County council ‘has resolved to do nothing in particular’ on fossil fuel divestment

West Sussex County Council has been accused of resolving to do ‘nothing in particular’ rather than taking steps to stop investing pension money in fossil fuels.

Climate change demonstration outside County Hall in 2019
Climate change demonstration outside County Hall in 2019

During a meeting of the full council, Labour leader Michael Jones tabled a motion calling on the pensions committee to ‘take all necessary steps’ to divest all of its investments from fossil fuel companies ‘as soon as practicable’.

It is a change already made by councils such as Waltham Forest, Lambeth and Southwark.

Mr Jones said: “It’s all very well and good making climate change pledges – which this council has done – but what really matters is taking the necessary action to reduce the impact we’re having on the planet.

“As David Attenborough said recently ‘it’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel, when these are the very things that are jeopardising the future that we are saving for’.”

The pension scheme has almost 80,000 members, split across 246 employers such as the county, district and borough councils, academies, the Police and Crime Commissioner and Office of the Chief Constable.

Mr Jones claimed that some of them had already contacted the council asking for divestment. 

But an amendment tabled by Bob Lanzer, cabinet member for economy, changed the motion quite drastically.

Instead of voting for divestment, the council called on the pensions committee to ‘focus on sustainable investment for growth through the application of its environmental, social and governance principles’.

Those principles, which are already followed by the committee, look at the sustainability and social impact of any investments made.

Pointing out the committee’s duty to see the pension fund grow, Mr Lanzer said: “There’s a difference between investing in fossil fuels and investing in fossil fuel companies which happen to have a dynamic green agenda.”

He told the meeting that one of the companies in which the fund invests was producing hydrogen from the electrical power out of wind farms, while another was pouring $1bn per annum into green energy research, and a third had set up a $300m green energy fund.

He added: “Fundamentally, it is not our place to instruct the pensions committee in such a rigid way.”

Mr Jones said the amendment turned the motion into a ‘meaningless platitude’ – but the council voted for it anyway, by 37 votes to 14 with ten abstentions

He was supported by Andrew Lea (Ind Con,  Lindfield & High Weald), who said the amendment was ‘a resolution for the council to do nothing in particular’.

 Mr Jones warned it was becoming more and more difficult to justify that fossil fuel companies were a safe long-term investment – suggesting a better return would come from putting money into renewable energy.

He added: “As an authority deploying public funds, we should not be putting this money into promoting things that are actually harmful to our residents.”

As for the suggestion that the committee needed to encourage fossil fuel companies to ‘transform and adapt to meet the needs of a changing world’ – he was less than impressed.

Calling it ‘a distraction from the real issue’, he said: “You can’t negotiate with climate change and it is ridiculous to try and pretend otherwise.”