Jonathan Essex, the councillor for Redhill East, is the Green Party’s only representative on Surrey County Council. A former engineer, Jonathan is a firm believer in the UK’s responsibility to lead by example when it comes to increasing sustainability and stopping climate change. I interviewed him in the run up to the local elections in May.
The UK, says Jonathan, must accept its role both in contributing to climate change and its responsibility to prevent it from escalating. ‘We need to show leadership that saves lives and creates livelihoods, not just for ourselves in the UK but for those who live around the world.’ The UK parliament, of course, declared a climate emergency in 2019, but for Essex, the need for this to be taken on by the government is exposed by their hypocrisy. This is a government that, until quite recently, seemed happy to be ‘supportive of a new coal mine in Cumbria just as we run up to host the COP26 climate talks towards the end of the year.’
Jonathan’s beliefs were strengthened by formative experiences in Vietnam and Bangladesh, seeing first-hand how the West’s contribution to climate change can disproportionately affect those in the third world. Bangladesh, a country of which 90% is less than 10 metres above sea level, experiences constant devastating flooding which Essex has seen first-hand while working in international development. ‘I went down the Ganges river in the Monsoon season, when the river was in flood wider than the English channel at ten knots, and visited a village by the side of that river looking at a project that was to reduce corruption in local governments and to invest in rural enterprises. Two weeks after I visited that place it was in the local paper that the river had widened by ten kilometres overnight; the village was half way down three solid paragraphs that listed villages that had been ‘deleted’ overnight’. Jonathan also tells me about a whirlpool, created by the colliding of two of these massive flood laden rivers, which was big enough to suck down two cross-channel ferries, killing everyone on board. ‘The first time I ever did a public presentation’ says Jonathan, ‘was talking about my time in Bangladesh at the Quaker meeting house [in Reigate] in 2005, and I got involved in the Green Party and stood for election the following year, because I felt that we need to change things.’
Yet Jonathan believes that focusing on local issues is the first step to bringing about wider change. By looking to fix smaller problems in his capacity as councillor, he can have some impact on larger ones. For example, the part of the London to Paris cycle route which runs through Redhill is now flooded for up to half the year and Jonathan plans to work with others on Surrey County Council, to identify why this is and change it. A modest goal perhaps, but smaller issues like this typify the wider issues that need addressing county and countrywide. Furthermore, when small issues like this are addressed successfully the attitude of the council can be changed. Essex says ‘I really have a hope that we can be a lead county in action on climate change in Surrey,’ and with every small-scale issue like this the council’s attitude towards climate-related issues moves in the right direction.
However, as a single Green councillor on a majority-Conservative council (currently there are 58 Conservatives out of 81 councillors), Essex feels his role is to propose policy ideas which he can get implemented through powerful argument. ‘I can’t claim to have achieved anything personally because my role has always been in the opposition making the case for things which are hopefully then taken up,’ he says. But through this, he has inspired many changes. ‘Through our efforts we’ve encouraged the council who’ve then committed to funding youth work, that is still needed in Redhill. We’ve campaigned consistently for better recycling and an end to incineration across Surrey – last month the County Council announced that it’s now in legal proceedings with the Council’s waste provider, and I’m cautiously optimistic that will lead to no incineration in Surrey going forward. On climate change I’ve put the case for a strong climate motion with the deadline as 2030 for consideration.’ This wasn’t supported, but it did lead the Conservatives to put their own motion aiming for net zero by 2050. This led to a baseline study being conducted by Leeds University which set a target of around two thirds reduction of emissions by 2030. This week the council said it would require £13 billion to be spent across Surrey to make it happen, which is a lot more ambitious than the government, whose industrial decarbonisation strategy has committed just £12 billion in the next five years for the whole country.
Implementing change is always difficult, but Jonathan also believes that with strong grassroots action, the status quo can always be challenged and things can be changed. One example he cites of this is the campaign for a new pedestrian crossing near Warwick school, a campaign which he engaged with and supported. This change, which, he says, will make it safer for Warwick’s students walking to and from school, will now go ahead. ‘Rather than thinking that the first thing we need to do is get elected and then make a difference,’ he says, people can realise their ability to engage with issues through multiple channels. ‘Campaign, stand on the streets, protest, start new businesses, declare the impossible and make it happen, and if in the process we become elected and help change the conversation in the room then so be it. I think the greatest travesty of politics in the UK is that many people believe they are less powerful then they actually are to make a difference themselves.’
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