The Government’s slow piecemeal approach to the climate emergency isn’t working

TL:DR Until we see the visual changes in our urban environments and in our day-to-day lives, the public will remain unconvinced that ministers are serious about the climate emergency

And for all of the talk of the Blitz Spirit, where we are at the moment has all of the hallmarks of the run-up to the Norway Debate in 1940, when the Conservatives turned on their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who had one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in modern history.

The Norway Debate – May 1940 – if you have the time, read the transcripts in full

It gives the full context of how, when engaged in what became a huge conflagration of World War II, the Conservative Party ditched their leader and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain following a military disaster in Norway – ironically overseen by the First Lord of the Admiralty (a sort of Secretary of State for the Royal Navy – then a huge institution that dominated the seas) Winston Churchill.

Post-war political history has regular exhortations from politicians about invoking various spirits of wars that supposedly brought the whole country through dark times. Actual history – including those of the people who lived through those times and were affected by the many restrictions on life tell of a much more complicated and a much less united account. Jack Overhill’s extraordinary detailed war diaries of life in Cambridge tell of a Government whose conduct he was scathing of.

We’ve also been taught the idea of the Second World War as being a conflict that started in 1939 and ended in 1945. With more editions now free to access, the British Newspaper Archive holds enough digitised copies of newspapers from the time that tell a very different story – of war having already broken out, and just not having yet reached UK shores. We know this from Cambridge’s local history too – headline after headline in the local press reported daily from battlefields in Spain and China, through to the crimes against humanity that were already being perpetrated by the nazis in Germany.

So be careful of politicians invoking wartime things regarding the climate emergency

What we’re facing is not simply a case of identifying ‘the baddies over there who need to be vanquished’. We also know that we are not being asked to make a short-medium term sacrifice on things like standards of living and how we live in order to overcome a greater evil. Rather, we are being challenged to overhaul permanently and collectively how we:

  • live our lives and organise our societies;
  • grow, produce, and distribute food and drink;
  • travel and where we travel to;
  • work and make a living
  • make use of any leisure time we have

…and many, many other things that simply have not been touched upon by national politics.

Does Johnson’s Government look/feel/sound like it is an administration responding to a climate emergency?

Of course it doesn’t.

In the existing legislative framework it would have declared a Civil Contingency under the terms of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. But he couldn’t even do that with the Corona Virus Pandemic, instead choosing to impose his own emergency legislation that he and his cronies used to engorge themselves to £billions in taxpayers money while over 165,000 people have paid with their lives for his incompetence and maladministration. And I hope he and his ministerial colleagues get absolutely rinsed in a future public inquiry.

In the meantime our health services lurch from crisis to crisis created by his own ministers, under-resourcing treatments, lying about the numbers of hospitals it was building, and undermining the routes into the healthcare professions so many use through removal of essential training grants. Just look at Addenbrooke’s – again facing a winter crisis. And note I spent the Christmas of 2017 inside so got to see what the overburned staff had to put up with. It doesn’t look like the close ally of Johnson who was parachuted into South Cambridgeshire after Heidi Allen MP left the Conservatives has succeeded in making things much better for the hospital or its staff. Which creates a very big target for the new Liberal Democrats’ PPC for South Cambridgeshire, Cllr Pippa Heylings, to aim for.

The Combined Authorities constrained from carrying out devolved functions

I was hostile from the start when the concept was announced. I predicted that the mayors would become a barrier between local councils and ministers. Instead of properly devolving powers and funding to mayors and combined authorities, what has happened is that the Government creates ‘pots of funds’ (such as the “Levelling Up Fund” ) that certain areas can submit competitive bids for. Overseen by junior ministers, every bid area that is ‘successful’ inevitably gets the boost of positive publicity. Only they’ve been found out by the Yorkshire Post, who exposed the consultancy spend associated with such bids.

