Cllr Evans answers back

The Hastings and St Leonards branch of Extinction Rebellion (XRHSL) has been out in force on the streets of Hastings to press anew its demand for Hastings Borough Council (HBC) to take positive action in respect of climate change. After putting up a number of eye-catching posters accusing HBC of having “sat on their hands” since declaring a climate emergency three years ago, XRHSL have focused in recent days on the formulation and debate of the Council’s budget for 2022/23 (see the front page of this issue).

They complain that, while the draft budget report lists “minimising environmental and climate harm in all that we do” as one of a number of the Council’s strategic priorities, there is no mention of initiatives to actively address decarbonisation. 

In a dramatically staged demonstration outside the former Debenhams store in Robertson Street last Saturday they invited supporters to bring old chairs and then made a high pile of them to signify the emptiness of the Council’s rhetoric. On Monday they assembled again outside Muriel Matters House where the cabinet were due to debate and approve the budget. 

Cllr Maya Evans, who is HBC cabinet lead for Environment & Climate Change, earlier posted a vigorous riposte on Facebook arguing that XRHSL are picking the wrong target. She contends that HBC has neither the funds nor the policy remit to address major climate issues such as transport, and that XR should be focussing their attention
on East Sussex County Council and on local Conservative MPs.

Cllr Evans and the XRHSL group express their respective views head to head below.

Focus on the real targets

Says Cllr Maya Evans

On posters around the town, Hastings Borough Council is accused by Extinction Rebellion of not doing nearly enough on the climate crisis. But the group has picked the wrong target, and this is why.

The latest Climate Emergency UK report reveals that 84 UK councils have NO climate change action plan or strategy. I assume this means 84 councils have no dedicated council officers focused on climate change either. I’m proud to say HBC has both.

• Since declaring a Climate Emergency in 2019 we have appointed two new dedicated council officials, a sustainability officer and renewable energy officer.

• The ‘solar for business’ project is up and running; the local plan to be reviewed. This will enable more areas in the town to be fitted with renewable energy.

• The council also took up the Government’s Green Homes Grant, to make older homes more energy efficient. But the funding is meagre – it’s enough for only around 300 homes.

• The council’s next step is to borrow BIG on renewable energy with £5m being earmarked for capital projects. The upcoming budget is now out for consultation. We hope residents will comment and tell us how they want this £5m spent.

A full list of progress can be found on the HBC website, while a climate change update (to be published next month) will see the private sector spotlighted: focus will be put on partners such as Southern Water, Stagecoach, Biffa, Optivo and all the other big private companies in town like General Dynamics, Tesco etc.

Housing Crisis 

But funding is a serious issue. The council has a budget of around £14m per year, £4m of that is going on housing. Hastings has a housing crisis, with nearly 400 people in temporary accommodation, while wealthy Londoners buy up properties as second homes or for Airbnbs, and developers sit on brownfield sites. That’s why Cllr Andrew Batsford has launched a campaign to enable local authorities to compulsorily purchase these precious potential sites. This £4m on housing we could be spending on tackling climate change.

A brief fact check: Tory-controlled East Sussex Council (ESCC) takes 72% of your council tax, Hastings Borough Council just 13%. That, and what it legally can and can’t do, limits its room to manoeuvre.

ESCC’s main responsibilities are transport, highways (roads  and pavements), adult social care, children’s services, libraries and youth work, while HBC has the powers over things like housing, waste, planning, parks, culture, regeneration and leisure. Transport is an excellent campaign target – it’s responsible for 29% of the town’s carbon emissions and therefore crucial in our target to go carbon neutral. But, annoyingly, it comes under the remit of ESCC. The lead member for transport and the environment is Cllr Claire Dowling. It’s definitely worth checking out her track record on climate change. 

We’ve heard that the Government’s ‘Bus Back Better’ project is being slashed. What was previously earmarked £3bn to improve buses has now been reduced to £1.4bn for the whole country. The Government narrative has changed from “What you will get funded” to “If you get funded”. In short, this means, we won’t be getting any electric buses.

