County council leader accused of politicising climate change

Essex County Council has revealed plans to tackle climate change – including embarking on a £1m tree project and setting up a cross-party Essex Climate Change Commission.

But council leader David Finch’s climate change proposals have been described as his own road to Damascus by opposition councillors who say that he is politicising climate change after previously instructing his party to vote down green plans put forward by other parties.

Central to his plans to improve Essex’s green credentials is a tree planting scheme known as the Essex Forest Initiative, that will include planting 375,000 trees across Essex over the next five years, equivalent to the size of 210 football pitches.

This is expected to capture 60,000 tonnes of carbon.

The announcement on October 8 included plans to set up a working group and formally inaugurate an independent, cross-party Essex Climate Change Commission, which will meet for the first time later this year and be made up, not only of members, but of experts in the field as well.

Cllr Finch announced a budget of £250,000 which will be assigned to the group to fund initiatives such as changing procurement rules to require suppliers to adopt more stringent sustainable practices.

The group will also look to change how residents travel, ensuring walking, cycling and public transport is prioritised by Defra’s Recycling & Waste strategy.

He also wants to ensure the council has zero avoidable waste by 2050 and hopes the commission can achieve the government’s target on net zero carbon sooner than 2050.

Cllr Finch also announced that the council will be supporting the ‘greening’ of town centres by setting up a Green Essex Network and support significantly reducing its carbon footprint by buying green energy and generating more of its own renewable energy.

“We will take advantage of new innovations. An example of this: Essex Highways are exploring warm tarmac, – if rolled out across the country it would save at least 61,000 tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of almost 300 million car journeys,” he said.

“And this council is already trialling carbon neutral school buildings at four school expansion projects across Essex, with projects completing as early as next year.”

He added: “Tackling climate change is not just the role of one person, or one administration, or one country. We are all responsible custodians for our world.

“But by working with staff, partners, businesses, residents and communities, we will lead on reducing emissions, energy usage and waste across Essex, while increasing the amount of green infrastructure we have.”

However, opposition members said the plans, although welcomed, had also to be seen in a wider portfolio of policies that increased CO2 emissions.

Green Party councillor James Abbott said: “If Essex is so committed to this please could it explain why there have been cuts to school transport, why it opposes pedestrian crossings close to primary schools, why it has zero capital budget for cycling, why it is financing lobbying for major road building including the A12 and building a new A120 through open countryside that Highways England say will produce a 50 per cent increase in road traffic?

“Why recycling progress has stalled and this council has sent hundreds of thousands of tonnes for waste incineration?

“Why it is supporting new towns in open countryside and why it has overseen reductions in support for rural bus services?

“Why doesn’t this council declare a climate emergency and actually get real on this issue?

“Because I for one do not buy the Conservatives’ new found interest in this issue.

The Tories were also criticised for voting down an amendment to a motion that “recognises the stance that the Cabinet Member for Environment and Waste has taken in improving the use of renewable energy across the county council estate”.

The Lib Dems had asked for an amendment that “recognises that there is mounting and overwhelming evidence that extreme weather events are caused by climate change” and that “urgent action is required by UK government and local authorities to do everything in their power to reduce carbon emissions” – but this was rejected.

Cllr Finch added: “So let us not live in the past and dwell in the past as the Lib Dems so often do but rather the future, grasp the action plan and grasp the commission this council is setting up and contribute to that.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter