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If there is one place you don’t want a cab driver to announce ‘Taxi for Lock’, it’s in a room full of delegates venting about gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

This was my dilemma last week, when I had to get from the Towards Carfree Cities IX conference at York’s Priory Street Centre to an interview with the Climate Change Minister, Chris Huhne, on the other side of town.

Chris Huhne

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne during a visit to Solarwall, in Clifton, York

I would have hopped on my bike, but I’ve been ill and I wasn’t up to it. Neither was the venue close to a convenient regular bus service. This is a typical problem I’ve had since giving up our car – public transport is, frequently, pants – so I seized the moment (they were discussing car-sharing), and the microphone, and asked, ‘Can anyone give me a lift?’

There was an embarrassed silence and, unsurprisingly, no takers. Compost John did offer to take me on the crossbar of his bike, which was kind but not practical, even if the image of me bowling up to the minister like a street kid in a sun-dress did appeal.

In the end, I legged it to the station and slunk into a cab, compounding my carbon emissions (and my guilt) by getting another taxi home. This got stuck in a massive tailback and we sat there, spewing out pollution, while fit-looking cyclists whizzed past us and I contemplated the happy day when York does, eventually, become car-free.

What, you didn’t see this option in the council’s latest traffic consultation exercise? That’ll teach you for being in the 90 per cent that throws those surveys in the bin (I do hope you recycle them, at any rate). OK, so it wasn’t actually listed as an option for LTP3, but having listened to the urban planners and transport specialists from around the world at the conference this week, I’m convinced that, one day, it could be.

Professor John Whitelegg, a keynote speaker, said in his address on Tuesday, ‘There’s an enormous missed opportunity in York. It could easily be car-free within the city walls.’ He pointed to exciting developments in cities such as Berlin, Basel, Freiburg and Copenhagen and said that urban space could be ‘radically re-engineered at relatively little cost’ to produce ‘human-scale, people-centred environments with a massive improvement in quality of life.’

It sounds good to me, though I realise the mere mention of doing away with cars is deeply provocative to some. But if York wants to realise its stated ambitions of becoming ‘a leading environmentally friendly city’ and ‘an exemplar low-emissions city’ – as opposed to a congested and polluted city with air quality so poor that it’s killing three people a week – then it has to do something bold. The fine words have been going on for long enough.

As Professor Whitelegg said, it’s time to start buttering parsnips.

My emissions-per-quote ratio didn’t work out too well with Chris Huhne, who had come to Solarwall’s Energy Centre in Clifton to announce that the Government was going to get more homes insulated, paving the way for a new Green Deal to come.

I only had five minutes with the Climate Change Minister, so I asked him what this would mean for York residents like me living in Victorian terraced houses that don’t benefit from existing deals. He said there would be ‘extras’ available for pre-1930s housing, such as solid wall insulation, which could be installed with no upfront costs, the repayment coming from a charge on a home’s energy meter, offset by savings on fuel bills.

Fine as far as it goes, but since the environment barely rated a mention in the budget, this ‘greenest Government ever’ will have to do much more to convince that it’s taking positive action on climate change, rather than simply letting poverty reduce emissions by default.

Fortunately, the team of young people I helped to mentor (with Andy Chase) through a Dragon’s Den-style challenge last weekend restored my hopes.  The students – bright sparks from both independent and state schools in York – were given the brief to come up with an idea ‘to make York fit for the future’.

Our team came up with an idea for an organisation to promote food growing in all York schools that had our ‘Dragons’ slavering (in a good way). Congratulations to Xavier, Simon, Peter and Ed from Bootham, Canon Lee and Fulford schools respectively on being made joint winners.

A future that involves growing parsnips and buttering them. Now that’s just what York needs.


July 2010

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