Bim faces his Harpenden constituents
Environment issues high on the agenda
Issues related directly or indirectly to climate change figured prominently at the Harpenden Society's public meeting at the end of February, where our guest speaker was Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami. He reminded his lively audience in the town's large Public Hall that environmental matters were now inevitably at the forefront of his concerns, following his appointment as chair of the all-party Parliamentary Group on Renewable and Sustainable Energy.
Climate change and air pollution were separate but linked concerns which, he said, needed to be addressed by individuals as well as governments and local authorities. Electric cars were a welcome innovation, though supporting local (battery charging) infrastructure had to be strategically planned. In that context energy supplier Centrica was ‘mapping' the area encompassing his Hitchin and Harpenden constituency in order to determine where electric vehicle use was most feasible.
Mr Afolami reaffirmed his opposition to Luton Airport's latest expansion plans. In his view Luton was the wrong place for an airport of even its present its size, let alone one handling 32 million passengers a year. He was cautious about the implications for its growth proposals of the recent legal – climate change based – judgment against a third runway at Heathrow. If the amount of flying and consequent aircraft CO2 emissions were to be reduced it was best tackled, he suggested, through higher air passenger duties. He maintained that addressing the overall climate emergency by setting a national 2030 target for CO2 reduction to zero was totally unrealistic. A 2050 deadline was, he said, more deliverable.
He expressed hope that a forthcoming White Paper would result in a reform of the government's overall planning policy, which he described as currently ‘not fit for purpose'. The outcome, he predicted, would be greater protection for the Green Belt. New housing should be focussed on existing built-up areas, that is so-called ‘brownfield' sites, accompanied by a possible relaxation of restrictions on plans for home extensions. He added that the ongoing delays in finalising the St Albans District Local Plan regrettably provided an ‘effective loophole' for would-be developers to exploit.
Mr Afolami welcomed the appointment of local farmer Stuart Roberts (from Hammonds End Farm) as chairman of the National Farmers Union, noted for his positive environmental credentials, including issues of public access to agricultural land.
On a specific local environmental issue, Mr Afolami said he understood the proposal to build a large industrial incinerator at New Mill End on the Lower Luton Road was now ‘off the table'. The site was now being touted instead for location of a headquarters for Luton Airport's police contingent.
Parking in and around Harpenden was another major concern for his constituents, of which Mr Afolami said he was all too aware. He said he would like to see responsibility for dealing with the town's considerable parking problems handed over from SADC to Harpenden Town Council; decision makers would be more informed and more impelled by the urgency of the issue. He referred in particular to the anticipated double-decking of the eastern station car park, for which he said the technical work had been finalised.
Meanwhile another scourge, that of business rates, as they affected Harpenden's retailers, was brought to Mr Afolami's attention by a questioner at the meeting. He agreed that business rates were probably the country's worst, that is most inequitable, form of taxation – for which a government review was coming. He said a tax on profits rather than on business value would be preferable, adding an assurance that the new chancellor Rishi Sunak was aware of the inordinate business rate pain suffered by small shopkeepers.