How many local environment campaigns does it take for the issues they raise to be recognised as part of a national problem? Ten? Twenty, maybe? What about 100? Surely national media and politicians would have taken up the issues by then.
As it turns out, there’s far more than 100 local environmental campaigns going on right now. In just two weeks, more than 280 different groups across the UK have registered on a new National Grassroots Campaigns Map. Rosie Pearson, one of the founders, is astonished: “When we set it up, it was really just to see what’s out there. But we quickly realised there’s a real hunger for sharing information, resources and support. We’re witnessing a huge number of local groups facing the same issues.”
I got a sense of the scale of this problem following an article I wrote about the assault on the countryside. I was deluged by local campaigns: Save Ferriby 2020, Save Culham Green Belt, Save West Grinstead, Keep Rookwood Green, to name but a few. But to see the visuals of this new map is shocking. There are huge housing developments and damaging infrastructure projects everywhere. It’s clear that these are far from localised disputes. They are fighting the same battles: against huge unsustainable housing developments engulfing small towns; against the loss of greenbelt or protected wildlife areas; and against hypocritical councils who declare a climate emergency in one breath and order the destruction of carbon sequestering trees or marshland in another.
These campaigns are David and Goliath struggles. Locals are amateurs with few resources up against well-paid barristers acting for bulk-housing builders or government inquiries, skilled at getting their way. I’ve just been involved in one such unequal struggle: a protest, to Save York Gardens, which through February tried to prevent the felling of a magnificent, century-old black poplar tree standing on a run-down estate in a little park in Wandsworth, south London.
The original “regeneration” plans protected the tree with a tree preservation order. But later, Taylor Wimpey, the developer, pushed to fell it to facilitate cable laying. For over three weeks, protesters, intimidated by private security guards, occupied the tree. The local community brought food, sang to the climbers, produced art and wrote poems for the tree. With no resources they also attempted to make a case at a bewildering online court hearing. And when the tree was eventually lost, they wept and came to pay their respects.
Other local campaigns, whether in idyllic countryside or urban estates, will recognise the wider issues here. The local community was powerless when faced by developer and council resources. Environmental legislation failed to protect the tree. The developer’s offer to “mitigate biodiversity loss” was saplings in courtyards to replace a cathedral of a tree. Worst of all, much of the development will be buy-to-let flats that do nothing to solve the affordable homes crisis.
It’s not surprising that politicians downplay and “localise” such protests as lacking national significance. Given the government’s “build, build, build” agenda, it’s best not to let voters know that what’s happening to other communities will soon happen to them. But why isn’t the media paying more attention, especially outlets with environment correspondents? There were a few headlines about “greedy” Eton selling 500 acres of unspoilt countryside on the edge of the South Downs national park for 3,000 houses, but most environmental protests go unreported. So cumulative issues about the suburbanisation of the countryside, the scale of the loss of open space, and the catastrophic failure to protect our biodiversity, are simply not addressed.
Lazy journalism means no one challenges the political myths behind the government’s obsession with pouring concrete. The government claims it must reluctantly use greenfield sites to solve the housing crisis, but CPRE, the countryside charity, shows there are enough brownfield sites to meet housing targets. Damningly, CPRE also reveals that the building currently happening on green belt is not being used for affordable homes, but expensive executive-style houses.
As for the developer requirement to “mitigate” their destruction with a net gain for biodiversity, new research from the Durrell Institute casts doubt on the promises.
Media and politicians alike are also missing a huge story about the groundswell of environmental protest. The new campaigns map has revealed people who realise they are part of a wider movement, whether HS2 protesters, tree defenders, or campaigners for local nature reserves. A new politics is emerging, making allies of unexpected groups – from shire Tories to Extinction Rebellion, parents and the politically uninvolved – all united against eco-vandalism.
The demise of the black poplar tree was marked by a sad vigil with music and poems. It was heartbreaking, but there was also hope. Local women of every background spoke movingly about the tree’s value and what its loss represented. They made political connections between the greed of developers and the threat to the biosphere. And several committed themselves to joining other tree protests and new networks dedicated to protecting nature against the forces that have declared war on it.
Ros Coward is professor emerita of journalism at Roehampton University