Monday, 30 June 2014

Pride of Place

Guest post by Ed Wallis, Head of Editorial at the Fabian Society.

This autumn, politicians and diplomats will meet in New York to roll up their sleeves and try to come up with solutions to the world’s greatest collective challenge: how to catalyse action on climate change. Whether anyone else will take much notice is another matter entirely. And it’s pretty understandable why.

According to new Fabian Society research, conducted with the WI, RSPB, Woodland Trust and Groundwork, people struggle to engage with large scale environmental issues. Instead they feel a much greater attachment to their local environments.

When people think of the environment, they tend to think of the place they live and the people they live there with. In a series of in-depth focus groups we conducted, climate change was hardly mentioned at all, even when participants were prompted to think about global environmental issues. And in an opinion poll carried out by YouGov to support the work, over twice as many people regarded anti-social behaviour as their biggest environmental concern than climate change.

This poses a huge challenge to the environmental movement, most of whose energies have traditionally been focused on lobbying for legislative change in Westminster or Brussels. This approach hasn’t been without its successes but the environment has slipped off the political agenda in recent years and feels increasingly remote from most people’s lives, particularly as they struggle with ongoing economic hardship.

In order to reconnect, we need to start from what people really value. As the huge public opposition to the coalition government’s botched attempt to sell-off the nation’s forests showed, people care deeply about their local areas and wish to see the environments they have grown up in conserved. What’s more, many would be willing to get involved in ‘community action’ to help improve their local environment.

So the challenge for environmentalists in Britain should be spend less time in New York or Paris and more time in the UK’s towns and villages helping to restore a sense of community about the local environment.

To do this, a broad set of barriers must be overcome. We must ensure there are enough well-paid jobs and affordable housing to allow people to afford to live in the places they grew up in. We need to protect, and extend where possible, the amount of free open spaces like parks and woodland where people can rub shoulders with one another.

And we need to help to change the balance in people’s lives away from work towards being more centred on strong community life. Our polling revealed that over 68 per cent of people felt that community spirit had declined over lifetime, rising to 81 per cent amongst the over 60s. When asked why this might be the case, the answer was clear: people are too busy and working too hard.

One of the key proposals we make, therefore, is a new ‘Community Day’ bank holiday, to provide a focal point for campaigners to highlight local environmental projects. Local residents would be encouraged to take part in activities like litter picks, community events and street parties.

A new bank holiday would only be a start. Something fundamental needs to change for people up and down the country to feel ownership of their local, and ultimately the global, environment. One thing is for sure: if environmentalists only keep their eyes on New York, Paris or Copenhagen, environmental politics is certain to become more distant than ever before.

This article also appears in the July/August Edition of WI Life

Friday, 20 June 2014

Making a buzz about bees

There’s barely a week that goes by when bees aren’t featured in the papers, on the TV or in parliamentary proceedings. This week was no exception, with one key difference; Marylyn Haines Evans, Chair of the NFWI Public Affairs Committee was up in front of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, giving evidence on their future survival.

The inquiry presented an opportunity for the 16 MPs who sit on the Environmental Audit Committee to question individuals from across the scientific, charitable, business and farming community about the strengths and weaknesses of the draft National Pollinator Strategy (the government’s ‘Bee Action Plan’), investigate how concerns are addressed and aspirations are met, and feed back to government on the issue.

Marylyn gave evidence alongside the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth, and civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Whilst welcoming the strategy and Defra’s leadership developing it, Marylyn outlined the NFWI’s unease that the strategy was too reliant on voluntary measures, and fell short on issues such as planning, monitoring and insecticide use. Defra will be reflecting on the Committee’s findings before the final strategy is published this autumn, and we hope that they give these the due consideration that’s needed.

Over the last few months the NFWI has received thousands of postcards from WI members telling Lord de Mauley, the Minister with responsibility for pollinators, just why bees are important to them. Thanks to the five thousand WI members who have written to us, following the Environmental Audit Committee, Marylyn, alongside former Vice Chair of Public Affairs Committee, Sybil Graham, was invited to meet with the Minister to hand-over the postcards, and crucially, share the NFWI’s concerns about the National Pollinator Strategy directly with the Minister.

