A COMMUNITY effort will be needed if Wokingham borough is to reach carbon net zero by 2030.
That’s according to Conservative councillors responsible for Wokingham’s climate emergency response.
At Thursday’s full council meeting, Cllr Gregor Murray and his deputy, Cllr Laura Blumenthal, announced The Big Idea, an initiative designed to pull together different groups to help deliver carbon reduction.
“We want businesses, schools, places of worship, charities all to get in touch with us to express interest in taking part in The Big Idea for when it’s launched. They’re the organisations, the groups, that can have real influence to bring employees, students, parishioners and volunteers on board to embed environmental behavioural change in a structured and impactful way,” said Cllr Blumenthal.
“Ensuring diverse voices from our local community are heard will help ensure we’re making the right decisions. We need active participation from residents, who must be consulted on decisions that may impact the way they live their lives. Through the right methods, which look likely to be focus groups and online panels from this council’s research, we can hear their voices and get the insights we need to make sure we can bring residents along with us towards net zero carbon.”
Cllr Gregor Murray said that The Big Idea project would seek to remove barriers preventing residents from becoming more eco-friendly. It is part of the council’s climate emergency action plan and the launch marked the second anniversary of the council declaring a climate emergency.
“Sustainable behaviour change is the single most important thing we can do to deliver against Climate Change,” Cllr Murray continued.
“Over the next 12 months we will be working to engage local businesses, charities, religious groups, schools, communities and others to work on collective behaviour change initiatives together with WBC, their employees, members, pupils, neighbours and each other.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work we have done so far, and we have plenty of initiatives ready to go into action over the coming year.”
Cllr Blumenthal said that a full plan would go to a meeting of the Executive in October. This would detail the key areas for residents to comment on and how they can do so.
“Despite Covid we have continued to make bold progress in the fight against climate change. As we all seek to recover from the pandemic now is the time to step up and build back greener,” she added.
The eight areas that The Big Idea will focus on are:
- Schools: teaching children to think and live sustainably
- Businesses: getting every business that operates or sells in Wokingham Borough to be more sustainable
- Transport: getting residents to reduce their dependence on cars
- Waste: cutting the total tonnage of waste we generate while increase recycling even further
- Energy: using less energy while maintaining connectivity
- Food: sourcing and consuming sustainably
- Clothing: embedding repairing, reusing or repurposing clothing when no longer usable
- Water: reducing the volume of water used every day
The climate emergency formed a large part of last Thursday’s meeting at Shute End, as the second annual report charting the council’s progress was presented.
Resident Helen Palmer wanted to know if the council would meet its target of being carbon neutral by 2030, telling Cllr Murray that she felt “Significant progress by the mid 2030’s is not specific enough, not soon enough and quite simply not good enough”.
Cllr Murray said that the council had made a commitment to lead by example and it stood by this commitment.
“The Council’s own actions along with its statutory powers and responsibilities are important levers to reduce emissions in the Borough but these powers are limited, and we need to look at the wider picture where our role as a community leader and influencer will be equally if not more critical,” he said.
“To reach net-zero across the suite of sectors and activities that we cannot directly control will require partnerships and collaboration as a vital ingredient for success.”
During the debate on the report, councillors shared their views on the plans.
Lib Dem spokesperson on the environment, Cllr Sarah Kerr, said communication had not been good.
“We voted to set up a cross-party working group to steer the plan. In January of this year, 18 months after that declaration, I wrote to the Executive Member that has the climate emergency portfolio to express my frustration at the way the climate agenda was progressing. I have received no response.
The climate emergency working group is not functioning and hasn’t even met in 6 months.”
She added: “This plan continues to be riddled with questionable assumptions and projections. There have been some improvements – particularly in some of the methodologies used. But there are still some huge, gaping holes in this plan that are being ignored, and which give an unwarranted level of confidence that we’re on track to carbon neutrality. This is life or death for our planet, and our residents deserve better.”
And the leader of the Labour group, Cllr Rachel Burgess, was equally dismissive of the council’s work so far.
“The numbers in this report still don’t add up and it is still internally inconsistent, and it is still totally unacceptable that Council is presented with a document where numbers do not even add up on numerous occasions.
