What Is The Real Purpose of Coventry’s Climate Board?

More tales from Coventry’s grassroots climate community, this is one from me, David Ridley (Coventry Green New Deal chair), about Coventry City Council’s Climate Change Board (link to video, there doesn’t seem to be an official page for the Board, which is not surprising).

I found out about Coventry City Council’s Climate Change Board through Coventry Green New Deal’s work during the coronaviorus pandemic, particularly during the first lockdown, in trying to engage with the Council on its new Climate Change Strategy.

We spent a long time trying to work with the new Head of Climate Change, Bret Willers, who informed us that the Council wanted to set up a “Sustainable Development Commission” (pdf) which would “pull together all those with the talents and experience to build the new future in a post COVID-19 world to deliver net-zero emissions and to limit the damages from climate change.”

We tried our very best to get involved with this commission as a “key stakeholder”, but the door was unambiguously closed to us. Paraphrasing Willers, we had nothing to offer – the Council only wants stakeholders that can deliver the kinds of top-down, technocratic solutions it prefers, which means preferably having lots of cash (i.e. Eon, Severn Trent), but failing that, at least having some significant civic power as an “anchor institution” (i.e. university, hopsital etc) or as a respectable third sector organisation (e.g. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, Canal and Rivers Trust).

Anyway, we didn’t hear any more about it until suddenly the Climate Change Board appeared at the end of last year, as reported by CovCan. At this point I tried for many weeks to get more information about this from Willers via my local Councillor, Bally Singh. Eventually he replied with the membership (see end of this email), but was silent with regards to further requests for information about its terms of reference, relationship with the Council, particularly its scrutiny mechanisms, and its transparency arrangements.

So I submitted an official information request under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR), which was answered on 5 May 2022 and is now available to view on the Council website.

As you will see from these documents, the Climate Change Board is “not directly accountable to the Council however it works closely and collaboratively together for the benefit of the city”. Its minutes are “not currently publicly available” because the Climate Change Board is “not a public meeting”. However “press releases are made regarding the progress of the board.”

The purpose of this Board is very vague – “to share policies, plans, good practice and work together collaboratively in an effort to keep the city on track for a zero-carbon future.” For me, Cllr Jim O’ Boyle’s offhand remark to CovCan, that the Board “will be able to deliver a range of cost-effective schemes to invest in a more sustainable future for the city” is more revealing.

My worry is that the Board will set up financial arrangements – private-public partnerships – that will fundamentally structure the future of the city and all climate change plans that are put in place.

We’ve seen something similar in Bristol, where the Council has created the City Leap partnership with key investors Ameresco Limited, a “leading cleantech integrator and renewable energy asset developer” based in the US and Vattenfall Heat UK, “Sweden’s nationally owned energy company, who specialise in low and zero-carbon heat networks.”

The City Leap partnership is “aimed at delivering low carbon energy infrastructure, such as solar PV, heat networks, heat pumps and energy efficiency measures at scale, all which will help Bristol meet its carbon reduction targets of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The partners will invest in the council’s estate to deliver low carbon energy infrastructure and support others, such as residents, community energy groups and businesses, to deliver local carbon reducing projects.”

Now for the financial commitments (so far): “Private sector partners will contribute capital funding, including £424 million over the first five years of the twenty-year partnership, in low carbon energy and capacity and expertise in the delivery of low carbon energy infrastructure projects. The project will remove around 140,000 tonnes of carbon across the city in the first five years of operation.”

I imagine that Coventry’s Climate Change Board will set up such partnerships in the near future, most likely with E.ON at the helm (E.ON incidentally didn’t win the bid for the Bristol Leap parnership, which is perhaps why it has turned its attention to Coventry).

But isn’t it disturbing that it is allowed to do all this at arms-length from our democratic represenatives in the Council, and without public scrunity?

In an excellent article for the Bristol Cable, Adam Corner highlights the controversy that Bristol Leap has already caused, particularly with regards to transparency and accountability:

“While the Greens and Labour seem largely in agreement on the necessity of leveraging private investment, there have already been some heated exchanges in the chamber around a potential lack of transparency in the City Leap partner selection process, and here the council’s recent experience with Bristol Energy looms large.

“Created in 2015, Bristol Energy was wholly owned by the council, rather than a public/private partnership. But it quickly encountered problems and struggled to compete with the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. It required an injection of more than £35m of council money, and the company was sold in 2020, ending the council’s ill-conceived foray into the energy supply market.

“It may be a different type of project to City Leap, but questions raised around the governance arrangements surrounding Bristol Energy are drawing even greater attention to how City Leap is managed. An independent auditors’ report on Bristol Energy focused on ensuring the cabinet has access to all the information it needs and the importance of clear communication with the public.

“The lessons from multi-million projects like Bristol Energy should be clear: when budgets are in the millions or even the billions, oversight really matters. Where the profit motive of private companies potentially comes into conflict with the public good, there must be accountability.

“Scrutiny is important to the democratic process,” says Councillor Beech. “It is important that people know what City Leap is. But at the same time, it is a partnership with the private sector, and it’s important that we go through this process of procurement in a way that is appropriate.”

We need more attention on this development in Coventry, especially from the media, and from Cllrs who probably know nothing about it. So far the Council is getting away with operating behind closed doors with regards to climate change policy (I’ll send a follow up email explaining where the Council is at with its new climate change strategy), which is incredibly dangerous.

If this all goes wrong, it will be us that pays the cost, in more even more cuts and public service closures. See for example Slough and Croydon.

If you would like to help raise awareness of this issue, and/or have expertise in this area, or are a reporter that would like to cover this story, please email coventrygreennewdeal@gmail.com.

Please share this email widely, and encourage people to sign up to the Coventry Green New Deal mailing list to hear about what is going on in Coventry.

Coventry Climate Board Membership:

Margot James Executive Chair, WMG, University of Warwick (Chair)
Cllr Jim O’Boyle Councillor, Coventry City Council (Vice Chair)
Martin Sutherland Chief Executive City of Culture
Ian Marshall Deputy Vice Chancellor & Chief Operating Officer, Coventry University
Chris Ennew Provost, University of Warwick
Clive Robinson Sustainable Development Manager, University Hospital Coventry
Mike Lewis Chief Executive Officer, EON
Tony Evans Chief Executive, Sarginsons
Louise Bennett Chief Executive, CW Chamber
Ed Green Chief Executive, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust
Audrey O’Connor Heritage & Environment Manager, Canal and Rivers Trust
Mandy Bygrave Operations Manager, CDA
Neil Griffiths Strategic Enabler for Sustainability, West Midlands Fire Service
Mariama Ceesay Social Enterprise Programme Manager, CU Social Enterprise CIC
Matthew Rhodes Director, Camirus
Sophie Mason Energy & Sustainability Lead Coventry Building Society
Sarah Windrum Chair of the CWLEP, Coventry Warwickshire LEP
Louise Woollen Environment and Sustainability Manager, West Midlands Police
Lizzie Frost Carbon & Net Zero Programme Director, Severn Trent Water

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