Lobby your MPs

A good XR campaign is to NOW lobby MPs. A relevant campaign target should be local MP for Bexhill and Battle, Huw Merriman, who chairs the Transport Select Committee. You might also ask our Conservative MP Sally Ann Hart where she stands on this. And please note, tackling climate change is not yet a statutory requirement for councils. It receives no additional funding to do this. A helpful campaign would be to lobby Mrs Hart about this too.

HBC is a socialist green council that believes climate change is the biggest threat facing the human species, while at the same time trying to tackle poverty. In many ways the two things are linked. But for the last two years, councils have faced the more immediate existential crisis of Covid-19: lots of business grants to process and emergency measures to implement. And austerity for councils still continues: this year HBC faces a £2m deficit. Other councils, like our neighbours Eastbourne, are even more on the brink. Some, like Nottingham, are facing bankruptcy. ‘Levelling up’ is Government whitewash, it won’t come anywhere close to getting the country back to 2010 pre-austerity levels.

Over the last 12 years this country has gone backward; it’s the first time since the Napoleonic wars that life expectancy has declined.

We in Hastings Labour Group believe the people of Hastings want to hear hope, and about practical ways that we in our small seaside town can do our bit to make positive steps to tackle climate change. Well done, XR, for your recent campaign efforts, but I urge you to take Greta’s advice in her COP26 address and focus on the real targets. When Greta said “blah, blah, blah” she was talking about powerful world leaders with trillions at their disposal, not a humble second-tier council which is potentially facing bankruptcy because of its commitment to house the homeless. So stay hopeful, XR, focus on the real targets. And never stop believing that another world is possible.

Put the Climate at the Heart of the Budget

Say Extinction Rebellion Hastings and St Leonards

XR is a distinct campaigning voice. Many of us within XR are active in other community groups and give our energy to other causes too. But, as XR, we call for an end to ‘business as usual’. So we advocate for our representatives to rise above the usual excuse-making and empty target setting; to tell the truth and act now. Our approach may be imperfect, but – over the past three years – it has been part of a shift in the public perception of this existential crisis. And the failure of COP26 demonstrated the absolute need for our continuing action.

Recent campaigns by XRHSL have called on HBC to step up to their ambitious target of net zero carbon by 2030. In part this is to demand action, but it is also to demand the truth, because it’s time to get real.

CREDIT: Cathy Teesdale

Good intentions and aspirational pledges won’t solve the climate crisis. Policy setting and objectives need to be supported by real-world interventions; it is not what is said, but what is done that matters, and where the money is spent. It is now three years since our council passed a motion to declare a Climate Emergency. Does it feel like they are acting like it’s an emergency?

That HBC has acknowledged the Climate Crisis is, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction. Their ambitious target of 2030 is impressive only if they are putting in place the measures to meet it. Financial constraints are real, but they cannot be the reason to fail. We need to find ways to take control of our behaviours, incrementally decreasing carbon outputs, creating better habitats, generating cleaner energy, improving transport options. The more we do, the greater the impact and the wider the benefits.

HBC’s current Draft Budget Report lists minimising environmental and climate harm in all that we do as one of their strategic priorities, but does not highlight concrete initiatives to actively address decarbonisation in time for 2030.

We recognise that there are many seats of power and influence which we must challenge, including East Sussex County Council which holds responsibility and finance for many key aspects of how our town runs. However, the complete distinction between ESCC and HBC’s responsibilities, whilst meaningful in abstract, is not practical on the ground. These two councils must find ways to work together on this crisis. Even where HBC does not have direct responsibility for transport, for example, the integrated vision for decarbonising our town’s infrastructure and behaviours around travel must be part of their remit. This means working with ESCC as well as implementing and communicating a local vision involving residents.

CREDIT: Cathy Teesdale

XRHSL recently asked members of the public in the town centre for their view on HBC’s initiatives on tackling the climate crisis, and not one of the respondents felt that enough was being done. Our community recognises that ‘business as usual’ in local government is not enough: we need courage, conviction and creativity to do what is required. To tackle the climate crisis effectively HBC must communicate with residents, meet with the numerous community groups that are hungry for action. In real life. With honesty.

In 2018 XR launched, saying: “We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations.” Three years on, as the science continues to evidence the peril and increasing urgency of the situation across the globe, we stand by this commitment. We look to our elected representatives for leadership and we campaign to give them a mandate to put the climate justice and all our futures first.

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