Further to travel on climate emergency in Liverpool

In the first part of Green World’s series on the progress of local authority climate emergency declarations across the country, What has changed?, Cllr Lawrence Brown, Deputy Leader of the Green Party Group on Liverpool City Council, looks at how Liverpool’s action to date on the climate emergency matches up with its promises.

Liverpool Docks
Liverpool Docks
Lawrence Brown

Liverpool City Council came together to unanimously declare a ‘climate emergency’ in July 2019, but just six months earlier, in January, the council had ripped up the first bid put forward by its four Green councillors.

What changed in those six months? 

Well, we would certainly never have succeeded without the international, national and local demands for action.

Liverpool City Council is currently dominated by Labour, which, in early 2019 held 75 of the 90 council seats to our four. At that time, the ruling administration was prepared to roll over any suggestions about how a city starved of funds by the national government could still offer its citizens some hope of tackling climate change.

Yet, in just six months, Labour shifted radically from deleting all mention of the need to tackle the climate emergency from our Green Party proposal, to whipping its councillors to pass a unanimous motion to make Liverpool a net zero carbon city by 2030. It promised action across transport, buildings, waste and recycling as well as shifting investment to a low-carbon economy.

How far that rhetoric has travelled toward reality – not so far – was revealed by our Green Group leader Tom Crone in Green World on 2 July.  

The six months between losing a vote and winning unanimously are an episode that highlights the limitations of relying solely on representative democracy to make change happen, while also showing the possibilities of using our valued democratic institutions as catalysts for change, when citizens exert their power directly.

Our defeated January motion included one of the earliest mentions of the term ‘climate emergency’ and grew from our Green Group’s recognition that the public mood was shifting.

In November 2018, Extinction Rebellion was occupying bridges in London and by the spring of 2019 was moving to occupy council chambers, while rebels roused people in towns and cities across the country to demand action.

Greta Thunberg started her lone Swedish school strike in August 2018, inspiring a wave of youth activism across the globe. Here in Liverpool in early 2019, Youth Strike for Climate Change regularly organised hundreds of school students to march and rally around the city demanding that the powerful hear their call for action now to ensure that they had a future.

We knew we had an opportunity to give political voice to those concerns and pressed the council ‘to play its part in dealing with this climate emergency’. 

We wanted to shift away from the car and towards walking, cycling and other sustainable modes of transport; to protect green spaces from developers; invest in home insulation to reduce fuel poverty and energy use; and to begin to move toward a circular economy. A clear change of focus to a greener society.

Britain’s centralised politics limits what local councils can do, but Liverpool Labour did not want, at this early stage, to set out on a different road that could eventually take those beginning to protest in the streets on a journey to a sustainable future.

Labour nationally faced its own demands to sign up to a Green New Deal, while locally, Momentum were pressing for change in policy in a challenge to the party’s ruling group and directly elected Mayor.

But I believe that it was the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the long-term focus of Green Party activists and councillors that eventually forced such a radical change on the city council.

Has it made a difference? Meaningful action since has been limited, with the council even trumpeting its achievement in spending £100 million on new roads and progressing the building of a cruise liner terminal.

We have, however, successfully used the unanimous resolution to hold the council to account, most recently pointing to the lost opportunities of a post-lockdown recovery plan based on more concrete and opportunities for developers.

And at City Region level – which brings together the six local authorities around Liverpool – the post-lockdown plan just released promises ‘a green recovery.’

The lessons we have learnt are that to make that a reality will require determination and focus from us as local councillors, but also new ways to inspire, mobilise and harness the public in a world where street protests and school strikes are more difficult.