The Red Rebels

Climate Action in Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon

Glastonbury Oracle, February 2020

Over Christmas and New Year I visited friends in Salisbury and Ashburton. Community reactions to climate change have been different in Wiltshire, Devon and here in Somerset, and it seems worth noting the differences and sharing that information.

In Wiltshire, for instance, the County Council declared a climate emergency last February – though by only 3 votes. They set up a task group to look at implementation, but haven’t given it any budget. At the same time they plan to spend £200m on road building this year, and are basically continuing with business as usual. Nevertheless they are holding public meetings of the various Area Boards within the county; the one in Salisbury was packed, with well over 100 public attending. However, these seem to have been no more than PR exercises so far.

In Somerset the County Council has also declared a climate emergency, and are developing a strategy with the heading ‘No Planet B’ and several projects that are helpful though not radical. They too are holding public meetings, in the four District Council areas in the county; the one at Shepton Mallet council offices will be on February 15th and perhaps then we shall find out more about what our local authorities are really intending to do.

In Devon the County Council’s declaration includes a commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, compared to 2030 in Somerset and Wiltshire. Also, most County and District Councils seem unclear about whether their declarations refer just to their own activities, even excluding their various contractors and out-sourced operations. Generally, strong XR groups and local Green Parties are effective in putting pressure on councils. In Wiltshire there is a county-wide XR network which is marking the anniversary of the Council’s declaration on February 25th with a rally at County Hall highlighting the lack of action since.

At a local level nearly 30 town and parish councils in Devon have declared an emergency, compared with 6 in Somerset (plus another 6 in BANES) and 5 in Wiltshire. In Ashburton there is a particularly active Extinction Rebellion group and the declaration – significantly – is for a climate and ecological emergency, and to become carbon neutral by 2025.

There is also an Ashburton Climate Emergency Group which is supported by their Town Council, consisting of a hub which co-ordinates working groups dealing with transport, energy, food, recycling, resilience and ‘care-taking’ (biodiversity and environment). In Glastonbury, where the Town Council has a Green majority, we have a Working Group established as a sub-committee of the council (including roughly 50% non-councillors), and which is organising Peoples Assemblies in the Town Hall. Frome has a Resilience Officer employed by the council, and there will soon be a similar post in Glastonbury.

The strength of grass-roots groups such as XR is not so easy to gauge, though the southwest as a whole has been well represented at the major London actions. Bristol is particularly strong, possibly followed by Totnes. A recent and remarkably effective phenomenon has been the appearance of groups like the ‘Red Rebels’ (originally from Bristol) and the ‘Green Spirits’ (Ashburton). Dressed in flowing robes, they walk extremely slowly, effectively ‘drifting’. Taking part was described to me as ‘like a meditation’. Without speaking or engaging with anyone, they bring a magical supportive presence that can confound the authorities.