A heated Environmental Question Time audience did not let the parliamentary candidates off lightly last week.
Hosted by the Friends of the Earth, the hustings in Alnwick was chaired by Brycchan Carey.
Julie Pörksen of the Lib Dems, the Green Party’s Thomas Stewart and Conservative Anne-Marie Trevelyan were joined by Paul Brannen MEP, who represented Labour instead of Scott Dickinson.
Candidates’ responses were critical of each other’s policies over a range of issues.
Thomas Stewart spoke first, saying climate change and refugees are the biggest challenges we face. He said representatives of all the other parties had been involved in the decision to allow the opencast mine at Druridge Bay to go ahead. Anne-Marie Trevelyan pointed out that she was instrumental in the planning decision being called in by the Secretary of State and poor information had been set in front of the council’s planning committee.
Paul Brannen agreed with the Green Party stance. He then said whatever replaces the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after Brexit will play a pivotal role in addressing climate change. Julie Pörksen called for a symbiotic relationship between people and the environment. She was working with Year 5 students and was heartened by their concern for the environment.
Concerned about losing the environmental protection laws post-Brexit, Thomas Stewart said the Green Party was the only party still opposed to leaving Europe.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that the Great Repeal Bill would make 40 years of EU legislation British law. A five-year window where CAP funding remained unchanged meant farmers had time to adapt. She foresaw no reduction in wildlife protection legislation.
Julie Pörksen pointed out the EU had brought both peace and environmental protection. Fearing a battle for funding, she felt Defra was likely to lose out.
The Lib Dems want a referendum on any agreement with Europe. She claimed Tory trade deals would sacrifice our NHS and agriculture to the United States.
Debate continued over air pollution, inadequate and expensive public transport and whether the A1 dualling was necessary. Thomas Stewart suggested that some of the A1 money would be better spent improving home energy efficiency. Both he and the Labour representative favoured investing in public transport, while the Lib Dem candidate suggested that dualling should not be at the expense of more important services. Anne-Marie Trevelyan favours the A1 dualling project to help business.
The audience asked about a direct link between those behind Brexit and climate-change denial. They also challenged Mrs Trevelyan’s voting in Parliament against proposals to reduce carbon emissions. Thomas Stewart said there was a link: Anne-Marie Trevelyan wanted Brexit and received £2,500 campaign funding from Viscount Matt Ridley. Mrs Trevelyan said she opposed windfarms because they were not carbon-efficient and the technology was not here to store the energy produced.
Julie Pörksen said that we needed to cut energy consumption in our homes. Paul Brannen emphasised the need to move away from using steel, block and concrete and towards using cross-laminated timber that would capture carbon. Anne-Marie Trevelyan agreed about the need to use wood, saying she was involved in a major forest planting scheme at Doddington and her husband’s estates are also timber forests.
The Conservative candidate was the only candidate in favour of fracking, saying it was a cleaner alternative. Thomas Stewart condemned that. Julie Pörksen also gave fracking a resounding no. Labour’s Paul Brannen said that fossil fuels would not disappear overnight and we had to consider where we got our power in the interim, but fracking was opposed in the Labour manifesto.
Discussions moved away from the environment and the audience asked whether Theresa May had changed from being ‘strong and stable’ to ‘weak and wobbly’ following her ‘dementia tax’ difficulties.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan said she had never met a more determined leader than Mrs May.
Paul Brannen talked about his party’s leadership, stating that though he was critical of Jeremy Corbyn, though he could not understand it, there was no denying the Labour leader’s popularity, especially among young voters.
Healthcare raised the most ire of the evening.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that the insurance industry needed to catch up with the changes to healthcare to cover service provision. Thomas Stewart attacked that privatisation, saying the healthcare system should be state funded ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Julie Pörksen said that Theresa May ‘didn’t give a damn’ about ordinary people who should not be penalised because of a mental-health issues.
Discussion followed about the aging population in the North East and migration away from the area by younger people. There was consensus that there were too few people of working age to meet demand.
There was disagreement whether Brexit gave us control over the resulting need for immigration. Anne-Marie Trevelyan said that she favoured the Australian points system.
However, an audience member said Theresa May, as Home Secretary, had failed to control immigration and thought there would be no change from that in the future.
Paul Brannen thought an EU border with Scotland was inevitable.