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Council heading in wrong direction on climate emergency

Over a year after Bristol Council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, Green councillors say the Labour administration are making a series of bad decisions that will only make the emergency worse.

In November 2018 Bristol Council declared a Climate Emergency following a Green motion passing at Full Council. It was the first declaration of its kind in the UK, and was followed by similar declarations at over 400 councils around the country. However more than a year later Greens issue a warning about a lack of urgent action from the Labour Mayor, as well as major decisions that go in the opposite direction to the action that is needed. They pointed to the administration being on the ‘wrong side’ of recent airport expansion and divestment campaigns and cited recent developments at the Council as proof that the administration is taking little real action and pursuing a business as usual approach with regards to the climate.

“the Mayor sees the Climate Emergency as a nice thing to mention in speeches, but not something that requires real and urgent action"

Carla Denyer, the Green Councillor that proposed the Emergency declaration, said:

“Since I proposed the climate emergency I've said more times than I can remember that it cannot just be words. Declaring an emergency has to lead to real action.

“So what has happened in Bristol? Well – the Mayor has set up boards and recently released a ‘One City’ strategy which looked at the targets the city will likely need to meet to become carbon neutral – although the strategy contained no concrete actions from the Council. And the Council is hoping to receive funding for Green projects through the much discussed ‘City Leap’ project – although there have been no solid details released on this so far.

“All of this is good stuff – but having declared a Climate Emergency the Mayor has a duty to lead on it, rather than just saying ‘it's up to everyone’. There are major areas that will need to be transformed in the city, areas mentioned in the One City strategy like transport, housing and insulation – yet there’s been very little in the way of new action or commitments from the administration on these fronts. In fact, in several key areas where the Council has a great deal of influence, the administration has outright resisted calls on them to take action, including divesting pensions from fossil fuels, opposing Bristol Airport expansion, and scrapping new road building plans. These would all have had a major climate benefit and cost the council nothing at all, yet the administration refused to even consider them.”

She added,

“The overwhelming sense is that the Mayor sees the Climate Emergency as a nice thing to mention in speeches, but not something that requires real and urgent action, or any change in the way the Council does things.”

Greens argue that the administration’s attitude to the climate is illustrated in the Mayor publically expressing support for Climate Striker Greta Thunberg during her visit, only for the Council to take multiple decisions the following week which will have a negative climate impact and increase carbon emissions across Bristol and the wider region.

Councillor Eleanor Combley, leader of the Green Group, said:

“Last week we saw the One City Climate Strategy launched with great fanfare, and Greta Thunberg’s visit to support local School Strike for Climate activists being claimed by Labour as some kind of triumph for the Mayor.

“This week we saw the reality behind those words. On Tuesday the Cabinet approved a regional transport plan which funds road building and road widening – increasing traffic congestion and carbon emissions – but secures no money for walking, cycling or public transport. The following day the Mayor’s preferred option of an out-of-town arena, with car-dependence built in, was approved at a planning meeting with the support of all Labour members of the committee. Finally on Thursday, despite rising calls to pull pension funds out of fossil fuels, including from the Council’s largest union, the Labour representative on Avon Pension Fund confirmed he is continuing with the discredited policy of ‘constructive engagement’, which has failed to significantly change the behaviour of fossil fuel companies for decades.”

Further information:

 -          Greta Thunberg’s visit to Bristol last week was a media sensation that drew huge crowds of between 15 and 30 thousand people to see her speak on College Green outside City Hall. Marvin Rees tweeted his support for Thunberg stating “We're a city at the forefront of action on climate & social justice” and shared a blog post by one of his cabinet members backing the demo. The Swedish teenager has made a point of criticising politicians for “empty words” on climate change and did not meet with politicians from any party during her visit.

-          On Tuesday the following week Bristol’s cabinet meeting passed the regional Joint Local Transport Plan, which was criticised by environmentalists, Greens and transport experts for prioritising road building and widening projects over public transport or walking and cycling. The plan may be illegal following the High Court’s rejection of the third runway at Heathrow on the grounds that it doesn’t meet the UK’s climate commitments. Labour’s former transport lead Cllr Mhairi Threlfall echoed points made by Greens and activists who called on the Mayor to amend the plan before approving it at WECA – however the cabinet noted the plan without recommending any changes. North Somerset and B&NES councils had expressed concerns with the plan and proposed amendments to address the climate emergency.

 -          On Wednesday the Council’s planning committee approved plans for the ‘YTL Arena’ at Filton in the north of the city. Green Councillors and others objected to the plans on transport congestion and environmental grounds. According to YTL’s plans the heating and maintenance of the structure will take 12 times the CO2 emissions of the previous Temple Island plan and in the developer’s ‘best case’ transport scenarios 70% of journeys to the site will be made by private car. Labour councillors voted en masse to approve it and the Mayor tweeted his support for the project. Transport campaigners such as Sustrans opposed the move.

 -          On Thursday the administration’s representative on the Avon Pension Fund (appointed by the Mayor) affirmed his continued support for the policy of ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies, rather than divestment (pulling funding out of fossil fuel investments) which has been called for by Greens and environmental campaigners. Prominent cities in the ‘C40 cities’ group such as New York, London and Berlin have already committed to divestment. In July last year, Green councillors put a motion to the council calling on it to use its influence to push for divestment. The motion was backed by UNISON, the Council’s largest staff union – however the Labour group voted with Conservative Cllrs to amend the green motion to take no action.

 -          Other Councils that declared a Climate Emergency after Bristol include Oxford, which launched a citizens assembly to deal with the issue and recently announced a £19m fund to act on the recommendations and Warwick district Council, which proposed a referendum on a radical hike in Council Tax to raise over £30m in ten years to tackle the Climate emergency.

 -          While Council studies were still at an early stage in January 2019 Green councillors issued a report titled ‘Change Starts Now’ containing suggested projects to reach carbon neutrality that could be started as soon as possible. In January 2020 they proposed a motion that passed in Full Council to set up Citizens Assemblies including a pilot to focus on tackling the Climate Emergency. At council budgets in 2019 and 2020 Greens proposed a range of measures to allocate funding for Climate Emergency measures – in 2020 this included £10m on retrofitting and adding solar to council homes to reduce heating bills and carbon emissions and over £12m on ringfenced funding for public transport and walking and cycling improvements.

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