Sheffield Greens lobby for actions, not just words

In the third part of our series on the progress of local authority climate emergency declarations, What has changed?, Green Sheffield city councillor Douglas Johnson looks at how Sheffield’s progress on its Green City Strategy and the climate emergency is being hindered by contradictory policy and the coronavirus lockdown.


Chris Page

Douglas Johnson

Sheffield City Council adopted a Green City Strategy in March 2018. Noting that many other cities had already done so, it stated, “there is no time to waste.” It set the aim of Sheffield becoming a zero carbon city by 2050.

Inspired by the fantastic work led by Councillor Carla Denyer of Bristol City Council unanimously declaring a climate emergency and adopting the date of 2030 for the city to become carbon neutral, Green councillors presented a climate emergency motion to Sheffield Council in February 2019. 

We too asked for a clear commitment to the city becoming zero carbon by 2030. Specifically, we called for a change to the published policy – to amend the date from 2050 to 2030 – and for a report, within six months, on the actions the council needs to take to meet this revised target.

Only when the public can see what is needed, can we all be expected to start taking meaningful action. After all, it is the actions that count.

The council was under pressure not only from Green councillors but also from local Extinction Rebellion demonstrators, who were raising awareness, along with Greta Thunberg and the Youth Climate Strikers. Local groups like the Sheffield Climate Alliance and Sheffield Green Parents were lobbying for actions, not just words.

Unfortunately, however, the majority Labour group opposed the Green Party motion. Labour councillors voted to delete all our motion. Although they replaced it with their own text, this crucially removed the commitment to a 2030 date. But, whilst the published policy remains at 2050, Labour councillors did write “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” in capital letters!

Green Councillor Alison Teal described Labour’s motion as “hollow” and Councillor Martin Phipps added: “We will not go far at all on hot air.”

Subsequently, the Council agreed to our call for a 2030 date, promising an “ambition” to become zero carbon by 2030.

Six months later, academics from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester gave a presentation to the July council meeting on “Quantifying the implications of the United Nations Paris Agreement for Sheffield.” All very interesting but, apart from recommending “the initiation of an immediate programme of CO2 mitigation,” no actions were proposed – or indeed undertaken, as can be seen from the opaque and verbose minutes of the meeting.

It was like a cyclist reporting dangerous driving by a fast car, only to be lectured by police about how the dimensions of wing mirrors have changed over the last 50 years. It may be factually true, but we’re looking for something more than that right now.

Something like… actions the council will take.

Sheffield’s Green councillors have proposed a holistic raft of measures to make the city better, including a Workplace Parking Levy, a climate change impact assessment for every council decision, a team of sustainability officers and a new, cross-party Climate Emergency Committee to lead on the changes Sheffield needs to make.

As I said at the time: “The Green Party has the answers – it’s the Green New Deal. The Green approach will tackle the climate crisis and make life better for everyone in society, including the poorest.”

We “celebrated” the anniversary of the climate emergency with a call to make the climate emergency a priority for the Housing Service.

The council’s budget gave us another chance to show how the council could take real action on the climate emergency, within its existing resources. The significance of our budget proposals is that they are negotiated with finance officers, who have a legal duty to sign off the “robustness of the estimates” – a task they take very seriously.

This year, we had costed proposals for solar panels on council housing, a new electric, free bus in the city centre, electric vehicle charging points and e-cargo bikes. There would be a net gain of at least 34 permanent jobs.

Every one of these was voted down by the Labour administration.

Even well before the lockdown, no visible action was being taken on the self-declared climate emergency in Sheffield, despite many assurances from the ruling administration. Green councillors have continued to press for changes like those mentioned above. The lockdown has added further delays, with the cancellation of council meetings depriving councillors and the public alike the opportunity to question and scrutinise the leadership.

The May 2020 local elections were going to be critical for Sheffield’s future. If the pattern of the 2019 elections were repeated, the Labour Party could well have lost control and, with a hung council, all parties would have had to work together.

The coronavirus lockdown has added to the problems of the climate emergency but there is still everything to play for in May 2021, after 12 months lost to inaction.