On Tuesday (October 12), East Sussex County Council debated a motion which called on the authority to give its support to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill — a piece of potential legislation put forward by Green MP Caroline Lucas intended to cement in law measures to address climate change and biodiversity loss.
As is usual practice at the authority, the motion, from Green Party councillors Georgia Taylor and Wendy Maples, was previously considered by lead member for climate change and resources Nick Bennett.
At that earlier meeting, Cllr Bennett went against officer advice and recommended the council support the bill, albeit with some tweaked wording acknowledging work already going on locally and nationally.
Lead member reconsiders
But as debate began, Cllr Bennett told councillors he had reconsidered his position. He said: “The UK government has set a legally-binding target under the Climate Change Act to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
“I cannot see how the [CEE] Bill would enable us to get to net zero any faster than the current commitment within that legislation, because there are no provisions within it.
“Neither is there any help in the bill which would lead to measurable ecological improvements more effectively than commitments already set out in existing legislation or in the Environment Bill 2020.
“The government has said it will produce a net zero strategy incorporating a range of initiatives around buildings, industry, hydrogen, nature along with legislation around the environment and agricultural issues.
“On further and fuller consideration, I believe that we should allow all of this to take effect while we push on with the excellent work outlined in our own action plans and supported by further funding to support our strategy.”
Cllr Bennett’s amended recommendation — which became the substantive motion in line with council procedure — contained drastically different wording, removing support for the CEE Bill and laying out reasons it should not be supported. These included an argument the bill would deepen and widen ‘already ambitious’ carbon targets and ‘impose a greater burden on UK residents’.
Instead of supporting the bill, Cllr Bennett’s recommended motion called on the council to affirm three beliefs. These were: that the government’s climate and ecological initiative ‘strike the right balance’; that valuing ecosystems must be an increasing focus for policy; and that high-level policy must be grounded at a national, regional and local authority level and supported by central funding.
It also called on the council to write to its MPs asking for both “greater direction, detail and support … in delivering on net-zero” and “further policy action” in a number of environmental areas.
The new recommendation appeared to come as a surprise for opposition councillors, with several criticising that it had been circulated a few minutes before it was set for debate.
The meeting was adjourned for around 25 minutes to allow opposition parties to discuss it.
Following this there was an attempt to see the item deferred, which was voted down by Conservatives.
‘Barefaced political skullduggery’
Among those to level criticism was Cllr Maples, one of the councillors behind the original motion. She said: “We have had Cllr Bennett say two completely contradictory things. The CEE Bill, he says, does nothing to increase progress on climate and the ecology any further than the current or hoped for Environment Bill.
“But he now says the CEE Bill will have too much impact by widening and deepening the commitment that we need to make on environment and the climate. My question is, which is it?
“This does not make anything clear. This, I’m sorry to say, is a fudge and what we deserve is better than that. We deserve better today in terms of the behaviour of our colleagues, we deserve better for our community and we certainly deserve better for our climate and ecology.”
Criticism was also levelled by Liberal Democrat Colin Swansborough over the manner of the last minute change.
He said: “I attended the original lead member meeting and I have to say it was quite an uplifting occasion because the Green Party their motion and it was given very good consideration by [Cllr Bennett].
“In the spirit of unusual unanimity the motion was put through. Then what has happened is the worst side of politics.
“It is just barefaced political skullduggery. In the background somewhere Nick Bennett has been got at and I am really surprised because he is a very senior guy and I am sure he has the esteem of all sides of the council. On that basis, I am surprised to see he has come to this sort of situation.”
Following a lengthy debate, Cllr Bennett’s motion was passed in a near unanimous vote (there were two abstentions), but only once the original motion was voted down by the Conservative majority.
Opposition parties unite to condemn the Conservatives’ change of heart
After the meeting opposition members united to condemn the Conservatives’ ‘last minute change of heart’
Liberal Democrat climate change spokesperson Colin Swansborough said: “Cllr Nick Bennett, the lead member, agreed with the notice of motion that asked the county council to support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. However, when this came to full council for debate on 12 October, Cllr Bennett issued a last minute set of recommendations that were completely different to his initial response.
“This kind of political skulduggery has no place in this council and also raises warnings for COP26. Will the Conservatives change their mind nationally as well as locally?”
