In May 2019 all parties scrabbled to put motions declaring a climate emergency. Arguments on the day centred around a target date for ‘zero carbon’ and whether a decision should be made immediately for future home building being zero carbon. We ended up with no target date (though the council has subsequently committed to 2030 for its own operations, though not for the county as a whole), and the home building issue was kicked in to touch for future consideration. So how have things gone since then?
Current Shropshire annual greenhouse gas emissions (approx. 2017)
Shropshire (blue) 1,760,000 Tonnes CO2e
Shropshire Council (orange) 23,000* Tonnes CO2e
There are two parts to the story of getting Shropshire to carbon zero. The council’s own ‘carbon footprint’ and the emissions coming from the activities of the whole county. The council’s footprint is tiny when compared to that of the whole county, but it is absolutely crucial because the council can lead by example and help develop the infrastructure to take the rest of the county with it.
A Climate Action Plan for the Council
For the council’s own activities, we need a costed plan, broken down into projects, which, when added together, provide the route map to zero carbon. This means each project needs a timeline, a financial budget and a carbon budget. Other councils – including rural counties such as Cornwall, have published more detail, but we still await that. What we do have is a ‘Strategy Framework’ which sets the priorities.
This is not to say nothing has happened. For example, there have been a series of Sustainable Energy in Public Buildings projects with completion dates earlier this year that should achieve a saving of 207 tonnes of CO2e emissions (so around 0.9% of the council’s footprint). These have all relied on European Union funding!
Projects so far focus on direct emissions. These are important and should be welcomed. But the scope of emissions runs from heating the offices and running vehicles through major contracted-out work on highways, to equipment purchase, staff commuting and investments, including the pension fund. These non-direct emissions are known as scope 3 emissions. It is quite possible that these are greater than the direct, scope 1 and 2 emissions, but at present we just don’t know. *That 23,000 tons figure includes only a small part of probable scope 3.
An example of ‘scope 3’ projects that could both reduce emissions and improve people’s lives is the need to ‘retrofit’ the councils housing stock managed by Shropshire Towns and Rural Housing. But so far there is no sign of such a project. This could kickstart a retrofit industry, reduce fuel poverty for many low-income families and reduce carbon emissions.
The lack of a published Action Plan is not helped by the fact that no budget has been allocated to this work. Elsewhere councils have set aside specific pots of cash, whilst Warwick District Council (also Conservative controlled) has a cross-party agreement to hold a referendum on a climate action additional levy on the council tax. Shropshire Council, like many others, is in financial crisis. No one yet knows what that will look like in the coming years as we slowly emerge from the coronavirus emergency, but without a dedicated budget the risk is that only projects with zero or very little upfront cost will get started, even if the long-term savings might be financial as well as in CO2 emissions.
A Climate Action Plan for the County
When it comes to the county’s direct greenhouse gas emissions there are very few things the council cannot influence, even if it does not have complete control. This will take a combination of policy changes, public engagement and partnership working.
The key policy areas that can drive change are around planning and transport. Planning can ensure we move towards zero carbon homes suitably placed and designed to enable walking, cycling and public transport as the first-choice options for day-to-day travel. Transport policies can ensure that we follow a sustainable transport hierarchy.
So far, we have scant evidence of such policies. A ‘Local Plan Review’ continues to aim for high numbers of new homes. Many challenge the need for such numbers, and the appropriateness of much of the planned development. New planning policies on building energy, transport and biodiversity are yet to see the light of day. But even existing policies could be applied more rigorously to avoid ‘business as usual’ housing going up with minimal effort to mitigate emissions. Phase 2 of the Weir Hill development on the east of Shrewsbury is an example which could be so much better.
We have been told that a much-delayed new Local Transport Plan is in the pipeline. But at a recent ‘Overview Committee’ it became clear that the claimed climate change expertise of the councils contracted consultant on this – WSP – had not yet been drawn on. Sustainable Transport Shropshire, a local campaign organisation, recently pulled out of consultations on a Walking and Cycling strategy because it became clear the work was concentrating on leisure activities rather than promoting ‘active travel’ as the first choice for many day to day activities. So the worry is that those in charge still don’t really get it.
Trees and biodiversity
Council meetings have made commitments on tree planting but a search of the council website finds only a suspension of last year’s community tree scheme. Bids are apparently being sought to develop a ‘green infrastructure strategy’, which suggests that, sadly, there isn’t the capacity to develop this in-house.
The Council needs a plan that helps us all change the way we travel, work, shop and eat, remembering that all these changes, if done right, can make us healthier, better connected and happier. Crucial to success is really good public engagement. Whilst other Councils such as Oxford have held or planned citizens assembles and juries to consult on the nature and speed of these changes, Shropshire has not.
To develop the plans we need, and to win over many of the ‘anchor’ businesses and activities in the county as allies (from the NHS to Veolia) we need some robust collaboration between public and private sectors. That is why the emergency declaration motion called for the establishment of a Climate Action Partnership. We are still waiting for this.
Alongside the partnership we will need to redirect the work of the council’s economic development team towards a green renewal plan. To get to carbon zero we need local firms with skilled workers to make our homes warmer and more efficient, which will in turn support public health. We need to give people travel options that are ultra-low carbon: safe walking and cycling; clean public transport (Shrewsbury remains the largest town in the country without a Sunday bus service); EV vehicle infrastructure. We need to work with our farmers to make our use of land part of the solution rather than part of the problem as it often is at present. We need to invest in making things that last and can be repaired rather than being thrown away. We need to think through what a zero carbon tourism industry look like. And we need to use the new recognition of the vital role in our survival of key workers across the ‘foundation’ economy where jobs need to be better rewarded and more secure.
Behind the scenes there are committed members of staff doing their damnedest. But the energy, drive and resources must come from the council leadership. By now we could have seen political commitments from leading councillors on all the areas discussed above, but we just haven’t. And of course, the council leadership remains committed to a dirty, expensive, divisive, and retrograde North West Relief Road.
Without a robust, transparent, publicly shared plan covering all these areas it seems highly unlikely that we will make the progress needed. There are plenty of others with plans that will scupper all this. Influential organisations like the Marches LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and the ‘Midlands Engine Partnership’ remain largely committed to business as usual and, in particular, the continued growth of road-based transport infrastructure.
This account demonstrates that, sadly, we are not getting the leadership we desperately need.
The Covid 19 emergency is a tragedy. But out of it we have seen some remarkable developments, not just in Shropshire but nationally: as Jessica Studdert of New Local Government Network has said (in a webinar presentation; 36mins in) we have seen an ‘incredible sense of mission and purpose’ amongst council workers. We have also seen a ‘significant community power response’ to the crisis. So even without the leadership we need, there is work to do to mobilise this energy – to lead from behind.
In my day job with the Green Party I am conducting a survey of how councils are getting on with climate action across the country. Watch this space for some results.