This morning I ‘attended’ a meeting of Dorset Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee. I am not a member of this committee, but because they were considering the Council’s recently published Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, and because I do sit on the panel that has supposedly produced this strategy, I wanted to ask that committee a question – and in so doing make a public statement regarding both my frustration at the speed with which the Council is actually committing to any climate action, and my belief that they have got their methodology ‘arse about face’.
I say that the Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel has only supposedly produced this strategy because in effect the work (the very good and very professional work that has gone into its production) has been done by council officers. And whilst in theory the panel has been consulted, I for one do not feel that the opinions of the panel have counted for much. No, the direction and methodology of the panel has been largely supplied by its chair, as has most of the decision making. Despite feeling quite impotent during this process, I have resisted the urge to speak publicly – until now. I have done this out of respect for the request that we keep our discussions confidential until we are ready to publish. Anyway, my question was:
This Council has already agreed that we face a climate and ecological emergency. Does this committee consider that this strategy document fully acknowledges the urgency that is normally associated with an emergency? The methodology that has produced this document is expressed in its Forward: “while other councils around the country may have chosen to set deadlines for carbon reduction and then work out how they’ll achieve them, I’ve always wanted us to do the investigation and information-gathering first before setting out our strategy. This ensures that our action plan and timetable is both realistic and achievable, as well as ambitious.” Such caution is far from ambitious. We have never faced such an emergency before. As we have no relevant experience, we cannot know what actions are realistic. But we do know what needs to be done – the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) have been telling us for years. It’s no longer about the science or evidence, it’s about the political implications of the science and evidence – it’s about the political leadership that this council is prepared to give. This Council should have, by now, clearly laid out what needs to be achieved across the Dorset area. It should have set the challenge and be provide the leadership to meet the challenge.
I can illustrate what I mean with two examples. First, the Navitus Bay windfarm project. In September 2015 planning permission for the wind farm was refused by the Planning Inspectorate, due to the visual impact effect the development would have had on the region – a tourist area which included a World Heritage site (the Jurassic Coast). Had it gone ahead, it would have supplied approximately 85% of the electricity for the whole of Dorset – a short fall that could easily have been made up through the use of solar panels. This would have allowed Dorset to be supplied by 100% renewable energy. I will avoid a detailed discussion now about the reasons why this application was rejected. Needless to say I do not think them valid. But that’s not the point. Five years down the line there is a lot of talk about resurrecting this project. This is where the Council could (should) show political leadership. It should state openly that it wants this, or a very similar project, to go ahead. Rather than following its current methodology of only committing to projects that are “both realistic and achievable” it could commit to projects where the realism and achievability are questionable, but do all in its power to make them real. There may be a lot of obstacles in the way of turning such an idea into an actuality, but without the political will these obstacles will never be overcome.
Second, UK building standards need to be changed. Local planning authorities like Dorset Council need to have the power to require all new developments to be built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. All new builds need to be net zero carbon. If they are not they will need, at some point in the future, to be retrofitted to make them so – a process that will be far more expensive than making them so in the first place. Because these changes need to be brought about by Westminster, demanding them of developers now is neither realistic not achievable – at least in the short term. However, the Council could make a very clear and unambiguous statement that they need these powers for the long-term wellbeing of their residents. They could start speaking and working with other local planning authorities, and could devise joint strategies for bring the necessary changes about. My point is simply that unless they commit to such an action plan, unless they make bold and ambitious statements of intent, they will never find the ingenuity and creativity to realise them. Not all of the commitments will be actualised, but that’s not the point. It’s far better to aim high and fall short, than to only aim at something you know you can reach. Or, as a fellow councillor commented after the meeting: “if you aim for the stars you stand a better chance of climbing out of the gutter than if you only aim for the pavement”.
So, did my question to the committee change anything? No. Despite the chair of the committee almost admitting that he agreed with me, the committee unanimously approved the document. The next step will be Cabinet next Tuesday, followed by a public consultation. Meanwhile the time we have left drips slowly away.