If devolution delivered what it meant, much of the funding from central government would be decided for each council area using a transparent formula based on things like levels of poverty & multiple deprivation, number of retired people, number of children and at which stages – essentially based on the needs of the population. Council executives would put their spending plans to their full councils to vote on every year and it would be those backbench councillors that would be properly empowered and resourced to scrutinise that spending. What we have with this model after all of the austerity and cuts of the past decade is ministers offering only a fraction of what was cut as ‘levelling up funding’ or similar, where local councils or combined authorities have to submit expensively-prepared bids for funding. And if successful feature in Government press releases about how wonderful this funding is. You can see why ministers like it – all the positive local media coverage. Hence allegations that the funding has gone to Conservative-held constituencies even though they might not be the ones in most need.

“What’s all this got to do with the climate emergency?”

It explains in part why local councils that want to do so much more are only able to do very little. This is despite the pleas from the sector.

You can read the report by Charlotte Morgan, Jess Studdert, and Luca Tiratelli here.

“Local government has incomplete powers and insufficient resource available to reach net zero ambitions.”

Morgan, Studdert, Tiratelli 2021.

I concur.

It’s not hard for ministers to change this. Anyone interested in public policy, this bit is for you. Being a policy adviser to a minister is an incredibly privileged job to be in. It is the only type of job where in order to solve a particular problem your team is working on you can *recommend a change in the law*. Not only that, but have that recommendation accepted by those above you and then take part in the process of drawing up the draft legislation and working on the speaking notes for your minister to then table the new legislation in Parliament. I will never forget sitting in the Civil Servants’ box in the House of Commons at the end of the Second Reading of the then Housing and Regeneration Bill in the late 2000s, watching the MPs debating ‘our bill’.

What the policy advisers need to do is identify what further powers local councils need (which involves actively listening to them) and recommending to ministers that they bring forward a new Local Government (Climate Emergency) Bill into Parliament for MPs and Peers to scrutinise and vote on.

In terms of the finances, that’s up to The Chancellor to put his proposals to Parliament in his annual Budget speech – which is actually the Second Reading of the annual Finance Bill where he asks MPs for approval for his proposals. (It’s a whipped vote – it is generally taken as a given). This is why current affairs TV makes a big deal about “The Budget” – it is the legislative underpinning of the Government’s spending plans.

“Is the Government’s approach piecemeal?”

Given that we are talking about a climate emergency where the world needs to reduce drastically its carbon emissions and the damage it is doing to the environment, yes. An emergency implies doing something significantly different to what you might normally do. When I started having chest and shoulder pains just before Christmas in December 2017, we called an Ambulance to take me to A&E. I don’t normally go to A&E – let alone at 10pm in the run up to a major national public and religious holiday. So what is the governmental equivalent of doing something that is significantly different to the norm? Furthermore, what are the things that we will have to stop doing (and should have stopped doing ages ago) if we are to survive the climate emergency?

One example at a local level of piecemeal improvements is the so-called Dutch Roundabout near Addenbrooke’s. I cycle over it every so often. I like it. The problem is that it was not built as part of a wider set of improvements to the streetscape on that part of town, which could have included what was originally planned as the Eastern Ring Road from Trumpington to Abbey Ward & beyond in Cambridgeshire Regional Plan of 1934. The reason is simply that the County Council has never had enough funding from ministers to deliver the sort of scheme necessary – noting that around 90% of the business rates raised by Cambridge City Council are handed over to The Treasury for redistribution elsewhere.

Successive Prime Ministers have chosen not to change the system of business rates, despite the rhetoric of how unfair the system is. (See the Government’s response to the Mary Portas Report in 2012. What’s changed?)

The public is not seeing the visible signs of the rapidly-changing urban environment and street scene that will facilitate low-carbon living

We have seen the computer-generated images and simulations, but how many of us are able to live our lives where the easiest and the safest choices are also the greenest choices? Go down most main roads today and they are still full of vehicles powered using fossil fuels. Even with electric-powered vehicles, there is no guarantee that the electricity used to charge them is from sustainable sources. Take The Guardian’s Climate Crisis Data that it summarises on its front page.

