Pushing our council to face up to contradictions

Anna Key explains how she and her fellow Green councillors challenged the expansion of Liverpool Airport – a policy incompatible with the climate crisis and net-zero commitments.

Liverpool councillor Anna Kay
Anna Key

Greens in the room make change happen. I’m one of four Green councillors in Liverpool elected to a 90-seat city council that is dominated by Labour. So poor has the Labour record been, that the police are investigating the former Mayor, and government commissioners – at the cost of £675,000 a year – are overseeing key services. 

It’s hard for the opposition parties to get space on the Full Council Agenda for a debate on the issues that matter. Indeed, it’s been two years since the Green Group were allowed in – just part of the democratic deficit that bedevils our city governance. 

So, when we won space on January’s agenda, we were determined to tackle head-on one of the big environmental decisions that Labour has ducked for years – the planned expansion of Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

The council owns 10 per cent of the regional airport, down from 20 per cent a few years ago. The airport’s business plan calls for its runway to be expanded to take larger jets and for new terminal buildings, hotels and roads to be constructed. The airport is situated in Speke, nudged up against the River Mersey. Expansion would involve building on greenbelt land and devastating Oglet Shore, a site of international importance for wetland birds.

Also on the council agenda was the city’s Local Plan, a statutory document laying out the council’s strategy toward development, including which land is available for building. This included the airport’s expansion plans.

Liverpool has actually committed itself to creating a net-zero carbon economy by 2030. In December, as a result of a Green Party post-COP26 initiative, the council agreed to an engagement programme with local communities about how to turn its words into real, tangible policies.

Lord Deben, the Chair of the Climate Change Committee, which advises the Government and devolved administrations, has already told airport operators: “There is not any space for airport expansion,” while the council’s own Net-Zero Carbon 2030 Plan says, ‘any possibility of airport expansion contradicts the Net Zero Carbon Plan’.

Of course, we simply cannot plan for both transitioning to a net-zero carbon economy by 2030 and expanding the airport in Speke. It cannot be done. The contradiction between support for airport expansion in the Local Plan and commitments to tackle the climate crisis is stark.

Supported by the grassroots Save Oglet Shore and Greenbelt campaign and Liverpool Friends of the Earth, our motion generated lots of media attention, which in turn, sparked Labour into action.

Our motion told the airport to rethink its plans. It called for an urgent review of policies protecting green space and for an end to public funding of the airport.

Labour said they would back the first two, but wanted a further review before committing to ending financial support for the airport. It also committed to reworking the Local Plan to remove support for airport expansion. Reluctantly, we accepted the amendment of the financing in order to get full council opposition to airport expansion firmly agreed.

The battle isn’t over, of course. We will need to keep the pressure on for the promised financial review and to keep open the debate about the future of the airport.

Friends of the Earth rightly describes the area around the airport as a ‘green lung’. It is much needed. Speke is one of the most green space-deprived communities in England. Air quality in Speke is already dreadful. Life expectancy is over four years below the national average. Indeed, the British Lung Foundation found that just before lockdown, air pollution – from all sources – was killing 1,040 people a year in Liverpool. That is a health crisis with its roots in our environmental crisis.

We cannot base a post-Covid net-zero economic recovery on carrying on as before.

For Liverpool, relying on global tourism – drawing ever more international visitors in through an expanded airport and ever bigger ships berthing at a still-planned new cruise liner terminal – was always bad for the environment. Post-pandemic, it is a non-starter for the economy and job security.

We need a new, bold vision for our local economy based on a Green New Deal that protects people’s incomes and creates jobs that are sustainable for people and the environment. We should be working with businesses and civil society to achieve a net-zero economy built on clean transport, renewable energy, and sustainable green jobs.

We must enact these changes now, providing proper training that allows people to develop the skills they need to undertake the well-paid jobs in future sustainable industries.

By being in the room, by forcing the council to face up to the contradictions in its commitments, Green councillors have helped this city take an important step toward that alternative.