Dorset Council’s Climate Emergency Strategy

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.

Reflecting on my first year on Dorset Council

I have learnt a lot during the last year, during my first year as a councillor on a principle council. Much of this learning has just been about relatively straight forward stuff; stuff like the planning process, stuff that raises questions that have answers, stuff that once you’ve got your head around it you are reasonably well sorted. However, perhaps more profoundly, there’s been some learning that just seems to defy resolution. This learning has emerged from a series of tensions – tensions between different aspects of my thinking and experience, tensions that I’m struggling to reconcile.

One of these tensions has been the need to negotiate the difference between being, on the one hand, a political activist and campaigner, and on the other a politician. Whilst I have experienced no conflict regarding what I believe in and what I’m trying to bring about, I have learnt that how I go about being an effective politician is quite a bit different from being an active campaigner.

In many ways, campaigning on a certain issue is relatively straight forward. Your aim is to not only make an argument to bring about a certain change, it’s to make that argument to as many people as possible in the hope that public opinion will force the relevant decision makers to make that change. Even if, on the surface, your argument is directed at the decision makers, most of the time you are trying to get so many people to support you that these decision makers have no choice but to go in your direction. And to do this any stunt, any publicity helps.

However, as a politician, particularly as a politician from a minority party, you are trying to directly influence these decision makers. And because you need to work closely with them you need to develop a certain relationship with them. In particular, you to need get them to take you seriously. To get them to listen to you and take your views on board you need to develop a certain degree of trust and respect – even if politically you disagree with them. And none of this can easily be achieved by adopting the techniques of an activist. Both techniques can be effective, but perhaps they need to come from different directions.

This particular tension has been most prevalent within Dorset Council’s climate emergency agenda. As a Green Party councillor on the council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel (CEE EAP) I am experiencing deep levels of frustration (perhaps even anger) at the Council’s (the Chairman’s) overly cautious approach to responding to what I consider to be an existential threat to the long-term survival of humanity. This approach has been to first collect all the evidence, then review it, then develop a strategy, and then (finally) produce an action plan. All very sensible if it wasn’t for the fact that despite having only 8-10 years to make serious reductions in our carbon emissions, and despite declaring a Climate Emergency in Dorset over a year ago, we haven’t even seen a draft action plan yet. I want the Council to show more ambition. I want it to show political leadership. I’m struggling to resolve the activist urge to go public, to attract attention, with the political understanding that such action may well weaken what little influence I do have.

There’s also a tension between being a politician and a philosopher. The political dimension is still the same, that of trying to directly influence the decision makers, of trying to get them to take me seriously and not dismiss me as the holder of irrelevant radical views who can be safely ignored. But this time the tension comes from the opposite direction. Not from the overt actions of an activist, but from the theoretical reflections and considerations of philosophy – from the desire to question basic assumptions, to challenge what we often regard as ‘common sense’. As I have no doubt written on many occasions, in political terms this most often manifests in what I consider our use of an invalid economic theory, one that actually creates individualism and selfish behaviour rather than modelling our economic action on these so-called natural traits. In many ways our current economic model has replaced religion as the source of all meaning and purpose in life. This economic model has become so engrained in our thinking that we generally take its propositions to be just plain ‘common sense’. I genuinely believe this to be not only false, but to be as existentially threatening as our climate emergency. In fact, I consider it to be the main cause of this emergency.

But believing this creates an irreconcilable tension within me. Even if, by some miracle, a majority of councillors elected onto Dorset Council were sympathetic to this alternative view of economics, the Council would still need to operate within the prevailing economic environment and would flounder if they tried to step too far outside. So, what do I do? Do I support decisions that allow, in the short term, the Council and Dorset as a whole to economically flourish within this economic model, even though I believe they are detrimental to the long-term flourishing of human life? Or do I oppose them and risk the short-term suffering of residents when essential services are shut down through a lack of funds?

Part of me believes that whilst this three-way tension, this triangulation between persuasive politics, theoretical philosophy, and direct activism, is irreconcilable, it is also highly creative. Just attempting a reconciliation can lead to new insights. But another part of me just wants to reach for the whisky bottle.