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The Green Light of Spring

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The English county elections, for which voting is today, have been, by and large, despite their May date, a winter campaign. When I look back it certainly feels like. It was through months and months of winter that I stood on wet street corners listening to voters valiantly resisting the cold to express their views, looked at green building projects through driving hail, and heard smallholders and small business people again and again explain what extra threats the weather was presenting to their businesses.

So it feels curious that today, with voting starting at 7am this morning, as I wind my way home on the slow train from Winchester, that the sun should be shining so brightly, the sky be a picture-book blue and the lambs in the fields be doing their perfect "promise of spring" thing. The campaign has been long, spring blink-and-you-miss-it short.

Yet lots of Green Party ideas have flowered - really caught on, during this campaign.

One phrase that's proved remarkably popular is "jobs you can build a life on". I've found over the past six months as Green Party leader that the phrase "make the minimum wage a living wage" has been getting lots of traction - and the whole living wage idea has really caught the popular imagination,. But there are also broader employment issues, the fast-growing spread of pernicious zero-hours contracts, part-time work being all that's available even for those desperate for fulltime hours, the general rampant insecurity that leaves both public and private sector workers feeling that they can't plan for the future with any sense of security at all.

Hence my attempt to sum it all up, with the need to rebuild our economies in ways that create jobs you can build a life on. Which means building a locally-based economy around small businesses and cooperatives, strong local economies where there are jobs for farm workers, for builders, for accountants, for printers, for sign writers, for business advisers - all working together to create a thriving business ecosystem.

Instead what we still have are far too many councils, county and district, that think attracting a giant chain store or building an out-town supermarket with lots of free parking is going to be good for their town or city - they here the siren promise of new jobs, but fail to ask the vital question: how many jobs will this destroy, how many businesses will it wipe out?

And we have a national government that has started, belatedly, to pay lip service to making large multinational companies pay their taxes, but has instead acted to make it even easier for them to evade payment. And we've had no effective action on making giant purchasers pay their suppliers on fair terms - critical to keeping small businesses in farming, manufacturing and wholesaling alive.

Another Green Party policy that has attracted passionate support is 40mph speed limits on country lanes and back roads. I had already done a lot of work supporting the 20's Plenty in urban areas - and that's a campaign run by many local Green Party campaigners up and down the country that I can predict will win many votes tomorrow. But what surprised me, and developed through the campaign, is what I might dub "Forty's Fine".

This week I was in Skipton, in North Yorkshire, at a bus stop near Cross Bank that can only be described as deadly. The speed limit is 60mph, in direction there's a blind bend, the other a hill crest. Yet the residents of around 100 park homes, where new residents are expected to be aged over 50, and those of another estate of scores of homes, have to cross this road if they catch the bus from town. My party of Green Party campaigners did it several times, with trepidation and some sprinting - I'd hate to have to think of doing it walking with a stick - or with a small child in tow. Yet the council has said no one has been killed or seriously injured here, so it won't do anything. So let's just wait until ...?

Last month in Essex, near Wittam, I saw a country lane lined with homes with large gardens, where nearly every fence panel was a different colour because they have to be replaced so often when cars slide off the road, and just a couple of days before I visited the windscreen glass had been removed from a large corner tree in which it had been embedded. The idea that 60mph is a reasonable limit for this road is laughable.

And then there's been a flowering of support for our opposition to incineration as a form of waste disposal. I have applauded many strong campaigns up and down the country fighting against these. They have strong environmental arguments - both local and in terms of carbon emissions and waste of valuable resources - but it's the Green Party that in many places has been most strongly making the economic case - that locking local authorities into decades-long contracts to supply waste for these plants, when we know we've got to greatly cut waste production, and indeed are already doing so, risks placing a giant financial millstone around councils' necks.

That illustrates a broader general achievement of a Green Party councillors and campaigners around the country - which is being increasingly recognised. They are the people who ask the tough questions, who really scrutinise what councils are doing, and don't just go along with comfortable, familiar,and all too often failed stories of how projects will benefit their locality, the developers' pretty pictures.

I have found in many places traditional voters of different stripes, Labour and particularly Tory, who might not agree with every Green Party policy, but who will be voting Green on Thursday because they value their local Green Party's hard work and community knowledge, and have found their county or unitary council unresponsive, undemocratic, untransparent - and they want shed some Green light on its workings.