Why is there so little mention of the climate emergency in Manchester’s scrutiny committee work programmes?

The new work programmes of Manchester City Council’s six scrutiny committees are out. This release may not be as anticipated as the new James Bond, but it is important because the work programmes determine the topics that the scrutiny committees will discuss. They tell us, quite literally, what will be ‘on the agenda’ of local government in 2021. And the climate emergency gets short shrift, despite the committee chairs receiving a set of citizen suggestions and a number of recently (re)elected councillors pledging to help ensure each committee considers two dedicated climate reports.

No time to delay

Which of the scrutiny committees will be considering the climate emergency?

Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Committee – No reports on the impact of the emergency on children and young people. Not even an attempt to bolt the word climate onto another report. There is some stuff on the ‘year of the child’. Let’s hope that event is not merely a youthwashing jamboree and acknowledges the number of children in Manchester living in real poverty.

The work programme for this committee is less detailed than that of several others, with fewer topics listed at this point. The scrutiny committees are supposed to have the flexibility to add additional agenda items not listed in the work programme (or even revise the work programme!). So councillors on this committee must now push for two meetings to include a report on the climate emergency.

Communities and Equalities – One item on the climate emergency! In June, this committee will “receive a report identifying areas within the Committee’s remit which relate to the Council’s zero carbon target and climate emergency declaration.” There is a real risk here that this report tells the committee that climate change is not their concern, it belongs in a box elsewhere. But only a few weeks ago councillors were declaring that climate change was a ‘cross-cutting’ issue

Economy Scrutiny Committee – In July, this committee will consider a report on ‘Places for Everyone’ (the rebranded Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which attracted significant opposition from local greenbelt groups and was scuppered by Stockport). A single sub point suggests this report will consider how Places for Everyone ‘will support zero carbon’. This is not the dedicated report on the climate emergency that all those who signed our climate pledges committed to bring to the committee. It will take exceptional questioning by committee members to ensure that the zero carbon point does not get buried in such a huge item. 

The Economy work programme is more detailed than the others, with the purpose of each topic stated. This is commendable. But it makes apparent how little of the work programme process is communicated to citizens, despite the fact that it is supposed to reflect their concerns. Members of the public are shut out of the work programme setting sessions (the cameras stop halfway through the May meetings). But nor do they then get to see the priorities or the ‘long list’ of topics that bodies such as the LGA (Local Government Association) recommended committees produce as part of effective work programme setting. 

The Economy Scrutiny Committee has also identified the ‘theme’ of Manchester Airport. But it is unclear when this will be discussed (is it part of another item?). It’s also unclear how this theme can possibly resolve its inherent contradiction. The committee will receive ‘information on addressing the economic recovery of the Airport whilst tackling the Climate Emergency’. Will this ‘information’ dare to say that meeting these two goals is just not possible? Who on this committee will propose that what was once a cash cow is now a white elephant and financial liability?

Health Scrutiny Committee – Silence! No mention of the climate impacts on health. Yet there is no shortage of potential agenda items. Our Health Scrutiny reporter and open letter to the Health Scrutiny Committee chair suggested:

“Climate impacts on health (heatwaves, flooding) and specific threats for the 32 wards. What learning from other cities? Who is affected particularly (race, class, gender, pre-existing conditions, age) by them. What does effective community resilience look like? 

  • The mental health burden of an ever-more destabilised climate
  • Air quality and lungs
  • Is Manchester’s social care system equipped to deal with the climate crisis?
  • Monitoring climate-related health issues over time 
  • Review the tendering process for health and wellbeing services
  • Food and health”

Those setting the work programmes seem very concerned about ‘duplication’, often claiming that the topic would be ‘better addressed elsewhere’ (NB. only one element of effective work programme setting, according to the LGA, alongside consideration of relevance and importance to local people). But Health is one of the best examples of how the climate emergency is more than a single ‘topic’ and raises serious challenges for Manchester residents that are just not getting discussed elsewhere.

Resources and Governance – No mention of climate. Not even net zero. Why?

Environment and Climate Change Committee –  Yes, climate does appear in multiple topics on the work programme. With this title and remit, it would be staggering if it did not. But just as we appreciate that a topic that does not explicitly mention the word ‘climate’ may (with very effective questioning) be able to examine the climate implications, so a report that has the c-word slapped all over it might not actually do anything to help bring down emissions. The ECC work programme strikes a couple of alarm bells. The first is the number of general  ‘updates’ and ‘reports’ which could just be green-lit, or allow speakers to talk down the clock. The second is a lack of topics which consider the emissions of the city (but we do have an item in November on the council’s own estate).

So, in short, a disappointing set of programmes. “We’ll add something on climate later” or “there is flexibility” – these lines will soon run thin. A year is not a long time in local politics. Scrutiny, like so many of us, takes a break in August. By April, we’re back in purdah. Councillors, particularly those who signed our pledges, need to get dedicated reports on the climate emergency onto their committee agendas soon. And if they are not sure where to start, we know there are plenty of citizens with ideas…

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