The July meeting of the Environment and Climate Scrutiny Committee was a deflating experience, writes Simon Jermy for Team Scrutiny.
Thursday’s Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee happened. I’m almost tempted to leave it there.
Let’s start with a positive – there were big ticket items on the agenda and decent environmental scrutiny from our councillors. Yet the same problems persist with a lack of transparency in what they’re reviewing.
Climate Change Action Plan Quarterly Progress Report
The quarterly report is designed to give us some clarity on Manchester’s progress to net zero by 2038. Only, there was no clear communication of progress. Imagine a swan, gliding upside down in water – furiously kicking its feet in the air for all to see, but pretty chill underneath.
The council deserves praise for being on track in reducing their own emissions – having released 25.4K tonnes of CO2 out of a budget of 31K tonnes for 2020/21. However, as Cllr Foley (Didsbury East) asked, why did the report focus so heavily on the council’s own emissions when they represent a fraction of the city’s total?
Cllr Shilton Godwin (Chorlton Park) agreed, as did many of the councillors, explaining from her own work background – progress reports show actual progress versus forecasts. Instead there were a list of meetings, consultations and unfunded plans.
Cllr Wright (Hulme) just wanted to know the basics – Manchester’s emissions vs our carbon budget, where we are and where we’re heading.
I can appreciate that it’s not easy to do. Emissions data comes from the UK government annually, not nearly frequent enough. If we have a decade to really take decisive action on the climate crisis – then we have 9 more chances to check our progress with verified data. Without that, we need other metrics to turbo charge our activities and motivate everyone in the city to do their bit.
Many councillors asked about housing retrofit. Cllr Shilton Godwin (Chorlton Park) acknowledged it’s a shambles of the government’s making but stressed the need for strategic support for landlords to upgrade private rented homes, given they make up around 40% of our housing. Cllr Razaq (Whalley Range) said we must push harder for the government to fund retrofit.
Manchester Climate Change Agency got a mention, after their troubles recruiting staff, including a new director. It took some effort from Cllr Holt (Chorlton) to draw out, but we now know that a director has been found and of the 13 posts initially mentioned, only 4 of them are filled now, 2 more are on an interim basis and the rest are yet to be funded.
Cllr Igbon (Chair/Hulme) made it clear that she wanted more information on how MCCA is working for the city and with other partners, given they’re funded by public money. “Communication” she said “is not a skill of the council. We know that.”
Well, that’s a progress report right there.
Greater Manchester Clean Air Plan
The Clean Air Plan is designed to cover all Greater Manchester, subject to the endorsement of the 10 local authorities. From the 30th of May 2022, HGVs, taxis, buses, and other private hire vehicles that do not meet emissions standards will have to pay for access to the Clean Air Zone.
This is Greater Manchester’s response to a direction from the UK Government to reduce Nitrogen Dioxide to safe levels within ‘the shortest possible time’ and no later than 2024. Such a pressing deadline is given as the justification for not including privately owned vehicles in the plan, despite other councils in the UK announcing future deadlines to include them.
Cllrs Holt (Chorlton), Wright (Hulme) and Lyons (Piccadilly) all voiced disappointment that the plan falls short, but with so much time and work committed already it would be impossible to hold it up any further.
Cllr Flanagan (Miles Platting and Newton Heath) thought it perverse that we have school car parks bigger than the school buildings themselves. Cllr Shilton Godwin offered the ambition to make bus service free to all residents, as the only way to get people out of their cars.
Cllr Rawlins (Executive Member for Environment / Baguley) vaguely offered reassurance that Manchester could take plans further in a “Manchester way”. Planning would be key to this as it’s the golden thread that touches everything.
Overall, it was a deflating experience. Having secured a scrutiny committee dedicated to the environment, it seems like the rest of the council machine has yet to catch up. Whether it’s 1064 pages of progress reports that don’t effectively communicate progress, or the arms-length climate change agency that offers little transparency.
There’s still hope that they can turn things around. Until there’s solid data on the city’s progress to zero carbon, hope is all we have.