“The Conservatives’ refusal so far to commit to a citizens assembly on the climate emergency shows it does not take this issue anywhere near seriously enough.”
She added that some of the figures had not been corrected after a year, while some schemes were for vulnerable or lower income households, which limited their take-up.
“Of most concern, the Greenbank scheme is still included in the report, despite the fact that the Council’s legal department reviewed this and stated the Greenbank would not go ahead,” she added.
“It is still not a credible plan to help Wokingham Borough play its part in tackling the climate emergency.”
Cllr Alison Swaddle said that the climate emergency working group had been highly effective and the plan was praised by the experts that they had consulted.
Cllr Parry Batth said that the council’s waste strategy was part of the climate emergency plan, while
Cllr Pauline Jorgensen praised the success of the Beat The Street initiative as one of the ways in which the council was working towards more sustainable transport.
Cllr Carl Doran pointed out that the climate emergency plan was set up for failure and the Labour group had previously voted against it as it contained fantasy policies, such as reduction in car usage and a non-existent public transport network.
“It’s the most unserious plan for the most serious issue” he said, adding that he could not support it.
Cllr John Kaiser said “we seemed to have missed the point” and the council had been leading from the front on the issue. Addressing the opposition, he said that the council’s social housing was for “the people who support you – the poor people who need housing”.
Cllr Jim Frewin admitted that he didn’t understand all the plan but accepted that it was about changing behaviours and he would support it accordingly, admitting it wasn’t perfect but it was a step forward.
Cllr Paul Fishwick had concerns about transport. “Improving traffic flow … will be a short-term fix. We are in a Climate Emergency and the focus instead must be on modal shift such as improving walking and cycling, which in the Action Plan is a big winner, but does not have sufficient resources allocated to it,” he said.
Cllr Murray summing up said: “Don’t mistake the opposition’s passion for facts”, and issues such as citizens assemblies had been looked at. He also said that Labour had come up with nothing other than an idea about Citizens Assemblies.
He also said that Cllr Burgess was wrong about greenbank and conversations were taking place with relevant groups. “She keeps on saying this, and it is simply not true”.
As to whether other opposition councillors would support the plan he “didn’t really care.”
Cllr Burgess said that Cllr Murray could find the information in the minutes of the overview and scrutiny meeting.
After the meeting, she told Wokingham.Today that Cllr Murray appeared to have a very short memory.
“The so-called ‘inaccurate information’ I presented came from one of Cllr Murray’s own documents,” she said. “At a meeting of the Overview Scrutiny Management Committee on 16 June Cllr Murray presented an update on the climate emergency plan. It stated with regard to the Green Bank: ‘Conversations with legal (department) finished’. The decision to not set up WBC funded initiative at this stage take’.
“Not only that, Cllr Murray was questioned on this point by at least two councillors, and it was clearly acknowledged that the Green Bank scheme was not currently going ahead. Cllr Murray himself stated he would be unlikely to even start having conversations on the topic until next year.
“The fact that Cllr Murray is now denying all knowledge of information contained in his own paper from a month ago, and the discussions at this public meeting, can only mean he is either being deliberately misleading, has a very short memory or does not know the detail of his own plan. Which is it?”
She added that she was pleased that Cllr Murray had told the chamber he had had recent discussions relating to the project.
“I truly hope the new talks he mentioned last week are more successful than the aborted initial attempts to set up a Green Bank scheme,” she said.
“I do appreciate that being in charge of a plan that is not fit for purpose must be stressful for Cllr Murray but this is no excuse for trying to shoot the messengers rather than addressing legitimate concerns about the Conservatives’ climate emergency plan.”
In response to Cllr Burgess, Cllr Murray said: “The Legal department have not been a part of any of these discussions because, at the present time they do not need to be.
“An officer in the Legal department not only wouldn’t know the situation with the Green Bank, but I want it to make it clear they don’t make Council policy, elected councillors do.
“WBC had been working with a national high-street bank who paused conversations due to the Covid pandemic.
“In response to numerous questions at the Cross Party Working Group meeting (attended by the previous Labour group leader), I have repeatedly said that the Green Bank scheme was paused due to Covid.
“Other avenues for the progression of the Green Bank are being discussed at the moment, with conversations begun with four different external organisations.”