Southwark Green Party welcomed the declaration of a Climate Emergency by the London Borough of Southwark in March 2019 but councillors and council officers are not acting in a way that responds to the gravity of that declaration.
We call for action that recognises the emergency.
Southwark Green Party members have responded as individuals to the draft climate strategy, and some are also members of the council’s Partnership Steering Group (established in March 2020) and have contributed detailed comments on policy through that process. This response will not duplicate that work, but rather highlights some key failings of the draft strategy and these nine points that define how we would approach the task.
1. Deliberative participation. We call on the council to answer the demand for a participative process that feeds into policy making. Instead of answering the call for a Citizens’ Assembly to follow on the heels of the March 2019 declaration, the council has offered the suggestion of much smaller ‘citizens’ juries’ (12-15 people) at some unspecified future point. While these have a place, we suggest that the investment of time, money and expertise in presenting evidence would be more effectively used with a larger assembly (50-100 people). Evidence shows that participants go on to put into practice what they have learned, effectively ‘seeding’ behaviour change in their communities. [UK climate assembly participants hail a life-changing event]
2. Youth participation. At the first meeting of the Partnership Steering Group in March 2020, there was agreement that young people should be invited to form a group that could contribute meaningfully to the Climate Change Strategy, that could work directly with council officers to put into practice their ideas for action in schools and colleges, and that could advise on a communication strategy addressed to young people. No such group has been established. Young people are more than capable of leading an effective group and shaping and directing their own priorities for its work. But the council must establish a channel by which they can feed into policy and actions.
3. Meaningful targets. The Draft Climate Strategy, like Southwark’s earlier Movement Plan, is seriously lacking in targets. For example, Southwark Council has passed a motion to ‘do all it can to make the borough carbon neutral by 2030’. The transport sector is the biggest single source of carbon emissions. But in the Movement Plan, there is no target to reduce motor traffic before 2041. The Movement Plan does include a target to reduce morning peak freight traffic by 10% by 2026. In other words, taking seven years to reduce traffic by 3% for three hours per day! The Belgian city of Ghent reduced all rush hour motor traffic by 12% in just the first year of its 'filtered permeability' plan.
We need real leadership on the actions that make a real difference.
There is an aspiration to ‘decarbonise the council fleet’ (page 49) but no target date and no mention of taking action on journeys by council staff in their own vehicles, or journeys by its contractors. The council’s aspiration to plant 10,000 trees in the next two years announced in January 2021 is not included in this document, raising questions about how it will be monitored and implemented if it is not part of the strategy. While tree planting is welcome, it is not stated in the press release how many will be ‘heavy standard’ trees and how many ‘whips’ or small hedge plants. Also, there is no information on how council intends to improve maintenance of newly planted trees; many die from insufficient watering by contractors.
4. Focus on what the council can do. The strategy rightly looks at the council’s influence on residents’ actions and government policy, as well as actions under its direct control. (For example, we welcome the mention of ‘Not expanding airports in London’, and would like to see this translated into a commitment to oppose new runways, and to lobby local MPs to do the same.) But the strategy puts far too much emphasis on individual actions, some having trivial impact on the carbon bill, such as ‘Picking up litter and promoting litter picking in the community’ (page 52).
More importantly, there is often a complete absence of thinking about how the aspirations will be practically achieved. For example, the summary of the transport theme (p. 3) has as an objective: ‘People cut down on unnecessary flying, and offset their carbon when they do fly.’ There is no mention of schemes to encourage employees to choose low carbon travel, such as Climate Perks. Southwark Council could sign up to this initiative, and require its contractors to do the same, creating culture change just as it did with the Living Wage.
5. Enable not just encourage. The document makes reference to ‘encouraging’ actions, particularly walking and cycling. There is an aspiration to ‘Increase the use of hubs for home delivery of goods to reduce delivery traffic’. This needs to specify that the ‘last mile’ should be zero carbon - delivery by electric cargo bike or collection on foot or bike by recipient. It fails to indicate the council’s role in providing space for hubs.
6. Take action for fairness. Our current carbon-based system harms the poorest, and those who have least control over their homes or work. We are harmed by air pollution, by expensive, inefficient heating systems, by the lack of green space to play and relax, by neighbourhoods dominated by cars. Changing the status quo is essential.
The council must communicate the big picture of a healthier and enjoyable low carbon future when discussing measures needed to get there. For example, to outline the vision of healthy streets for all, when looking at measures like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, speed limits and Controlled Parking Zones. Practical actions from the council can enable both carbon cuts and a better standard of living: warmer homes at lower cost, healthier food, healthier and cheaper travel options. For example, it is not possible for people to choose to cycle if they have nowhere to keep a bike. This problem affects young adults in shared houses, families in flats on council estates and users of non-standard cargo and accessible cycles.
It is the council that can remedy this: by providing more secure parking, and by waiving planning permission fees for landlords who want to install cycle parking. In contrast, parking fees for cars should reflect the emissions of the vehicle. We also warmly welcome the proposal to introduce a workplace car parking levy. Similarly, insulation of council homes and installation of air-source heat pumps and solar panels on council properties can only be actioned by the council, and would lead to rapid and substantial improvements in living conditions and reductions in fuel poverty.
7. Take the best advice. The strategy includes a troubling number of items that lack background research. For example, a proposal to ‘embed cycling proficiency testing into the curriculum’ shows no awareness that the ‘cycling proficiency’ was redesigned and renamed Bikeability in 2007.
Southwark benefits from having many professionals working in climate policy living in the borough. A call out for professional advice, with a clear route for evaluation and adoption, would doubtless be answered by many who want the best for the borough they live in. Despite calls from members of the Partnership Steering Group for transparency about its membership, aims and accountability, this has not been provided and committed members have withdrawn as a result.
8. Educate staff. Certain kinds of training are mandatory for staff doing particular roles: safeguarding, health and safety etc. Training for the climate emergency should also be mandatory, to equip staff to deal with the challenges ahead. It is vital that it focuses on the actions that councils can take to enable carbon cutting (as in points 4 and 5 above), taking inspiration from successful models elsewhere in London and beyond, and that it empowers staff to use their imaginations to change institutional habits. See, for example, the Transition Town approach.
9. Start now. The consultation on this strategy ends in January 2021, nearly two years after Southwark’s declaration of a climate emergency. That does not sound like an emergency response to us.
We are told that the next step is an ‘action plan’ that will ‘set out the detail of what needs to be done to deliver the strategy [...] a timetable, how we will resource the work, changes in how the council works, ongoing engagement with our residents and how we will ensure effective oversight of the delivery’.
We call on the council to sharpen up this strategy, add targets and turn it into a live tracker, asking every member of staff, in every department, to read it and together work out what they can implement immediately and in the near future. We want to see a practical map, not just a picture of the destination.
Southwark Green Party, 15 January 2021