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It is a pleasure to follow the maiden speech of Claire Coutinho and all the other fantastic maiden speeches. I think back to four years ago, when I was in the same position, as it is a huge responsibility to make a maiden speech. I encourage hon. Members to get their printed copy from Hansard, as it is quite a treat to take back home.
This debate, which is both timely and long overdue, is about how our country can address the climate emergency while realising the economic benefits of developing a new settlement for communities that feel frustrated with the current offer. I do not claim to be any kind of climate expert—I have read the briefings, as other hon. Members have—but I can see the difference. There is a spectrum of views on the climate emergency in this House. I do not claim to have had the ability of Caroline Lucas to foresee it, but I can see what is in front of my eyes. I worry that some hon. Members are blind to what is staring us right in the face.
We all need to learn, to be educated and to form solutions together to address the climate emergency and to build a shared future. None of us can escape the extreme weather conditions or the impact of flooding and coastal change. Parts of the planet are burning today. There is a financial cost, but the human and wildlife cost is significant and the suffering is evident. We are seeing water shortages, we are seeing the effect on natural ecosystems, biodiversity and coral reefs, and we are seeing the impact on crop production. And we all know it is always the poorest in society who pay the price when crops fail or when water runs short.
It is our collective responsibility to try to find a solution. The movement has been significant, whether in the large-scale protests by Extinction Rebellion or in the localised protests by schoolchildren on Fridays. Young people in Manchester have actively participated, and they want their voices to be heard because they have a bigger stake in the future.
I really worry about the Government’s approach, as they have not invited Extinction Rebellion for a conversation to seek common ground. Instead of building bridges, the Government are building walls. We need a common shared vision on how best to address this emergency. That is a missed opportunity.
I believe a different way is possible, so I did not turn a blind eye to the protestors in Parliament Square. I wanted a conversation with them about their views in order to seek common ground on the solutions, so we had a meeting in 1 Parliament Street. I said, “This is your Parliament. Instead of protesting outside, come inside and have a conversation to see where we can make progress together.” One of the people I met during those conversations was a man called Paul, who is commonly known as the “tree lawyer” because of his real passion for protecting our ancient trees and woodlands.
The aim of that meeting was not only to connect, but to protect. The first challenge is: how do we connect everyday people with the environment? We talked about the challenges and how people are sometimes very disconnected from the environment, and about the interventions, sometimes small ones, that we can make to connect people with the natural environment around them. We might dismiss some of those suggestions as being simple, but I was inspired by some of the ideas. For example, when someone is born or given their citizenship, why not, on that document, have a tree or woodland that is planted for them, and, thus really put roots in the ground? Why not fight to say that every child will have the ability to look up to a clear night sky or to walk to school without breathing in toxic air that could eventually kill them? We see that happen in this country, where people are literally dying as a result of the quality of the air. Why not make urban environments more attractive and much more connected? We talk about connecting the natural environment and about protecting what we have got, but in towns such as Oldham, where terraced streets and industrial land have been built up to make the town we see today, many communities are denied access to good-quality green, environmental space. We need to reinvest in that to connect people with the natural environment.
I am proud to say that in Oldham the council is doing that; this week, it announced plans for a project called “Northern Roots”, whereby we would have an eco-park of 160 acres right in Oldham town centre and beyond, into the countryside. Another suggestion was for worldwide twinning. After the second world war, we made a massive effort to ensure that towns and cities in this country were connected to our counterparts in Europe. Why not do the same today for climate, so that children in Oldham can be connected with children in Bangladesh, and see the human impact of climate change and what it means for children of their age going to school?
We also need to protect what we have got. Paul’s ambition was to give ancient trees the protection they need, but perhaps people just want protection for the green belt, to make sure that those who live in an urban environment have access to good-quality green space. The Government need to do far more, first, to update the population data to make sure that local planning authorities are planning on the basis of the most accurate and up-to-date data, and, secondly, to ensure that we have a proper fund in place to build on brownfield sites. A town such as Oldham has acres and acres of dirty brownfield sites that are contaminated. They are so expensive to build on that it is far easier for a developer to build on green space. We need a new deal for towns such as Oldham so that they can build on brownfield sites, where the community are crying out for new investment, instead of having that impact on the green belt.
Importantly, we also need to connect people with opportunities. When we talk about the type of interventions and behavioural change needed for our environment, we are asking people to make a sacrifice—we are asking the Government to introduce a new tax. What we really need to do is connect people with the opportunities that exist if we take concerted action. So the green revolution, the industrial revolution for our economy, is really important. People recognise that this is an opportunity to have decent, well-paid, secure and skilled jobs. Unfortunately, when people talk about a town such as Oldham, they often talk about the north as though it is some kind of distant land. They talk about a town that once was and not as one that has a stake in the future, but those people could not be further from the truth. When I look at a town such as Oldham, I see that we are still innovating, creating and making things that change the world. Behind those dirty roller shutters people are changing the world in towns such as Oldham, and that provides a foundation for this revolution.
People in Oldham want to know that they have a stake in the future. They are sick of demanding that the Government listen to them and of asking for a fairer share. If we just continue that conversation, we are not capitalising on the skills that still exist in these towns. My town was the home of Ferranti, which made the components for the world’s first computer, of British Aerospace, which made the Lancaster bomber, and of Platt Brothers, which had one of the largest engineering plants in the world. Although those have closed, the skills and values of manufacturing and engineering jobs are still very much in our local economy, and that should be the foundation for the future. And we feel this—we are the gateway to the Pennines, so although Oldham is an urban town on the doorstep of Manchester, we are a stone’s throw from the countryside and we recognise the value that that has.
When planning for the future, we are all very short-term in this place. We are all focused on the next election and the next cycle, and it is hugely damaging for the country and the planet when we behave in that way. The challenge I lay down today is not that we prepare for the next election or Queen’s Speech, but that we think about a child being born today in this country. We need to think that that child will live to see the next century. We need to think about the kind of life they will have, from the moment they are born in their community, to when they go to school, when they start out on their adult life and when they enter old age, and about the type of care they will need and the type of society they will live in. If we think about a child being born today, we will collectively make very different decisions from those we often end up voting for in the Lobby. Let me make it clear that I believe strongly that the foundations are in place in this country to thrive and rebuild on the back of a green revolution. The test for me as to whether Britain thrives—Members would expect me to say this, because I represent Oldham, Chadderton and Royton—is whether towns such as mine can be part of that journey. That is the challenge for the Government, and they need to come forward with concrete examples of how we can connect people, so that they really feel they have a stake in the future.