In spring 2019, during SustFest, over 1,500 of you signed the Climate Emergency petition.
Then on 10th July, our trustee Catherine Ross and local youth climate activist Mimi Spiliopoulou presented the petition to a full meeting of the St Albans District Council and the councillors unanimously declared a climate emergency. We cheered, we cried; it was a landmark day.
In the year since, what progress has been made?
Good news: climate issues are now being embedded in to council decision making
The steps forward over the last 12 months are really significant, but pretty much invisible to anyone outside the council. We wanted to help bring these actions out into the open, so you can see what is going on.
These steps are:
- Inclusion of the climate crisis as one of the four key areas in the council’s corporate plan (“Managing the Climate Emergency”). This is a really important step, since it shapes their future work. The agreed draft papers are currently a little tucked away, but you can find the corporate plan and the priority projects in the papers that went to the February Council meeting, particularly pages 65 and 68-73.
**UPDATE – see the agreed St Albans City and District Council Corporate Plan 2019-2025 here.
Reading these pages from the February meeting will give you a really good sense of the Council’s future plans for climate action.
- The corporate plan includes a commitments to a citizen’s assembly in 2020/21 to “drive forward the climate emergency policies of this Council” and a plan to improve home insulation for both Council-owned and other properties.
- Drafting a net zero action plan, to cut emissions both on the council’s own estate and across the district over the next few years. This plan was approaching completion when the meetings were suspended in April due to COVID 19.
- The formation of a climate crisis response working group.
- The requirement for all Council projects, new policies and large purchases to undertake a Sustainability Impact Assessment
- The embedding of environmental sustainability into the council’s procurement process.
- The creation of a training programme for council staff on climate awareness,
- The agreement of additional budget for some key projects, such as energy audits of council buildings, and research into other public funding such as SALIX.
- Tendering for a change in energy provider towards a fully renewable option.
- Passing a motion calling on Herts County Council to divest their pension funds of fossil fuel investments over the next five years.
- Backing the ambitious new “Wilder St Albans” project, with nearly £100k of funding over two years, which is now getting started.
These aren’t actions that will bear fruit today, but they are the necessary foundations for building future action. You can find more detail on the Sustainable Council pages of their website.
Who are the Climate Crisis Response Working Group?
The majority of the group are councillors, from all parties. All the councillors, no matter their political affiliation, seem genuinely committed to taking action on the climate, although they have a healthy debate about the best route. It started under the chair of Cllr. Chris White, the leader of the Council, and has now moved to Cllr. Will Tucker.
There are places on the group for local expert organisations such BRE, Rothamstead, and AECOM. And there are some members from the voluntary sector; Sustainable St Albans is part of the climate crisis group, along with St Albans Friends of the Earth, UKSCN, Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust, Plastic Free Harpenden, and the Ver Valley Society.
You can read the terms of reference here.
Bad news: Local residents can’t yet see any tangible progress
If you are one of the 1,500 who signed the petition a year ago, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing has happened. More bike lanes or EV charging? Nope (although more charging points are due to be installed from July onwards). A big engagement campaign? Nope. Changes to the planning system? Nope.
The truth is, the wheels turn slowly. It has taken months to develop the corporate plan, the net zero action plan, and to agree a budget. Everything takes time, and budgets are tight. Many things require working in partnership because they are under the control of Hertfordshire County Council, private providers, or national government (roads, most public transport, planning policy). Just when momentum was really gathering, COVID struck, and the time and attention of staff and councillors switched (quite naturally) to the immediate response. The April meeting was cancelled, at the peak of the pandemic. During the enforced pause, officers have continued to work on specific projects, and Sustainable St Albans gathered a sub-group to share ideas on community engagement. The main working group has just restarted, online.
Climate hasn’t been forgotten during COVID 19
It was reassuring to hear from Cllr Chris White, leader of the council, at the June Environment Action Group meeting that the climate hasn’t dropped off the agenda during the focus on the coronavirus crisis.
Cllr Chris White is pushing for a cycle strategy, for improvements to bike paths, and for pilot funding for electric scooters and electric buses. The council is also making progress on a new solar panel project (watch this space). The Council and Cabinet members are also working with local businesses to seek to ensure that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is as climate friendly as possible.
“We mustn’t let SADC forget that they have committed to encouraging district-wide action not just council action”
We find we spend quite a bit of our time at the Climate Crisis response meetings trying to reinforce the importance of the district-wide actions in the action plan, and substantially reduce the time spent discussing the council’s own estate. It’s natural that SADC want to focus on the things they control, since that’s where they can have the fastest impact but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that SADC’s own emissions are only 1% of the emissions of the whole district. We think the community has an integral, key role to play in reducing the district’s emissions.
Ambition and imagination
We would really like to see some bold actions and projects that respond to the true scale of the climate crisis. For example:
- The climate emergency commitment emblazoned on every SADC communication and display
- An affinity scheme for organisations around the district to pledge to take action and tackle their emissions (the 99%)
- A St Albans renewable energy power company
- A district-wide carbon offset scheme to fund both local and developing world initiatives
- A 20mph district, not just a few extra zones
- A bold, visible signature project that we can show to visitors; perhaps you have an idea what this could be?
Overall, since last year, we have seen important foundations being laid, but there is a long way to go, if we are to approach ‘net zero’ by 2030 as the climate emergency motion called for.
What can you do to help? Write to your councillor and get involved.
This is a simple one; you can help by writing to your district councillor here.
- Tell them you still care about the climate.
- Point out local things that need to change (bike paths, 20mph zones, bus routes, green spaces that need care).
- Ask them for an update on progress against the climate commitments in the corporate plan.
- Express your support for the Citizens Assembly.
- Make sure your councillors know the climate crisis is still waiting and worsening, even as the current terrible health crisis abates.
You can also register your interest in the Net Zero Action Plan and the wider work of the Council on sustainability: See here: https://www.stalbans.gov.uk/getting-involved.
In particular, if you are a local sustainability professional, then you can register your interest to attend a quarterly meeting offering an opportunity to share experience, best practice, identify problems and solutions.