Environment activists have savaged Southwark Council’s long-awaited climate strategy and action plan, with one speaker telling this month’s cabinet meeting that their plans were ‘unclear and unambitious’.
The document, published this month, was formally announced and approved by the executive cabinet on July 13 but immediately became the target of campaigners’ ire, with key environmental groups in the borough saying they were no longer willing to engage with the local authority until it would engage in ‘meaningful collaboration’.
The council has described the plans as a ‘roadmap’ to becoming a carbon-neutral borough by 2030; a commitment made when the council first declared a climate emergency in 2019.
Since then the pandemic has played a part in both the delayed publication of the highly anticipated plan, but also in the deteriorating relationship between campaigners and the local authority.
The council says its commitments will build on previous success, including reducing Tooley Street’s own carbon footprint by more than a third through investing in LED lighting and renewable electricity in its offices and buildings.
Its pledges for the next decade are focused on five thematic areas; greener buildings; active and sustainable travel; a circular economy with green jobs; thriving natural environment and renewable energy. It has estimated 5,000 green jobs will be created in this timeframe.
According to the council’s own data it is responsible for twelve per cent of all carbon emissions in the borough, with a ‘significant proportion’ from its social housing stock.
A key focus will be transitioning into low carbon energy, installing water source heat pumps and piloting ‘passivhaus’ standards in new homes which mean homes are energy efficient and require minimal heating. Gas boilers are also being phased out.
The local authority estimates that at least £3.92 billion is needed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and will therefore be impossible without huge central government investment and buy-in from the private companies, industry and other residents responsible for the majority of the borough’s emissions.
The council has also confirmed it plans to hold an annual conference, share yearly progress reports and be held to account by a citizens’ jury as it decarbonises Southwark.
Cllr Helen Dennis, the cabinet member who holds the climate emergency and sustainable development portfolio, said on launching the strategy: “I’m incredibly proud of our ambitious new strategy which sets us on the path to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, playing our part in combating the global temperature rise and preventing catastrophic climate change.
“Building on the work undertaken to date, we will continue to lead by example and put tackling inequality at the heart of our plans.
“But, we know that we cannot do this alone. Change at this scale requires partnerships and action at all levels, from residents, businesses, other large organisations in our borough, and community groups.
“It will also require decisive action and investment from central government, to support the transition towards greener homes, renewable energy and more active and sustainable travel.”
At the public meeting, Extinction Rebellion activist Caoimhe Basketter said the document was not fit for purpose, lacked timelines and clear targets, and urged Tooley Street’s cabinet to reject and rewrite it.
Areas targeted for criticism include hazy promises such as ‘reducing car journeys to a minimum’ and continued lobbying for the Bakerloo Line extension and Camberwell Station to be reopened, but with little other detail on alternative public transport options.
The strategy has been described as a ‘starting point’ by council leader Kieron Williams.
Examples of vague ‘immediate actions’ listed in the strategy include: “impose more ambitious requirements in planning policy for the enhancement of existing open space, the creation of new open space and the improved carbon capture in land use”; “embed building technologies such as green roofs, facades and cool roofs to reduce carbon emissions and improve biodiversity and local air quality”; and “continue to develop the cycling network in conjunction with the installation of LTNs”. All are listed with scant details on timing and milestones over the next ten-year period.
Eighteen community groups including the Southwark branch of Extinction Rebellion; Fossil Free Southwark; Southwark Law Centre; SE24 Community Energy; London Living Streets and Trees for Bermondsey have deemed it ‘unacceptable’ and have declined to take part in the council’s Climate Partnership Steering Group until it is fundamentally restructured, saying their input has been ignored.
Last year several groups had threatened to pull out of the initiative after successive delays, citing a ‘lack of ambition’ from Tooley Street.
Karrim Jalali of Fossil Free Southwark said: “We have tried to assist and work with the council at every opportunity, and we’re pleased that the strategy has been improved upon since we saw the first draft.
“But it’s very easy to give rhetoric – the real test is in what actions will achieve their overarching aim and what targets they are setting to get there.
“In this area, the council falls drastically short. It should be embarrassing for the council to submit an action plan with barely any actions.
“And one of the very few actions listed – as an immediate action – was already completed in 2020.”
Eloise Waldon-Day from XR Southwark said: “To describe this action plan as a ‘starting point’, while without clear timelines, phased actions, specific targets, or funding details after two and a half years of work, shows that the council and the council leader are not prioritising the climate emergency, despite the rhetoric.
“The plan’s poor quality adds to our concern that the officers in charge haven’t grasped what is needed.
“In response to our delegation, the climate director said they did receive more up-to-date baseline data recently, yet continued using outdated 2017 baseline for their modelling because they ‘had already started’.
“Unfortunately for them, the climate crisis is fast-moving and the evidence base evolves all the time.
“This makes us doubt their capacity for accurate annual reporting, even if the plan were clearly phased towards decarbonisation targets. We are out of time.
“Extinction Rebellion Southwark and local groups have always been willing to provide analysis and support on the action plan; in fact, we are now working on comprehensive feedback for the council, although it may make no difference.
“We want to help, to save all our futures. We hope Southwark Council chooses to engage and work in partnership to strengthen this much-needed plan.”