What a Green in the Room can achieve on a finely balanced council

Cllr Simon Grover was asked to write a short piece about being St Albans District Council’s only Green councillor, and leader of the 5-strong Independent & Green group. Ever keen on recycling, we thought we’d pop it on here too.

“I want to be in the room where it happens”, sings frustrated politician Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton. Since my election to St Albans District Council in 2011, I’ve been in the room. OK it’s not the White House. But stuff does actually happen at the Council, which might not be visible to local residents.

Seeing the effect of being in the room

Since day one, I’ve seen it. It’s extraordinary. Officers and councillors glance nervously at me whenever environmental subjects come up. Officers explain, partly to me, partly to everyone else, what the Council is doing or wants to do or did last Tuesday. Councillors compete to mention how much they recycle at home, or avoid flying, or turn down the thermostat. Some of them even have beards and sandals.

I don’t have to say anything and this happens. Don’t get me wrong, I say plenty. But much of the influence I’ve been able to have has simply been being in the room. I’ve heard similar stories from other Green councillors around the country (there are 362 of us).

On top of this, I’ve had the advantage of being in the Council while there are small or non-existent majorities. That means even more can happen.

Getting sustainability on the agenda

In 2011, sustainability wasn’t even mentioned in the Council’s Corporate Plan. Today, the climate emergency is the Council’s number 1 priority. Of course that’s not all down to me! The science is better understood, we’ve seen youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion and increasing local awareness driven by Sustainable St Albans and others. Action on the climate now forms part of all parties’ manifestos. When the vote on declaring a climate crisis came to the council, it had cross-party support and the vote was unanimous. But I’ve certainly been part of the process, shifting the debate, encouraging colleagues from other parties to come on board, and you can see that things have moved a long way.

With a minority Conservative administration elected in 2011, I was able to get a shopping list of environmental measures added to that first budget, in return for not blocking its progress. So in my first year as a councillor, I won agreement to expand the farmers market, insulate Council buildings, switch communications from paper to email, plant more perennials instead of annuals, and lots more.

Building on early success

In following years, with the administration still a minority, I made further progress, particularly negotiating a budget amendment for investment in solar panels on leisure centres and leading an initiative to replace ordinary litter bins with recycling bins. From 2015 there were 4 years of majority rule that made progress trickier. I worked more behind the scenes, having built relationships with officers and understanding more about how things worked.

Since 2019 we’ve had a minority Lib Dem administration, so the foot is back on the pedal (bicycle pedal, obviously). I’ve negotiated plans for a district-wide insulation programme, more solar power, more electric car charging, and a massive tree planting operation. I’m vice chair on the committee overseeing the response to the climate emergency. And I persuaded other councillors to unanimously support a motion calling for Hertfordshire to dump its fossil fuel investments. 

So I feel lucky to have been able to achieve a lot, with the support of my party colleagues outside the Council. But there’s a lot more to do, and it’s never been more urgent.

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