The Minister was open to our concerns, and was keen to explore how Defra and the WI can work together to ensure our pollinator populations revive and thrive. The NFWI will of course work with Defra in order to protect our bees and pollinators, but ultimately we believe that there is a huge role for government to implement policies that go above and beyond existing measures if they are to ensure the strategy is fit for purpose and the long-term. WI members have made their views on bee decline explicitly clear, but we are still not convinced that the government’s strategy is as strong as it can be. We will continue to make the case for a strong Bee Action Plan. The NPS provides a unique opportunity to address the multiple challenges our precious pollinators face, let’s not let them down.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Time to Talk

The journey from the WI’s HQ in London to Leeds for our Annual Meeting took around 2 hours from King’s Cross. But the journey for our Public Affairs team has actually taken a lot longer…

Back on 16 September 2013, 51 ideas for a new campaign had been submitted our Public Affairs team by WI members. These ideas, called resolutions, were on all manner of topics from state pensions to FGM and the regulation of funeral directors. From that point onwards, each idea was subject to a rigorous shortlisting process and the successful ones were put to members for their votes. By the time we got to the First Direct Arena on 7 June 2014, one idea was left standing. It was up to WI members to hear the arguments one last time and decide whether the WI should throw its weight behind this campaign.

And they did: the resolution passed with a 98% majority. The newest mandate in the WI’s 99-hear history reads:

The NFWI notes that three people die every day whilst waiting for an organ transplant. We call on every member of the WI to make their wishes regarding organ donation known, and to encourage their families and friends, and members of their local communities to do likewise.

Laureen Walker from Standon and Cotes WI proposed the idea, which was then seconded by Barbara Hidson of Codsall Wood WI. Sally Johnson, Director at NHS Blood and Transplant spoke for the resolution, while Georgia Testa, Lecturer in medical ethics at Leeds University, set out points for the opposition. Their quotes will give you a flavour of the debate:

“The major barrier to getting consent from families for transplants is that they often have no idea of the wishes of their relative…Statistics show that when families know that their loved ones want to donate their consent rate is 88%. When they don’t know it is only 46%.” Laureen Walker

“Will more open discussion translate the approval rate into numbers actually on the Organ Donation Register? There will still be people who just don’t get around to it, even if there is a climate in which family and friends discuss donation more openly and frequently.” Georgia Testa

“Letting families know what you've decided makes it much easier for them to support your decision to be a donor. The WI is renowned for achieving results. This resolution is down to you.”Barbara Hidson

“Every day, some one in this country who could be a donor dies, and their relatives, in the midst of grief, shock and distress, are asked to allow their loved one's organs to be used to save the life of someone they don't know. Imagine it was your relative: what would you say? If you hadn't talked about organ donation as a family, then it's quite likely you'd say no. You might think it was the safer option. You might come to regret that decision later. It would be so much easier if you knew what your relative wanted: if they wanted to be a donor then you could take comfort from that decision and be proud of them.

“We hope everyone in the UK will be proud to donate their organs, when and if they can. But we know this won't happen without some inspirational leadership. We are asking you to provide this leadership: to talk to your families, your friends and your communities so that no family is left to guess what their loved one wanted.” Sally Johnson

Many WI members spoke of their own donation stories, sharing experiences of being recipients of kidneys and corneas, or being a member of a family who was asked about donating the organs of a loved one. Others mentioned living wills and old donation wallet cards as ways to formalise family consent and get families talking. It was a thought-provoking and emotional debate.

So what happens now?

The NFWI Public Affairs team will begin working on a campaign based on the mandate so watch this space for updates on Time to Talk about Organ Donation.

The best thing about the WI resolutions process? Once we’ve got a mandate, we’ve got it forever. So in that way, the journey for a resolution never ends.