Teenagers urged politicians to put aside their party differences to tackle the international challenge of climate change at a meeting attended by hundreds of people in Cheltenham.

Students from Pittville School, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Balcarras School and others, attended the event to quiz a political panel on the environment in Cheltenham and what’s being done to reduce the impact of climate change.

Last Friday, the discussion covered topics such as single use plastics, public transport, electric technology and protest groups such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’. The event proved useful in getting students to comfortably engage the panel and call them out on politicising issues and party-point scoring.

The Panel

  • Molly Scott Cato; Green MEP, who is currently a prospective parliamentary candidate for Stroud
  • Alex Chalk; Conservative MP for Cheltenham. Chalk tabled a bill for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which then became a law
  • Martin Horwood; Former MP for Cheltenham and Liberal Democrat MEP.
  • Max Wilkinson; Cheltenham Local Councillor and Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate
  • George Penny; member of the Cheltenham Labour Party

One student addressed the panel “I think everyone in the audience would really appreciate it if this didn’t become party-digs at each other. It’s a universal issue. It’s everyone’s problem, everyone’s caused it and everyone has to solve it.”

Cheltenham Ladies College student, Kate, added “We’re lacking collaboration between individuals and politicians. There’s too much of a divide, so what can be done to make this issue unite everybody.” Like many young people, Kate and her peers believe “It’s the governments responsibility to do something about this.”

“You’re going to see some disagreement here today too, as I have already established disagreement with Alex [Chalk], over whether technology offers the answers. It’s system change, not climate change” – Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP

However, members of the panel were unanimous behind Oakley ward Councillor Max Wilkinson, who argued that “the environment is not an apolitical issue.” Fellow Liberal Democrat Martin Horwood responded to the student by reasoning “democracy works, not just by collaboration, but by calling people out for doing the wrong thing”, and suggested that this scrutiny is part of free expression and free debate.

The Discussion

  • Single use Plastics
  • Questions about plastic straws, plastic packaging and the ‘Food Loose and Plastic Free’ shop headed this segment. Local MP Alex Chalk was able to draw on his knowledge of Waitrose’s Cheltenham store and the work they’re doing to reduce unnecessary packaging.   
  • Motoring and Electric Cars
  • Sub two-mile car journeys were condemned and the panel were united under an inherent need for system change. How this is achieved caused debate, especially between conflicting Green and Conservative panellists.
  • Public Transport
  • Specific questions relating to Boots Corner, bus routes and travel prices dominated the conversation as students provide insight into cost and accessibility. One student explained the issues surrounding the route between Gloucester and Cheltenham, with a new cycle highway suggested to combat the issues.
  • Democracy and Climate Change
  • Politicians reassured the pupils that politics has a place in climate and environmental issues, but accept that party attacks are not the answer.
  • Pollution and International affairs
  • Context was introduced into the final answers given and Green MEP, Molly Scott Cato reminded attendees of their global involvement in pollution and how this can be reduced.

Talking to Max Wilkinson after the event, he emphasised the importance of “the diversity of opinion on show” and that “the environment is political, you can’t get away from the fact that the people who are making the decisions that impact the future of the planet are politicians. People should scrutinise their politicians and it’s for politicians to help the process of scrutiny too”.

Organised by Gloucestershire’s premier sustainability charity, Vison21, the afternoon offered under- 18 participants the opportunity for representation and education surrounding the environment. The event centred around the BBC’s popular debate programme, ‘Question Time’, and aimed to get students to communicate with the local politicians and councillors who represent them.

“In Denmark, the proportion of journeys under two miles that are undertaken by walking or cycling are 18%. In the Netherlands it’s closer to 35%. In the UK it’s less than 2%. In places like Cheltenham, we can do so much more” – Alex Chalk, Conservative MP

A Vision21 volunteer, Mike Bush, said the “whole point about this was to actually get young people to voice their concerns to the politicians so that they can have a future.” Running alongside Vision21 is Reclaim, the first furniture reuse programme in Cheltenham. Mike and other volunteers stop around 50 tonnes of waste going to landfill every year and felt it was important to educate the children about this work.

“The trial that has reduced car use at Boots Corner has increased bus use across the whole town. And we have been attacked by every single Conservative leaflet for the past four years. I think it’s a disgrace, and I think Alex [Chalk] should put his money where his mouth is and support pedestrianisation” – Martin Horwood, Lib Dem MEP

Vision21 have also displayed an exhibition at St Andrews Church, with a timeline that charts the charities’ journey, and marks their 25th anniversary year. The second section of the timeline then looks at the future and reveals realities like rising temperatures and population changes to the students. A Vision21 trustee, Peter Clegg used the timeline to “inspire the students to ask some really good questions”, and felt the event was a success overall.

Although students commented on the divide between themselves and politicians, the audience made the most of the chance to query decision makers, and agreed that it’s important to engage young people in tough, political questions moving forward. Some pupils have formed environmental groups at school, and three students from Balcarras School praised the chance to converse with “politicians who speak out and make change, which encourages people lower down to make changes and forms a chain reaction.”

You can catch up on the event with our live commentary on Twitter, or watch the live stream on the Vision21 Facebook page, available here.  

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