Councillor’s blog: Why a Green voice is so important

August 9, 2018

Martin Whybrow, our councillor on Kent County Council, writes:

Why is it important to have Green Party representation on councils? As the sole Green Party voice at Kent County Council for the last five years, I know what an uphill struggle it can be. In my case, I am one among 81 councillors and part of a small opposition in a council where the Tories can do pretty much as they please (witness voting themselves a 15% pay increase a year ago).

A Green Voice

The voice itself is important. You can hold the council to account and flag issues that would have otherwise have been ignored (I still try to embarrass them on the 15% whenever I have the chance). A prime example is divestment, where I have sought from the start to put pressure on KCC with regards fossil fuel, tobacco and other investments, both direct and via the pension fund, that run contrary to KCC’s own policies.

I did so again at a recent full council, which created a 45 minute debate in which even one or two Tories expressed their concerns about some investments. KCC is no doubt a long way from following ever more councils in divesting but, by embarrassing them and keeping up the pressure, I believe a Green Party councillor can raise public awareness, influence future strategies and, ultimately, edge the council towards the desired goal.

That voice is essential when it comes to the environment. KCC is a ridiculously car-centric local authority that, at the leader and cabinet level, shows little or no interest in topics such as public transport, walking and cycling, air quality, biodiversity, or carbon reduction. This is despite its own policies such as the Kent Environment Strategy and Active Travel Strategy. Here, again, if there wasn’t a Green voice, who would be speaking up on these topics? And by virtue of being an elected representative, that voice can be amplified more effectively through the media.

Winning Battles

My first ever success with a motion to full council came a couple of months ago, where it was unanimously agreed that KCC would adopt a Pollinator Action Plan. To get things done, you often have to be pragmatic and I found a supportive Tory to second the motion (even then, he had to gain the go-ahead of the leader and Tory whip before being able to agree to back it). I am now heading the small group devising the plan and we are looking at areas such as KCC’s use of pesticides, cutting regimes for roadside verges, encouraging biodiversity on KCC’s own estate, including schools, and improved communication and education.

Either on cross-party working groups or sometimes slightly under the radar, it is possible to work with officers top get things done. For instance, I convened a group of officers from relevant KCC departments to tackle one-off use of plastic and we have had some early wins, such as at KCC’s largest country park, Shorne Park, where all plastic has been replaced with compostable alternatives.

Martin Whybrow

Local Achievements

A Green Party councillor is always likely to work hard, be conscientious, be responsive to residents and not take our position for granted – after all, we will have had to battle to be elected, which is different from being a Tory in, say, Tunbidge Wells or Sevenoaks. There is far too much complacency, as a result.

The local case work could be helping parents with home to school transport. It might be addressing road safety (I am working with two local primary schools to try to secure pedestrian crossings and championed and delivered a 20 mph speed limit outside a third primary school). It could be supporting village green applications (as I have done of late) and protecting or creating new Public Rights of Way. It might be fighting a resident’s corner against benefit cuts. I also attend town and parish council meetings (I have three such councils in my division) so can help to forge a bridge between them and KCC. Each KCC member also has an annual community grant which I use to aid a host of local charities and other good causes, with an emphasis on those that are improving people’s lives and protecting the environment.

A Reason to Hope

Finally, success hopefully breeds success. My election to KCC showed that the Green Party can win elections in Kent and, indeed, we’ve had two landslide wins against the other main political parties in subsequent Hythe Town Council elections, with realistic hopes of breakthroughs next May in the district and town council elections. Hopefully, it provides some inspiration and hope for all those who work so hard around Kent in their own branches, battling to make progress within our undemocratic electoral system.