Conservative councillors have been accused of ‘barefaced political skullduggery’ after putting forward a last minute amendment to a motion on climate change legislation.
Today (12th October), East Sussex County Council debated a motion which called on the authority to give its support to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill — a piece of potential legislation put forward by Green MP Caroline Lucas intended to cement in law measures to address climate change and biodiversity loss.
As is usual practice at the authority, the motion, from Green Party councillors Georgia Taylor and Wendy Maples, was previously considered by lead member for climate change and resources Nick Bennett.
At that earlier meeting, Cllr Bennett went against officer advice and recommended the council support the bill, albeit with some tweaked wording acknowledging work already going on locally and nationally.
But as debate began, Cllr Bennett told councillors he had reconsidered his position.
The UK government has set a legally-binding target under the Climate Change Act to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
I cannot see how the [CEE] Bill would enable us to get to net zero any faster than the current commitment within that legislation, because there are no provisions within it.
Neither is there any help in the bill which would lead to measurable ecological improvements more effectively than commitments already set out in existing legislation or in the Environment Bill 2020.
The government has said it will produce a net zero strategy incorporating a range of initiatives around buildings, industry, hydrogen, nature along with legislation around the environment and agricultural issues.
On further and fuller consideration, I believe that we should allow all of this to take effect while we push on with the excellent work outlined in our own action plans and supported by further funding to support our strategy.Cllr Nick Bennett, Deputy Leader and Lead Member for Resources and Climate Change
Cllr Bennett’s amended recommendation – which became the substantive motion in line with council procedure – contained drastically different wording, removing support for the CEE Bill and laying out reasons it should not be supported. These included an argument the bill would deepen and widen ‘already ambitious’ carbon targets and ‘impose a greater burden on UK residents’.
Instead of supporting the bill, Cllr Bennett’s recommended motion called on the council to affirm three beliefs. These were: that the government’s climate and ecological initiative ‘strike the right balance’; that valuing ecosystems must be an increasing focus for policy; and that high-level policy must be grounded at a national, regional and local authority level and supported by central funding.
It also called on the council to write to its MPs asking for both “greater direction, detail and support … in delivering on net-zero” and “further policy action” in a number of environmental areas.
The new recommendation appeared to come as a surprise for opposition councillors, with several criticising that it had been circulated a few minutes before it was set for debate.
The meeting was adjourned for around 25 minutes to allow opposition parties to discuss it.
Following this there was an attempt to see the item deferred, which was voted down by Conservatives.
Among those to level criticism was Cllr Maples, one of the councillors behind the original motion. She said:
We have had Cllr Bennett say two completely contradictory things. The CEE Bill, he says, does nothing to increase progress on climate and the ecology any further than the current or hoped for Environment Bill.
But he now says the CEE Bill will have too much impact by widening and deepening the commitment that we need to make on environment and the climate. My question is, which is it?
This does not make anything clear. This, I’m sorry to say, is a fudge and what we deserve is better than that. We deserve better today in terms of the behaviour of our colleagues, we deserve better for our community and we certainly deserve better for our climate and ecology.Cllr Wendy Maples, Lewes (Green)
Criticism was also levelled by Liberal Democrat Colin Swansborough over the manner of the last minute change.
I attended the original lead member meeting and I have to say it was quite an uplifting occasion because the Green Party their motion and it was given very good consideration by [Cllr Bennett].
In the spirit of unusual unanimity the motion was put through. Then what has happened is the worst side of politics.
It is just barefaced political skullduggery. In the background somewhere Nick Bennett has been got at and I am really surprised because he is a very senior guy and I am sure he has the esteem of all sides of the council. On that basis, I am surprised to see he has come to this sort of situation.”Cllr Colin Swansborough, Eastbourne – Hampden Park
Following a lengthy debate, Cllr Bennett’s motion was passed in a near unanimous vote (there were two abstentions), but only once the original motion was voted down by the Conservative majority.