Environment & Climate “Scrutiny” – of big pictures unseen, FOIAs and citizen responsibility.

Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee met this morning. Marc Hudson was there, live-tweeting. Here he gives a blow-ish-by-blow-ish report, drafts some Freedom of Information Act requests and also asks “what do we learn about councillors” and – more important – “what is to be done?”

The tl:dr is this:  Despite the honorable efforts of a couple of councillors, Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny was every bit as bad as the agenda and reports suggested it would be. There’s a live tweeting thread or two that you can track down on the CEM Twitter account.

BTW CEM asked permission to ask questions on Item 7, and despite the soothing words on the front of the Council agenda, the chair chose (again) to refuse.

After some “news”, this post will do six things, quickly.

It will give a few comments on each of the four reports (and show some Freedom of Information Act requests we are submitting). It will then try to step back a bit and see the slightly bigger picture, especially from an anthropological/sociological perspective (it’s a habitus academic-types can’t get out of).

Finally, it will spitball a few more thoughts on what we (CEM core group, CEM’s Team SF, wider supporters) have to DO and DO DIFFERENTLY in the next 14 months if we want to hit the end of 2022 in (much) better shape around scrutiny (this sorta feeds into backcasting work the core group members are doing. Watch this space)

News and reminders

  • There will be some sort of health report coming, at last, to Health Scrutiny Committee (Five years after the soon-to-be-leader of the Council, as chair of that committee, allowed it to be kicked into the long grass).
  • There will also be some sort of youth report to Children and Young People’s at some point (and the implication was that this will then get used as a photo-op/pseudoevent at a full Council).
  • The draft Implementation Plan, to be followed by the provisional summary of the scoping report for the Implementation plan, and then the scoping report of the provisional executive summary of the interim iterative Implementation Plan, will come to ECC for rubber-stamping…. sorry “scrutiny”… in January 2022.

Rubbish

First up was a report about Waste and Recycling.

What happened: It was straight into micro-questions (as opposed to macro-ones), especially, predictably, on the bullshit claims about cycle lanes.

And from there it went on, relentlessly at the micro-level, where officers are happiest, because they can give bland assurances about monitoring and protocols and – if pushed – “lessons learned” (but nothing specific, you understand).

Nobody bothered to  pick up on the central point that, despite promises from Labour that by 2021 recycling rates in the city would be at 50% or above they have fallen from a pre-pandemic 40% to… 36%.  Basically unchanged in five years. Nobody mentioned that. Not the chair, not the officers (why would  they?), not the committee members

There is more talk of “conversations with universities” (these have been going on for a decade, at least. Doesn’t appear to be anything to show for it.

It’s also entertaining that nobody from Biffa was present (not asked? Not available?)

One thing officers LOVE to do is throw out names of partner organisations, to make it seem like lots is being done (but the credit sticks to the Council, the blame is always distributed).

The question of collecting from apartments came up for the forty-third gazillionth time.

and, basically, in summary

So, the FOIAs are these

to: informationcompliance@manchester.gov.uk

Dear Sir/Madam,

I attended Environment and Climate Change “Scrutiny” Committee today.

I have a few questions about the first report.

  1. Please provide a chart of recycling rates for the last 10 years. I will give you some data points – in 2015 or so it was 33%. In 2019 it was 40% and in 2021 it seems to be 36% (against a promise-in-2016-target of 50%)

2. Has there been any historical study done (in house or commissioned) of the last 10 years of Manchester City Council’s travails over waste collection and recycling and “lessons learnt”. If so, please provide a copy (electronic will do. Save the trees!). If not, is any such lessons-learned report planned?

3. Since January 1st 2019, What advice has Manchester City Council sought from relevant bodies and other councils on how it can better meet its targets?

4. On page 22  N195 audits are mentioned, which include cycleways.  It is said “the results of these are reviewed monthly.” Fab! Please provide the reviews for the following wards – Chorlton, Whalley Range, Moss Side and Ardwick for the last 3 months.

Please consider this a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000

The recommendations are these,

The Councillors request a report that looks

  • at the last ten years of waste collection/recycling promises and delivery in Manchester, so they have an historical perspective of where we are(n’t)
  • at what other cities are doing BETTER than Manchester, and why.

That when they scrutinise in future, they try at least to start with the “big picture” before getting lost in the hyper-local/vivid stuff (which, yes, matters, but if you focus on that, you really DO miss the big picture, which suits the needs of the Exec and officers.

Quarterly and quarter-witted reports

What happened:

As predicted, nobody bothered to say that this wasn’t a report of the city’s emissions. Or even a tolerably accurate and accessible account of progress against the actions all councillors voted for in the Climate Emergency Declaration.

Again, straight into the weeds. Nobody asked about city’s emissions.  It was straight into shiny but only tangentially relevant issues such as cycling provision for staff, and business travel.  As officers smugly pointed out later, 75% of the Council’s emissions come from buildings.