The smallprint on the low-carbon electricity tells of an overoptimistic headline. “Wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and nuclear classed as low carbon”. I can imagine more than a few environmentalists having issues with biomass and nuclear. I remember debating the merits of biomass at university in the year 2000. There was one big condition attached to biomass: That the biomass sourced would be from marginal land with no fossil fuelled inputs. What seems to be happening is that wood pellets are being shipped over to the UK for burning in biomass plants – to the extent that one big burner, Drax in Yorkshire, has bought out a large Canadian wood pellet producer to supply its burners.

“In reality, Drax is simply doubling down on its destructive wood-burning business model, as evidenced by its recent decision to purchase Pinnacle—Canada’s largest wood pellet manufacturer—to become the world’s third-largest manufacturer of wood pellets.”

Elly Pepper  Jennifer Skene  Sasha Stashwick , Feb 2021.

Such corporate greenwashing will only further damage attempts to cut our carbon emissions as the public sees through the spin and spots the inherent flaws in this process.

On transport and the built environment

There’s little I can add to my previous complaints about the direction of travel Greater Cambridge is taking on prioritising busways over a light rail underground. My point echoes the oft-quoted phrase:

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.'”

Attrributed to Gustavo Petro, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia.

Given Cambridge’s demographic residential and tourist profile, my take remains that a light rail system with a pair of tunnels underground at the centre would enable local councils to keep much of the motor traffic outside of the city – in particular coach tours, and enable the tourists to travel in on that system. Furthermore, rather than simply being an A-to-B system, it should be designed (as the Cambridge Connect model envisages) to link up specific places that go beyond simple commuting. Such as leisure facilities and countryside parks. At the same time, we want such a public transport system to be affordable to those on the lowest incomes as well as the method of choice for the wealthy. At the moment, existing transport policies still benefit the wealthiest.

On the built environment, huge concerns remain with the construction industry as Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner told the House of Commons earlier this year. What is the plan to get the industry to transition from where it is now to one that can deliver the mass retro-fitting programme needed to reduce the environmental impact of our built environment?

  • Where are all the green walls we were led to believe we’d see that would cleanse the air and cool our cities?
  • Why are there so few solar panels on the roofs of houses and large warehouses?
  • Where are the community storage spaces for pooled electric cars?
  • Where are the docking stations for the e-scooters and e-bikes that we see all too often dumped around the cities piloting them?
  • Where are the freight exchanges on the edge of cities that would enable the transfer of large vans and lorries containing small packages over to cycle-based local couriers?

The rhetoric Ministers and their advisers like to use is to leave things to “The Market”. But “The Market” is a very complex thing – one underpinned by huge volumes of legislation and case law. The law of contracts is one of the pillars that The Market rests on. (Which is why even the most extreme free-market proponents acknowledge that the state has to exist to provide law and order. For it cannot function without a legal system of rules and a method of enforcement in the case of infringement. And how are those laws created? By a political system. And that political system is compromised when businesses use their wealth to influence the law in their favour at the expense of the society and the planet. For example the water companies and their permissions to pollute the environment with raw sewage rather than being compelled to re-invest far greater proportions of their profits into environmental protection. Again, successive ministers have known about this for years and have done little.

What would an emergency response entail?

The sort of state intervention that the past 40 years of ministers and politicians dare not contemplate? And by that I don’t simply mean “Ban X and tax Y” state intervention – which is very blunt on its own. It has to involve much more nuanced approaches as well – ones that recognise the huge technological progress that has been made in things like data processing and communications. What are the data sets that we can now collect that the state should be mandating collection of? What are the institutions that need establishing and/or strengthening to ensure the data is robust and not compromised? What systems of reuse and recycling will we need in place to deal with all of the stranded infrastructure manufactured for an oil age? For example all of the vehicles and petrol stations? What are the new pieces of public infrastructure that need to be built in their place?

I just don’t get the sense that ministers and their advisers are thinking on anywhere near the scale they need to be thinking of given the urgency of the situation.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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