Labour’s Chris Collier added: “This was a cynical and hypocritical misuse of the democratic process. It was extraordinary that a substantial change like this should have been thrown at council at the very point at which this item was about to be discussed. We had no notice of this substantial change and no opportunity to give it proper scrutiny.”
Green councillor Wendy Maples added: “We were sorely disappointed in our Conservative colleagues who seem to think point-scoring is more important than the planet.”
Independent Democrat Stephen Shing added: “We should stick to the 2030 target. The Bill has cross party support and party politics should be put aside with an emphasis on the future of the planet.
“Opposition parties at the council demanded an adjournment but realised that more time was needed to consider Cllr Bennett’s recommendations fully. A proposal to defer discussion to the next county council was voted down by the Conservatives.
“At the recent election our county’s residents elected green party councillors for the first time on this council, indicating a concern for green issues. It is pleasing that everyone could eventually work together on this important issue to protect our environment, so that real change can take place.”
‘Significant action needed to tackle climate emergency’
At the meeting the county council agreed to set aside an extra £8.85 million to be spent on reducing climate change and in improving East Sussex’s highways for walkers, cyclists and motorists.
“There is no question that significant action is needed to tackle the climate emergency,” Cllr Bennett said. “But we have to be absolutely sure that everything we do supports our continuing efforts to become a carbon-neutral authority by 2050 at the latest.
“Becoming carbon neutral is not something that can happen overnight but we have made huge strides in recent years. Significant changes to our buildings and the way we work have helped us more than halve our carbon emissions since 2008 – equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 7,000 residents.”
A spokesman for the council said the authority has already switched to a 100 per cent renewable electricity tariff for streetlights and council buildings, has invested £1million from a recycling fund into improving energy efficiency and secured a further £480,000 of funding from the Government for the current financial year that, among other measures, is being used to install photovoltaic panels on council properties.
Cllr Bennett added: “We know that there is a long way to go to reach our ultimate target, but the results so far show our commitment to getting there. We will continue to work with all areas of our business and with partners to identify projects and funding that will support our efforts.”
Following debate, the council has agreed to write to the county’s MPs asking them to press ministers for greater direction, detail and support to assist the council in delivering on its net-zero target.
‘Climate fudge’ birthday cake delivered
Before the meeting more than 150 people helped deliver a giant ‘climate fudge’ birthday cake.
The protest demanded that East Sussex County Council ‘start treating the climate emergency as an emergency’.
The metre-tall cake with two giant candles carried by two people in chef’s outfits was decorated with the words ‘two years of climate fudge’ and ‘ESCC: it’s time for climate action’.
The cake was processed through the streets of Lewes to County Hall, led by well-known local musician Dirk Campbell playing the bagpipes
Campaigners believe that two years after declaring a climate emergency, the county council still has not divested the East Sussex Pension Fund from fossil fuels, has not endorsed the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill and has not done enough to make its target of reducing carbon emissions by 13 per cent a year a reality
The protest was organised by Divest East Sussex, XR Lewes and Lewes Climate Hub, with support from a wide range of organisations, including Lewes District Green Party, Lewes Labour Party, Brighton Energy Coop, Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth, Energise Sussex Coast, Frack Free Sussex, Hanover Action, Lewes Liberal Democrats, Plastic Free Seaford, Seaford Environmental Alliance, South East Climate Alliance, Transition Town Hastings, Transition Town Lewes, XR Brighton, and XR Hastings & St Leonards.
Arnold Simanowitz, from Divest East Sussex, said: ‘The UN Secretary-General described the latest UN climate report as a ‘code red for humanity’, saying that it ‘must sound a death knell for fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet’.
“Yet two years after declaring a climate emergency, East Sussex County Council won’t even agree to stop investing in the giant fossil fuel companies.”
He added: “It’s time for East Sussex County Council to finally start treating the climate emergency as an emergency.”
Jane Carpenter, from Lewes Climate Hub, said: ‘Members of Lewes Climate Hub recognise the climate and ecological emergency and our groups are working together on many initiatives to address the threats to our area. Our elected county councillors need to lead on this and take action now.”
Mark Engineer, from XR Lewes, added: “ESCC must do its part in reducing its emissions to net zero, starting now. Targets without active plans risk all our futures.”