Climate action questioned at Full Council: emergency information deficits, absent scrutiny, and tribalism

At the meeting of Full Council last week, a newly elected Councillor – Rob Nunney, representing Woodhouse Park, the sole Green councillor in Manchester – asked the Executive Member for the Environment representing Baguley, Tracey Rawlins, and the Leader of the Council, Richard Leese, some questions about the Council’s response to the climate emergency. 

In this blog we reflect on the implications of this exchange. Below it, we attach a transcript, so you can read the material for yourself. You can also watch the proceedings, which lasted for 7 minutes, from about 1hr23m here: https://vimeo.com/569337416#t=1h23m54s

Question one – Emergency information deficits 

Nunney’s first question asked whether the Council could make better use of its website to more effectively and prominently present information about the Council’s response to the climate emergency. As part of his question, Nunney asked if a banner could include “data showing the progress made towards the council’s goal for net zero emissions by 2038”.  

Nunney is one of eleven newly elected councillors who supported Climate Emergency Manchester’s election pledges for greater honesty, scrutiny, and leadership on the climate crisis. Nunney appears to be taking these pledges seriously by asking relevant questions. Nunney could – maybe should – have stated that Manchester is badly off-course when it comes to its science-based emissions budget, and asked for that information to be displayed prominently on the website too, but he decided to play the question gently. 

Rawlins, the new Executive member for Environment, replied with a summary of some of the Council’s actions on climate change. It took a supplementary question from Nunney to re-focus on the issue of improving access to information about the Council’s response to the climate emergency. Rawlins then said: 

“We are currently developing a whole range of new content, which will detail all of our work on zero carbon, our climate change action plan and show our successes and our achievements and there will be lots of information so that residents can indeed see how they can be involved.”     

Sounds good? Rawlins expressed some welcome commitment to new content, more detail, and engaging the public. But she gave little away about what new content should be expected as part of this ‘whole range’ under development, when it will be ready, and whether it will be prominently displayed (rather than being shelved out of the way in difficult to find places, as is currently the case). Another issue for CEM and other councillors concerned about the climate to follow up on then…

Question two – climate scrutiny and tribalism 

Nunney’s second question was to Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council for the past quarter century. Nunney noted that the six scrutiny committees have devoted considerable attention to the Covid-19 crisis, and asked if any work is underway to provide similar, regular scrutiny of the climate emergency across all committees. 

At Climate Emergency Manchester, we are well aware of the importance of cross-sectoral scrutiny of the climate emergency, and we know that it is very often neglected by the scrutiny committee system, which we now report on regularly, via Team Scrutiny. We asked candidates running in the 2021 elections if they would support enhanced scrutiny of the climate emergency across all committees this year, and eleven elected councillors backed this proposal, including ten from Labour’s ranks. But these pledges have not translated to action: there is very little mention of the climate emergency in Manchester’s scrutiny committee work programmes.

Leese replied by talking dismissively about the Green Party manifesto and the campaign leaflets delivered in support of Nunney’s successful election bid in Woodhouse Park ward in Wythenshawe. At least some of Leese’s statements there are misleading – for example, Leese implies the Green manifesto says nothing about Manchester airport, which is incorrect – but rather than interrogate such details further, we find it more disappointing that Leese decided to take this opportunity to launch rhetoric against the Greens and against Nunney’s election campaign, rather than offer a more elaborate discussion of the scrutiny arrangements in the context of the climate emergency. 

On the latter, Leese said briefly: 

“The impact of what we do on climate change has been part of every council report since round about 2015-2016 and is something that scrutiny chairs have discussed about how now, with a climate change committee, we make sure that the agenda is maintained across the entirety of the committee system. But I can also say that particularly for scrutiny committees, that the Leader of the Council, the Executive, and indeed this full Council, do not determine the work programmes of our scrutiny committees. It is for each individual scrutiny committee to determine its own programme.”  

At Climate Emergency Manchester, we know that the rudimentary reporting on climate change included in council reports is no replacement for in-depth scrutiny. That is why we campaigned long and hard for a dedicated climate change scrutiny committee, pushing the Council into making constitutional changes to address the deficit, in opposition to Leese’s original position. 

Leese said that scrutiny chairs have discussed how attention to the climate emergency can be ‘maintained across the entirety of the committee system’. Perhaps this was a slip of the leader’s tongue, which had been so busy denigrating the Greens, for the issue is not how to maintain the situation of deathly silence and lack of attention, but rather to stimulate a much improved set of climate scrutiny arrangements across all committees. Yes, the scrutiny chairs play a central role here. Discussions about the scrutiny work programme, and the role of climate change in them, should be a matter of public knowledge. But alas, as of full Council last week, we gained no extra light on this question from the dear Leader. 

The implications

Full Council involves all 96 sitting councillors, providing a forum for agenda setting and debate, where two years ago the climate emergency declaration was unanimously approved. Councillors must ask questions about progress with that, and the lack of it. The leadership, on this occasion, responded with evasive answers and intimidatory political point-scoring, leaving precious little time for substantive discussion or information sharing. Intimidation tactics are not okay. We urge councillors to continue to ask important questions about the climate crisis, and we implore our ‘leaders’ to welcome such questions and to respond more directly to the issues. 

