Environment & Climate Change Scrutiny Committee evolves for the better, but many members struggle to understand the complexity of the papers and language used

Manchester City Council’s Environment & Climate Change Scrutiny Committee is in its second municipal year since it was repurposed following a CEM petition for a 7th dedicated scruinty committee. It’s now appearing to establish itself with more time to discuss detailed papers as well as a new chair to clarify actions or recommendations summarising questions or themes coming through from members of the committee. Executive Member for Environment & Transport (Tracey Rawlins, Baguley) is also in her second year and papers from the council being presented are starting to tease out some of the difficulties of the policies that are being implemented. It’s also sometimes clearer to identify the challenges between the ambition of the City Council’s fine words compared to the actions on the ground.

This month 2 items were presented at the meeting: 1) a progress update on the Council’s own Climate Change Action Plan now in its third year of implementation; and 2) a progress report on how the Council’s procurement strategy supports carbon reduction as well as future plans. The first item was discussed within 30 minutes of the start of the meeting with the second taking close to an hour of the committee’s time thanks to the detailed report and appendix from an internal audit briefing note. This post is going to deal with the second item and you should check out the upcoming podcast for a broad discussion of both.

Procurement e.g. buying stuff or services is one way councils can use the money it still has to influence its suppliers both on ‘social value’ as well as lowering the environmental impact they have some indirect control over. How these weightings (a 20% social and 10% environmental) are applied when scoring bids was raised by members as it appeared to cause some confusion amongst several Councillors with several similar questions and clarifications asked. The use of plain English and a decent introduction to how procurement works within councils would have given better context. This is crucial for members of the public as well as elected councillors to get to grips with a topic that might only be raised once a year or less – if they actually want more effective scrutiny of a topic…

The internal audit briefing note was an impressive appendix providing a wider insight and valid criticisms from their interviews with senior officers involved in procurement. Having never seen one come before a scrutiny committee might demonstrate that this committee appears to be evolving and possibly improving. Hopefully we will see more of these internal audit briefing notes come to scrutiny committees as a way of the council further embedding its response to climate change across all functions of the organisation. This was also welcomed by the committee.

Beyond the clarifications there were also several good questions that teased out some of the difficulties of implementing this policy of an additional 10% for the environment since March 2021. Firstly it isn’t strictly defined so it can cover both carbon emissions reductions as well as improving biodiversity, which is good, but also may mean the policy isn’t consistently scored. Also an important point was discussed about the challenges of applying this when companies may greenwash their bids with many promises that are either hard to measure or just plain bullshit in order to get their score higher. The Green Party’s Rob Nunney (Woodhouse Park) raised the CMA green claims code, which wasn’t on the radar of the officers until the Deputy Chief Exec searched for it during the committee! If those doing the scoring don’t have a well-trained nose for green-tinged bullshit, it’ll just be business as usual. Carbon literacy might bring about a general awareness that “we’re fucking over the planet”(1) by watching a BBC documentary narrated by David Attenborough, but it’s not the same as evaluating bids for greenwash. There must be far better training for those doing the scoring to understand what a strong bid looks like both from a service provision point of view, but also when evaluating social value and environmental impact. This was raised within the committee, but what that training looks like and how it would be implemented needs further thinking than just “we’ll talk to the universities”. Otherwise, you’ll have officers who don’t know how to score bids, officers saying they’re doing something that isn’t easily defined with members of a scrutiny committee who also can’t understand what’s going on. And so the status quo will prevail…

One of the difficulties with any of this is the slow moving nature of the supertanker you’re trying to turn around. How ever effective you might be at turning it, this is still going to take a long time to get it moving in the right direction. All whilst our city’s carbon emissions are being gobbled up at a rate that will blow our 1.5C budget in the next few years… So it’s well-intentioned work, we just need more and for it to take effect a lot faster.

If you’re not currently (much) involved in holding the council to account, but would like to be – let us know!



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