living here; by dealing with the barriers we face, and grasping each and every opportunity to take the city forward.
That sort of vacuous language does not encourage me. What on earth is it saying?
However, I have been asked to have a guess at the sort of change an empowered Green Mayor might seek. Much of what I have to say replicates what I and others put forward as a Green Manifesto for Bristol in the 80s. Little has changed.
It goes without saying that a Green Mayor would make no decisions without considering the environmental impact. All policy would be dictated by assessment of risk: of further climate change, of fuel price rises, of carbon emissions, of fuel and energy poverty, of food shortages and health crises. Greens see the planet’s security and health as the fundamental key to everything we do – and how can they be wrong? All policy must follow on from this. The social implications are inevitable; the poor will suffer most from environmental decline, so green social policy-making tends to be progressive.
Other more general green policies tend to follow naturally from the broad green thinking I have touched upon. Thus, it is folly to teach children to seek wealth and success rather than happiness. Health systems should be more preventative than reactive; money should chase the maximum impact rather than the elite. The real environmental costs of all activity must be factored in, and, if possible borne by the creators of those costs. Thinking, therefore, is better done holistically than in silos.
So for Bristol, what does this mean? Whatever the new mayoral powers, a Green Mayor would spend a great deal of time educating and corralling the councillors until they understand the basis of green policy. Once they understand how vile the industrial food system is, they will never again encourage supermarket growth. Once they know why fossil fuel is burning up their grandchildren’s futures, they will throw their weight behind walking, cycling and public transport. Once they learn how stupendously inefficient our energy systems are, they will urge the generating of energy from local renewable sources – which Bristol, to its credit, is already contemplating.
Above all, a Green Mayor would switch priorities away from economic growth at any cost towards growth in green thinking, in green energy, local food, fuel-efficient transport, low-energy housing and green employment. I imagine that the growth, too, in Bristol media, arts and cultural enterprises will be fostered, with less emphasis on fossil-fuel-dependent industry. There has to be a vast effort to retrofit all Bristol’s houses to make them energy efficient – and that will create jobs.
Most of us are distressed by the banality of recent building developments in the city – the result of a system governed by a tiny group of council officers. Things must change, to unleash the many community groups and talented professionals who could do so much better for the city. A Green Mayor would urgently promote more local engagement, more autonomy for communities. That means support for the Bristol Pound – something which few current politicians dare embrace.
Bristol has long been a divided community. A Green Mayor would struggle to find consensus, as would any mayor. But, being neither left nor right, he or she would start with a cleaner slate – and would be building on one single powerful argument: that the planet must come first. The toughest task would be to reform the council system, in which politicians and officers often don’t trust each other, the former come and go and the latter are hamstrung by bureaucracies. But a powerful Green vision might rally all parties around new priorities; there is little apparent vision now.
I am not starry-eyed about the potential of a Green Mayor – up against entrenched people, entrenched systems and values. But a visionary mayor, with a new power base, might just tap into the sort of pent-up creativity evident in Stokes Croft. Perhaps a city less dominated by traffic, by ghastly buildings, by noise and by booze – just might be better to live in. A Green Mayor would be more concerned by our happiness than by our wealth. Now THAT would be progress, especially if the wealth was better shared. But can a mayor do that? I fear not. But things do need to change.
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