The transcript

[Lord Mayor] The next question is from Councillor Nunney (Cllr for Woodhouse Park, Green Party) to Councillor Rawlins (Cllr for Baguley, Executive Member for Environment, Labour Party).

[Nunney] Thank you, Lord Mayor. On the homepage of the Council’s website, there is a very helpful COVID-19 banner where residents can find the latest guidance, information and support. Could the council implement a similar prominent and dedicated resource with data showing the progress made towards the council’s goal for net zero emissions by 2038. This resource could also provide support and guidance for residents, schools and businesses on how to reduce emissions and what financial incentives are available for things like retro-fitting or solar panel installation, or training and retraining into green economy jobs. Thank you, Lord Mayor. 

[Lord Mayor] Councillor Rawlins.

[Rawlins] Thanks Lord Mayor. We’ve worked really hard as a Labour Council and have shown our commitment clearly by setting a target for 2038 for net zero, resourcing our dedicated climate change lead officers across the city, and being at the heart of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership. We’ve restructured scrutiny to have a dedicated Environment and Climate Change scrutiny committee. And these are just a couple of examples of what we’ve been doing recently. Our commitment and my commitment to climate change is not something to be restricted just to a banner on a website. It’s about robust action that can be seen and heard right across the city. The banner functionality you refer to is to alert residents at a particular time of emergency or for a piece of information that’s usually time specific. And our commitment to climate change is far much more than that.

[Lord Mayor] Thank you, Councillor Rawlins. Councillor Nunney, do you have a supplementary question?

[Nunney] Yes, Lord Mayor. So, as you quite rightly pointed out, COVID-19 is an emergency. But the climate emergency as declared by this council, is as it says, is an emergency. I’m not asking for the banner to be the only resource. I’m asking for the banner in combination, as an addition to what we’re already doing. Will Councillor Rawlins recognise that there is scope for improving access to this information? 

[Lord Mayor] Councillor Rawlins.

[Rawlins] Thank you. We are currently developing a whole range of new content, which will detail all of our work on zero carbon, our climate change action plan and show our successes and our achievements and there will be lots of information so that residents can indeed see how they can be involved, and that we can champion those actions, not words, and be really clear about our long term commitment to saving this planet.

[Lord Mayor] Thank you, Councillor Rawlins. Next question is again from Councillor Nunney to Councillor Leese (Cllr for Crumpsall, Leader of the Council, Labour Party). Councillor Nunney. 

[Nunney] Thank you, Lord Mayor. The Council has quite wisely responded to the covid 19 pandemic as an emergency. Since the pandemic first hit, all scrutiny committees regularly look at the impact of the pandemic on their remit. Is any work underway to similarly look at the impact of climate change on issues that fall within the remit of each committee and to do so regularly? 

[Lord Mayor] Councillor Leese. 

[Leese] Thanks Lord Mayor. I was really interested in this question, and indeed the previous question. So I decided to just do a little bit of research. And I started off by looking at the Manchester Green Party’s manifesto for the local elections this year. And I looked in the environment section there, it’s very neatly broken down. And when I looked at the environment section in the Green Party Manifesto, there was not one single thing that Manchester Labour has not already done – in some cases starting doing over a decade ago – or is not already doing. But so there was nothing that they were promising that we’re not doing. But if you look at the environment section there, there is no mention of zero carbon. There’s no mention of climate emergency. There’s no mention of biodiversity. There’s no mention of blue or green infrastructure. There’s no mention of Manchester Airport. And indeed, if you go to the transport section of that Manifesto, there’s no mention of Manchester Airport there. So I thought I’d then look at the material that Councillor Nunney used in terms of campaigning in Wythenshawe and I think over the period of time he’s been a candidate there I’ve looked at I think 11 leaflets over a period of time, and a booklet. This is even more remarkable because the environment doesn’t get mentioned at all. We’ve got a Green Party candidate who does not campaign on the environment, it’s simply not there. Climate change, climate emergency, zero carbon, not a mention of that at all. And the only mention of the airport and Councillor Nunney did mention the airport in his campaign material was worries about loss of jobs. He didn’t say that the Green Party would like this to be a bigger loss of jobs at the airport. Actually, the concern was for the loss of jobs. So really curious about where these questions are coming from because Councillor Nunney appears to be a Green Party Councillor who does not have a single Green Party policy, a single green policy in the pledge that he has made to the citizens of Woodhouse Park. Having said that, if I turn to the question that the impact of what we do on climate change has been part of every council report since round about 2015-2016 and is something that scrutiny chairs have discussed about how now, with a climate change committee, makes sure that the agenda is maintained across the entirety of the committee system. But I can also say that particularly for scrutiny committees, that as the leader of the council, as the executive and indeed this full council, do not determine the work programmes of our scrutiny committees. It is for each individual scrutiny committee to determine its own programme. Thank you Lord Mayor.

[Lord Mayor] Thank you, Councillor Leese. Councillor Nunney, do you have a supplementary question? 

[Nunney] No, thank you, Lord Mayor. 

 

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