WOKINGHAM councillors are going power-mad. But don’t worry, it’s not the sun going to their head, it’s going to the electricity generators.
Solar power will be installed on the borough’s schools, leisure centres, libraries and suitable council-owned properties with the working starting from the new school year.
Cllr Gregor Murray, the executive member for climate emergency, made the pledge at a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council last Thursday. He was responding to a query from Liberal Democrat councillor Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey over the policy and was part of a green deal that included seeing councillors vote to declare a climate emergency.
As part of this, the council is committing to making the council carbon neutral by 2030, if not sooner. It follows more than 100 local authorities across the UK, as well as the UK Government, making a similar declaration.
Cllr Murray said that fellow councillor Cllr Graham Howe had spent the past year working on a solution to find an ethical solar panel maker.
Cllr Murray added: “I must stress that this [installing solar panels] is not the work of an instant. There are many technical hurdles that have to be overcome when pairing state of the art energy generating equipment with schools and other buildings, many of which are older than some of my colleagues. I commit to informing all members and residents when the installation is ready to begin.
“I am also pleased to announce that, following agreement from the Executive member for Finance, once costs have been taken into account, any cost savings or profits from selling energy to the national grid, will be passed back to the individual school to supplement their discretionary budget. In many of our schools, power represents up to 6% of their total annual budget. We estimate that as a result of these two programmes our borough’s schools will have upwards of 25% of their current energy budget to invest in essential equipment, maintenance, teachers and other items.
“Our priority will be to ensure that all council-run and maintained schools are included in this scheme first, but we will also seek to make this offer available to all our Borough’s Academy schools.”
Later in the council meeting, Cllr John Halsall proposed a motion that the council should declare a climate emergency.
The motion read: “Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) believes the world is now in a climate emergency. More concerted and urgent action is needed at local, national and international level to protect our planet for future generations.
“As such, this Council commits to playing as full a role as possible – leading by example as well as by exhortation – in achieving a carbon-neutral Wokingham Borough by 2030 and report within six months as to what actions are required.”
Introducing it, he said: “It is hard to refute the evidence that the world has a problem and that unless it concertedly does something about it then the consequences are serious.
“Wokingham Borough Council must and wants to do its part, but it must be underlined that the council on its own does not have the powers to play other than a supporting role.
“However, that role is significant in leading by example and exhortation. Six months from now, we will have tabulated a preliminary series of actions, which will be compiled by officers, residents and members.”
Labour’s Cllr Carl Doran proposed an amendment that ensures it was a cross-party working group on reducing carbon.
Cllr Clive Jones, the Lib Dem deputy leader, said he was pleased to support the motion.
“There is no doubt that there is a climate emergency. I think the vast majority of us accept this except perhaps Donald Trump and some of his Brexit Party chums.”
He added: “We support the idea that there is a WBC ethical framework to ensure that all suppliers are committed to a carbon-neutral future.”
Cllr Guy Grandison (Con) called on the council to commit to being carbon neutral within a decade, Cllr Rachel Burgess (Lab) said that collaborative working was needed, while Cllr Gary Cowan (Ind) said the appointment of a climate emergency executive member was a sign that the council was moving in the right direction.
“There is a lot more we can do,” he added.
Cllr John Halsall said: “There is one chance, we must take this opportunity.”
Cllr Pauline Jorgensen said that she welcomed the motion and wanted the council to look at the pollution issues caused by alternatives.
Cllr Sarah Kerr said she wanted to ensure it wasn’t just words on paper but positive actions and queried the use of single-use plastic cups in the council chambers.
It was passed unanimously.
Speaking to The Wokingham Paper after the meeting, Cllr Murray said: “We’ve had an absolutely fantastic reaction to the news about solar panels – we’ve had some amazing comments, it’s been hugely supportive.
“I’ve had schools contact me, headmaster and chairs of board of governors, all saying this is a fantastic step forward.
“We are prepared to hand back some of the savings to the schools to supplement their discretionary budget. It’s all an investment into us children who are the future of our society. “They’re going to inherit this borough and we need to make sure it’s ready for them in best they ways that we can do that is by supporting the environment and supporting their education.”
And Cllr Murray said that this was just the start of the council’s plans.
“We’re going to have to take some bold steps. There are those no two ways about it. Some of them are going to be hugely popular. Some of them aren’t.
“Some of them are going to cause people to have to change the way that they do things, change parts of their lifestyle. But if we are going to lead this community, we’re going to lead this country, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. This is the first step. It’s a very palatable first step for most people. They can see progress being made.
“We’re still in the process of calculating what our carbon footprint is accurately, but this is a big step to reducing our carbon footprint and that should be popular with everybody.”
One criticism made of the council is that is hasn’t forced housing developers to install solar panels on new builds and again this is something that Cllr Murray plans to address with the new local plan currently being prepared.
“We’re taking the onus onto ourselves. We are prepared to lead by example through our own housing companies.
“We want the other housebuilders to follow suit. Until we’ve updated that local plan. We cannot hold the housebuilders to the requirements and the regulations that we’ve created.”