To quote from here

“On page 57 we learn that emissions from Council buildings are UP on last year (so, what action has the council taken to stop a post-COVID bounce back? It’s not clear if they have even tried anything, if that worked/didn’t work.
Also, they are silent on whether there have been any further building sell-offs. A large part of the emissions reduction of the Council between 2010 and 2016 or so was simply because council buildings were being sold off (how much we will never know, since the Council refused to say, back in the mid-2010s, despite FOIAS). The emissions didn’t disappear (unless the new owners were luddites), but they moved OFF the Council’s books, which was counted as “success.””

Nobody pointed out that there isn’t any table of what has and hasn’t been completed from the July 2019 Climate Emergency declaration (god forbid that there be simple tables that show whether stuff is green, amber or red)

Mandie Shilton-Godwin praised the “Partnership’s” “Net zero buildings roadmap” and asked if it was going to become council policy, knowing the answer in advance.

At 1054ish, we got the first decent bit of scrutiny, with Hulme’s Annette Wright trying to get to the bottom of the claim that emissions were 23% down in a particular quarter. How does this relate to annual cut required?

And again, if officers would talk about raw tonnes, as they promised to, we wouldn’t have these (deliberate, in my opinion) confusions over percentages.

At 1056, in response to Eve Holt’s question about what other scrutiny committees are doing on climate, we had some absolute bullshit.

“Other scrutiny committees are considering climate regularly” says an officer at 1056”

This is simply factually incorrect. A couple of minutes later another more senior officer (I am pretty sure Fiona Worrall, SMT neighbourhoods) said

“I haven’t had any direct approaches from other committees yet.”

And it staggered on, but you should only watch the video if you have had a LOT to drink, and you’ve friends who will stage an intervention if it all gets too much.

There was an oblique mention of carbon literacy, without saying “Labour Group clearly doesn’t give a shit, since carbon literacy levels among Labour councillors are lower than they were at the time of the Climate Emergency declaration.”  That would be awkward.  [we’ve FOIAed again about this. Watch this space]

There was the new chair of the agency giving a long and unnecessary preamble to her response (not answer, really) to a solid question.

So, the FOIAs are these

informationcompliance@manchester.gov.uk

Dear Sir/Madam,

I attended Environment and Climate Change “Scrutiny” Committee today.

I have a few questions about the second report.

  1. On page 59 we learn that “business travel remain much lower than preCOVID-19 levels but are showing an increase as we move out of lockdown.”
    Again, what actions have been taken, if any, to reduce, remove a “bounceback”?

2. We learn that “six domestic flights were taken by Social Services for client work.” 

a) Where to?

b) Were less carbon intensive modes of travel even considered? If not, why not?

c) If they were rejected on this occasion, for whatever reasons, will different provision be put in place in future? If not, why not?

d) Is Manchester City Council going to lead by example, or is it just going to keep talking?

Please consider this a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000

The recommendations are these

Councillors should remember that they extracted a promise from officers that reports would be in raw tonnes of carbon dioxide, with percentages included if necessary. That basic scrutiny gain has been lost because officers have quietly “forgotten” it. They need reminding.

Councillors need to structure their scrutiny of the Council around the big items, not the shiny baubles.

Councillors need to INSIST ON SCRUTINISING THE BLOODY CITY’S EMISSIONS. If not them, who? If not now, when? FFS.

Drafty implementation plans

What happened

This was marginally better, from a very low baseline. Mandie Shilton-Godwin was worried about the lack of any detail in the business engagement, but didn’t a) mention that the Climate Change “Agency” has had SIX YEARS to ask businesses about barriers to action, or b) ponder what the Agency have been doing all this time.

Annette Wright identified the Groundhog Day-ness….

Nobody pointed out the basic facts- that the “Framework 1.0” was a year in the making, and was basically a rehash and reheating of work from 10 years previously, so another year and a half to produce an “implementation plan” is slow, even by this council’s standards. I’ve seen arthritic snails move with more alacrity.

So, a couple of tweets

and

Nobody challenged the grossly inaccurate framing of the document either, of course.

Oh, and

So, the FOIAs are these

Dear Sir/Madam,

I attended Environment and Climate Change “Scrutiny” Committee today.

I have a few questions about the third report.

The Council has now been making policy on climate change explicitly since 2007 (and before that, the whole local agenda 21 process in the early to mid 1990s).  There have been repeated plans, policies, frameworks, refreshes, more plans, reboots, shifting baselines etc.  That is the nature of policyfaking, after all. Sorry, policymaking.  My question is this.

  1. Has there been any study – in-house or commissioned – that takes the long-view of the Council’s efforts, successes and failures?  If so, please provide a copy (electronic will do – save the trees). If not, is one planned?

2. How much money is being spent on consultants and other fees in producing the Framework 2.0 document. Lump sum and disaggregated please.

