Public speaking suspended at council meeting after deluge of questions from environmental campaigners

East Sussex County Council has suspended its usual public speaking rules after receiving more than 135 questions from environmental campaigners.

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 10:08 am
East Sussex County Council

Public speaking will not take place at a full council meeting today (Tuesday July 7), due to what the council describes as a “large number of public questions” and difficulties with holding the meeting in a virtual forum.

Most of the questions relate to the investments of the East Sussex Pension Fund in oil and gas companies – a subject championed by the campaign group Divest East Sussex.

During full council meetings members of the public are usually allowed to ask follow-ups to previously submitted written questions.

In recent years, campaigners from Divest East Sussex have made regular use of this opportunity to provide a platform to voice their objections to public funds being invested in the fossil fuel industry. 

A usual meeting will have around 10 to 20 written questions, with a smaller number of follow-up questions asked by speakers in the room or their representatives.

But this latest meeting saw more than 135 questions submitted to the council about the pension fund’s investments in fossil fuel  and its impact on climate change alone.

These were boiled down to 48 individual questions as the council considered many to be the same or sufficiently similar.

In meeting papers, the council has provided a single, lengthy written response to all of the questions.

In it pension committee chairman Gerald Fox said: “The [pension] committee regularly debates the merits of engagement vs. divestment in relation to fossil fuels. 

“It does not currently recognise blanket divestment from entire sectors as an effective or fiduciary approach. Indeed, a blanket divestment from fossil fuels would have meaningful operational implications for East Sussex Pension Fund.  

“Nor is it viewed as a sensible approach by any of the fund managers with whom we have engaged. Institutional engagement with the large oil and gas companies is more likely to drive change. 

“We see this recently with the announcements made by a number of oil companies, in the wake of pressure from institutional investment groups with whom ESPF collaborates. 

“Such companies, while providing services that current day consumers cannot do without, also offer the potential to be a vehicle for change.”

In correspondence with campaigners the council said the decision not to take follow-up public questions was due to the volume of questions received.

However, when approached for comment, the council said decision was largely because the meeting being held online. A report to be discussed at the same meeting also recommends that public speaking be suspended while meetings are held virtually.

Divest East Sussex campaigners, however, said it was a sign the council was ‘flustered’.

A spokesperson for Divest East Sussex said: “Even before COVID-19 the fossil fuel system was being disrupted by the forces of cheaper renewable technologies and more aggressive government policies.

“But now the pandemic appears to have brought forward the point of peak demand for fossil fuels (possibly to 2019), revealing the overcapacity and fragility of the whole fossil fuel system and creating the prospect of big losses for investors like ESCC.

“With the window of opportunity to prevent catastrophic climate change rapidly shrinking there’s never been a more important time for the public to tell ESCC to ditch its investments in fossil fuels.”

Only one question does not relate to the East Sussex Pension fund. The question, from an Eastbourne resident, related to the council’s delivery of Covid-19 infrastructure.

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