The Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the fragility of life. It has also exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that exist in our society and brought to the fore the sanctity of the freedom we often take for granted.
Every one of us has been affected in one way or another by the pandemic. Unfortunately, some of us have been affected more than others.
Those who have lost loved ones, those whose livelihoods have been jeopardised; and the many who have struggled to keep their head above water as their incomes dwindle but their requirement to put food on the table for children at home has increased.
In our city, there has been a dramatic increase in people using food services. In one week alone in April, 40 local projects gave out food parcels to 3,001 households, supporting over 4,831 people, including at least 996 children.
Comparatively, before the crisis, an average of 420 food parcels were delivered each week.
The crisis has also brought to light just how valuable our parks, seafront and public spaces are, especially to those in housing where there is no outdoor space.
Ensuring these are maintained and accessible has been a priority for the council and we have endeavoured to keep as much of it open as possible. For some people, it has been a lifeline as the lockdown restrictions take their toll.
A once in a generation opportunity to renew
While there is no underestimating the tragedy of what is happening, or the scale of the challenge ahead as we feel the long-lasting effects on our economy and our way of life, there is cause for optimism.
We have been given a once in a generation opportunity to renew, rebuild and reshape our society for the better and in a way that leaves nobody in our city behind.
Before Covid-19, there was another crisis dominating the headlines every day: climate change.
It seems like a lifetime ago now that we were witnessing the wildfires that raged in Australia, but in fact it was only a few months ago. The climate crisis has not gone away and the impact of Covid-19 only demonstrates further the need for change.
The pandemic has demonstrated clearly how much our individual actions matter; actions which have been drastic but necessary.
It is our adherence to the rules of lockdown; keeping away from our families and friends and refraining from our normal activities, that has slowed the spread of the virus.
Each of us has played our part in saving our own lives and the lives of others, while also ensuring the NHS is not overwhelmed. Never has the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ rung so true, as we all play our part to support the local, national and global response to the crisis.
If we all play our part we can make that change
If we applied the same logic to addressing the climate emergency, if each of us played our part and took individual responsibility, we would be able to not only mitigate some of the damage done but create a new way of life which is sustainable; benefiting our community in Brighton & Hove as well as parts of the world that are suffering the extreme consequences of climate change now.
Of course, the environment does not sit on its own as an issue; it’s not a choice between Covid-19 or climate change. Health, wellbeing, our economy and the environment are all intertwined.
That is why the government has announced emergency funding to support active travel initiatives; to avoid a health and environmental crisis caused by increased use of private cars as people seek to get back to work and resume normal life. This will increase traffic congestion resulting in air pollution, which would negatively impact our health and set back any environmental gains made from the reduction of transport in lockdown.
Before the government announcement, we had already taken steps to support sustainable, active travel during the crisis.
By closing Madeira Drive to cars, we were the first council in the UK to dedicate a road to cycling and walking over private vehicles, to accommodate the daily exercise permitted in lockdown, making it safer and more pleasant.
We have created a temporary cycle lane along the Old Shoreham Road, making it safer and easier for cyclists to travel along this main city transport artery; and we have prioritised our key workers by giving free membership of the BTN BikeShare scheme to NHS staff, enabling them to get across the city in a safe way.
While these emergency measures have been taken in response to changing demands caused by the Covid-19 crisis, they tie in with the steps we were already taking to improve cycling and walking routes through the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan and the new Local Transport Plan.
The Valley Gardens project is an example of how we’re thinking in the round: offering a multitude of benefits from improving the road space in the city centre, to creating sustainable transport links and opening up public green spaces to support physical and mental wellbeing.
Thinking boldly and creatively
While progress has been made on these initiatives, the Covid-19 crisis means that we need to renew our efforts and think boldly and creatively about how we can implement change while recognising the financial constraints that we will be under as the economic impact is felt.
Physical distancing means compact cities like Brighton & Hove need to urgently implement new measures which means people can travel and spend time safely in the city.
We’re looking at larger scale environmental projects to generate green energy, while implementing initiatives like School Streets which will lead to the ban of cars outside our schools, creating a safer and better environment for children and their families.
We’re also looking at reallocating road space for ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes, widening footways and pedestrianising areas where more space is needed for queuing to support physical distancing, and considering one-way walking routes in the city centre.
Alongside this we will rapidly step up the pace on work on permanent schemes already agreed. These include proposals for a car-free city centre, and a review of the current ultra-low emission zone.
We will work with all our partners, community groups, residents and businesses to realise our vision.
We look forward to the Climate Assembly being up and running so that we can have open consultation and a broad range of views.
And we will seek to work within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals; 17 goals agreed by the UK and UN Member States in 2015 with the aim to end poverty, promote prosperity and people’s well-being, while protecting the environment, by 2030.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed our world. We must ensure a fair and sustainable recovery, one that redresses the inequalities in our city while looking forward to the opportunities ahead. None of us can move forward if some of us are held back and never has coming together to create change been more important.
Councillor Anne Pissaridou
Chair of the Environment, Transport & Sustainability Committee