3. With regard to the recent “Climate Assemblies” How many people stuck it out to the bitter end? Was anonymous feedback collected from them about whether the assemblies were ANY GOOD? If it was collected, please provide it. Were their future learning and campaigning needs identified?

Oh, and do not fob us off by saying this was conducted by the “Agency.” The Agency is controlled by the Council, with a 60k a year hire. If you refuse this element of this FOIA, we will be going through internal review and then on to the ICO.

And finally,

4. Is the Council’s share of the City’s emissions 2% or 5%. I have heard both numbers….

Please consider this a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The recommendations are these

Councillors should get up to speed on the history of all this.

Councillors could demand to see drafts of the implementation – not for sharing online – BEFORE they come to the scrutiny committee in January. This would help them familiarize themselves with it, leading to better scrutiny, and force the officers to life their game.

Lacking energy

The final report was the one that has sat around gathering dust for six months. The one that says you can’t have renewables in Manchester because that land is earmarked for Airport City. So they’re going to buy into an external project, but somehow this meets their additionality criteria. Whatever.

What happened

There were embarrassing bloviations. Imma leave it at that.

So, the FOIAs are these

Dear Sir/Madam,

I attended Environment and Climate Change “Scrutiny” Committee today.

I have a few questions about the fourth report.

  1. How much were Local Partnerships paid to produce the report that the council then sat on for six months?

2. Is the land mentioned in para 2.4 of the report as “Council-owned land adjacent to Wythenshawe Hospital” (see also page 113- also page 9 of the Local Partnerships report itself) earmarked as part of the “Airport City” development.

3, Is it the case (as was implied in verbal answers during the committee) that no additional work has been done on the April 2021 report bar a briefing to SMT in June and a meeting with some elected members in early September?

4. When will be/was the first meeting off the project team mentioned in 2.11 (page 102).  What is its membership? Will interested councillors from the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee be able to attend as observers? If not, under what written rule of the Council.

The recommendations are these

Committee members demand to be kept in the loop, and are in better shape when this comes back to Scrutiny in January 2022.

In the Overview Report section of the meeting, various councillors tried valiantly to get better reports about, for example, wards and carbon reductions. Will they succeed? Only if they keep pushing, refusing to be forgotten or fobbed off…

What we (well, I) learn about scrutiny

We have to remember that the Council is in effect the Labour Group (94 outa 96) and that all tribes have their rituals, taboos, pecking orders and so on.

Almost all of the Councillors aren’t willing to see reality, because it would be too costly. It would cost them relationships they want to keep friendly (94 of the 96 councillors belong to one party. Scrutinising an Executive Member vigorously in public is gonna get you in trouble). It would cost them their cherished illusions that they are on Team Competent, that there is an actual overlap between the guff Manchester loudly and persistently talks about itself and the grubby reality.

This goes for Labour Group – see carbon literacy farce, where only 39 councillors have done their carbon literacy, and there is ZERO consequences for this, for anyone.

But it also goes for the Council as a whole. Of course the councillors want to believe that things are more or less on track. They want to believe that the well-paid, nicely-mannered officers are delivering the goods, that Councillors have not in the past been hoodwinked.

Councillors are mostly terribly naïve about the tricks being played on them – the omissions about emissions, the framing, the distractions.  And they fool themselves, by diving into the shiny bauble details that matter to them personally.

They need help framing their scrutiny so they tackle the BIG stuff

They need help formulating tightly-worded recommendations that would be too embarrassing and costly for chairs and officers to say no to.

They need help responding when officers consistently “forget” to do what they agreed to do (happens all the time).

What is to be done?

What we as citizens have to do/do MUCH better

If we are serious about doing the scrutiny function that Labour has shown itself unwilling to do on climate (and other issues)

We are gonna need to

  • Read the reports straight away when they come out the week before, and get briefing notes (probably never more than 2 sides of A4) out to all councillors straightaway
  • Follow up personally with each of the ones who are worth following up with (and hoping to grow that number from a staggeringly low baseline).
  • Get as many journos and campaigning groups as interested as we can.

The briefing notes should flag

  • What this report DOESN’T talk about at all
  • What the big issues are (which aren’t sexy)
  • What the little issues that will probably attract most attention are.
  • What the report does talk about, but in deeply misleading and diverting ways.
  • What recommendations the committee should be pushing for.
  • How the officers are likely to respond.
  • Other things as indicated.

We have to circulate these to diverse audiences, but in formats likely to succeed (memes, tweets, videos etc – whatever we have capacity for.)

We have to work with councillors of good faith about the reports and more.

It’s easy to see when other people are underperforming. CEM has been doing the best it can, on zero money. But it needs to do much much better. That is entirely doable, and will be, believe it or not, fun, or at least invigorating. Anyhoos, what ELSE ya gonna do while you wait for the man-made apocalypse that is already being suffered by many people and other creatures elsewhere in the world to reach Manchester itself?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.