The New Green Deal: Wokingham Borough Council executive unveils big ideas in bid to become carbon neutral

£24 million set aside to fund ideas – but no rise in council tax to pay for it

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solar panels
One of the proposals being considered by Wokingham Borough Council is creating a green bank to lend money to residents, enabling them to make eco-friendly improvements to their homes
  • Solar farm sites to be built in borough
  • Council hopes to launch its own energy company
  • Green Bank will lend residents cash to fund greener homes
  • 250,000 trees to be planted across borough
  • Push for environmentally friendly transport networks
  • Bid to include school pupils in carbon neutral plans
  • Plan to boost recycling so crisp packets can become benches
  • Education programme to raise awareness of schemes

WOKINGHAM BOROUGH COUNCIL is poised to launch its own energy generating company and provide a tree for every home as it launches an ambitious £24 million eight-point programme to tackle the climate emergency.

And Cllr Gregor Murray, the lead executive member behind the plans, said that the council is investing the money with the aim of making cash through schemes such as creating solar farms that generate energy that can then be resold back into the National Grid.

Other projects include green bank loans so that residents can get off the gas grid and into renewable fuels to power their homes.

And there will even be an emphasis on turning crisp packets into street furniture.

It’s all part of a Climate Emergency Action Plan that is being launched later this month. 

Last year, the council launched a consultation asking residents for ideas that it could adopt in order to meet its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

Cllr Murray said that more than 4,000 responses had been gathered, from Wokingham Paper readers, from a Facebook group and from council officers and departments. And there has even been comprehensive research looking at what other councils have tried. 

“The Climate Emergency Action Plan will be launched at the full council meeting in January,” he said. “It is 31 pages long and more than half of it is a list of actions.”

It has been written via a cross-party working group and used UN sustainable guidelines as a base.

“It was suggested by the Facebook group,” Cllr Murray said. “We looked into it, and it seemed like a really good thing to do.”

electric vehicle charging point
An electric vehicle charging point Picture: Phil Creighton

The plan is not a straight copy as Cllr Murray admits that not every action the UN proposes can be achieved by the council, but the ones it will adopt are “all focused on how we can deliver them”.

He added: “The residents survey brought in some quite unique ideas and some that were not possible, such as cutting the population in half.

“Others were fantastic and didn’t come up in any other groups. All have been fed into the action plan.”

The result is a plan which will see £24 million invested over the next three years. Some of the money will come from grants. Cllr Murray pledged: “There are no plans to increase council tax to fund these ideas. It might change in future years, but not right now.

“We have eight big programmes,” he promised.

The first is to create solar farms and Cllr Murray said that seven sites are being evaluated including two farms that have been handed back to the council after the tenants have moved on.  

“The intention is to sell energy back to the grid. We are investigating if we can set up an energy company to sell our electricity, other councils have done it and raised residents out of fuel poverty as a result.

“There are lots of benefits to energy creation, storage and reselling.”

Cllr Murray also hinted that there could be some wind power, with tree planting sites around them.

“We hope to announce more details in February,” he said.

Shinfield Parish Council
Tree planting is one of the ways in which Wokingham can reduce its carbon emissions Picture: Jess Warren

Following on from this, Cllr Murray said that a new loan scheme would allow residents to switch to more energy-efficient power sources for their homes.

“Domestic gas use is one of the single biggest sources of carbon emissions,” he said. “Homes have boilers, gas central heating and cookers. We cannot achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 without taking action on how we heat our homes.

“The technology required is very expensive so we’re proposing to launch a green bank. The council will borrow the money to lend to residents.

“We will appoint suppliers who visit homes to assess what needs to be done to make it carbon neutral. They report back and the council then contract the supplier to install them – the residents will not the money.

“We will put in place every mechanism to ensure the prices are competitive.”

And the intention is that residents will make a profit. “It will save you more than it will cost,” Cllr Murray pledged, adding that repayments will be lower than the energy generated.

“We have to give people a helping hand,” he added. “If we don’t, we won’t hit our target. This would have a massive impact on our carbon footprint.

“It looks highly probable that we can launch this scheme, I think it’s fantastic.”

And a third idea would see every home in the borough be given a tree to plant, courtesy of a link-up with the Woodland Trust.

“We have had meetings asking them for help in identifying sites for trees, with the intention of planting one tree for every resident, and one tree for every home,” Cllr Murray said. “As part of that scheme, we want to offer every home a tree. They can choose from a selection and plant in their garden.

“We can look at bushes and shrubs and look to give trees to schools. It’s good to plant trees and it’s good for pupils to see them grow.

“We will plant 250,000 trees over the next five years, and we’ll also look at creating a tree nursery.”

Gregor Murray
Norreys ward councillor Gregor Murray Picture: Tony Johnson

The fourth plank of the green deal will see an update to the Local Plan, which will be published on Tuesday.

“Building regulations will help shape what we do, such as electric car charging points.

“And transport is a big thing. Cllr Pauline Jorgensen and the My Journey team will be looking at why people use their cars and how we can generate environmentally friendly solutions, such as more cycle routes.

“One idea is that when every secondary school pupil starts they are given a bike on the first day of term. There would be secure storage and the ability to maintain it at school.”

Sustainability around schools is another key topic and Cllr Murray wants pupils to be involved.

“I want their ideas and I want to know what they’re doing,” he said. “Schools are looking to be sustainable and we’ll work on initiatives with the schools.”

This would include recycling, solar panels and tree planting. Again, profits from energy generation would go back to the school, especially over the summer when the schools are empty but the summer sunshine generates power.

green transport

More recycling is also on the cards.

“Food recycling has been fantastically successful. Part of our action plan is to aim for zero waste to landfill as a borough,” said Cllr Murray. 

He said that at the moment, Wokingham borough is sending the equivalent of two blue bin bags full of rubbish to landfill per home per year.

“We need to have a commitment in place [to reduce landfill] and a motion will go to council in March,” he promised, adding that it would be looking at schemes such as recycling crisp packets and toothpaste tubes into street furniture such as benches.

And Cllr Murray said that the borough needed to get fully behind the schemes in order for it to work.

“We will set aside £250,000 a year to work on education,” he said.

“We’ll work with The Wokingham Paper, and use social media to help explain little changes people can make. This is a big project, and it has to be right.

“I’m hugely excited. Look at how far we’ve come in the six months since we declared a climate emergency.

“There’s been a big shift in the council – every piece of work produced now asks what environmental impact it will have.

“The heads of council departments are all talking about how we will reduce our carbon footprint, and what impact this will have on it.

“And we will carry out an annual review on our action plan in July, publishing a report showing what we have done. This will roll on until 2030, and be constantly updated.”

And Cllr Murray, who admits he is in politics to make a better world for his two children, is excited about the plans coming together.

“I can’t wait for the first applicant of the green bank scheme to come forward and I can’t wait to go to the first solar farm planting,” he said.

“I want other councils to look at us and go, ‘Let’s copy what they’ve done’.

“We’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do this right.”

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Peter

Where is it?