Guest post by Emma Wallace, Green Party candidate for the GLA Brent and Harrow Constituency
Harrow Council’s Cuts to Environmental Services and Lack of Action on the Climate Emergency Part 2
Greens call for investment, strategic planning and transparency from Harrow Council
We have to get serious about the climate emergency
Our council tax in Harrow is going up by 5.8% from the 1st April, moving our borough from the third highest council tax rate in London to second, just behind Kingston which takes the top spot LINK . Whilst you would hope this would mean, if not an increase to our public services, at least protection of the ones we already have, this is unfortunately not to be the case. The Council has been put under huge constraints by the decimation of local authority funding from central government and having to ringfence a large percentage of the budget to meet statutory duties such as adult social care LINK . This has resulted in ever dwindling amounts of money to cover the multitude of other essential services the Council should be providing. One council department that is bearing the brunt of our shrinking local authority budgets is the Environmental Services department, seeing its staffing budget cut by £250 000 from April 2021 LINK . At a time when we are facing an unprecedented climate emergency, coupled with an increase in population and demand on many of our services, including our local parks and reserves due to the pandemic, this cut seems to be incredibly short-sighted. The resultant negative consequences for our borough’s environment, its residents and the Council’s ability to meet its own climate and ecological emergency targets cannot be underestimated.
A Climate Emergency
The council declared a climate emergency in July 2019, resolving to “make the London Borough of Harrow carbon neutral by 2030, taking into account both production and consumption of emissions”. LINK The council created a related strategy to meet its carbon neutral goals, committing to working towards 100% renewable energy in the borough, making homes, schools and commercial buildings more energy efficient, to decarbonise vehicles and move to sustainable travel, to minimise waste and support recycling, to protect and restore the biodiversity we have and to engage communities to become eco literate LINK. More recently, the Council reiterated in its 2021/22 budget that one of its key priorities is “Improving the environment and addressing climate change” LINK . Indeed, the council has made a number of public announcements, formed a ‘Climate & Sustainability Partnership’ with other organisations including local environmental groups and produced a ‘London Borough of Harrow Climate Change Strategy’ 2019-2024 LINK. This most recent climate change strategy has not made it to the Council’s ‘Climate Change - Environment and Parks’ out-of-date webpages though LINK .
Harrow Council’s public commitment to fighting climate change is commendable and urgent if we are to stay within the projected 1.5 degrees of warming in the next ten years and avoid the worst predictions of environmental breakdown. The reality is though, that these goals are completely untenable unless the Council fully invests in meeting these goals, allocates ongoing budgets, devises an actionable, joined-up strategy and recruits a strong in-house team to works towards achieving its targets. Unfortunately, as we can see from the most recent Environmental Services staffing cuts this does not appear to be happening. In May 2020, ‘The Student View’ charity made a Freedom of Information request asking if the council had discussed the costs of climate change adaption to enable it to meet its climate and ecological emergency targets. It emerged it had not: “the issue of budget and additional resources for delivering the council’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030 hasn’t yet been discussed in detail through the Council’s Climate Change steering group meetings with the Cabinet members.” LINK Last year, the council stated it was spending “£150,000 on tackling the climate emergency, covering staff costs as well as external support and advice on how to reduce carbon emissions” LINK . It is not clear exactly what this money was spent on or if a similar amount has been allocated to address the climate emergency this financial year.
The Environmental Services Team and Transparency
Harrow Council’s Environmental Services department is responsible for a multitude of areas, including our parks, open spaces and nature reserves, street trees, allotments, verge maintenance, street cleaning, fly tipping and general waste management amongst other things, and it has already suffered from years of cut backs. These areas all have a significant role to play in the Council meeting its 2019-2023 climate change strategy. Trying to establish the roles that make up the Environmental Services team though and what ones have been cut is incredibly difficult. Whilst there is an ‘Environmental and Parks’ area on Harrow Council’s website, it is hard to find who is exactly responsible for the many different areas. At a Harrow VCS Forum ‘Environment & Sustainability Subgroup’ meeting in November 2017, a request was made to Graham Henson, now Leader of the Council, asking for a list of key environmental services council officers to liaise with and how best to contact them for a speedy response. Mr Henson’s answer was that, basically, there isn’t a list available and it’s best to make contact with the Head of Service, Dave Corby LINK. This raises the issue that as council tax paying residents, should we not expect to easily find out what roles people hold, what they do and how we can make contact with them in the council? Should we not also expect timely replies from the council officers and councillors that represent us? This frequently does not appear to be the case. It is imperative that our Council is transparent and accountable to members of the public so they can effectively support the community it serves.
Dave Corby who has been ‘Head of Community Engagement’ for many years has now retired, taking with him a breadth of knowledge on our parks and local environment that will be a real loss to Harrow. It is unclear if he is being directly replaced, but the Environmental Services department has recently undergone a reshuffle, with Rebecca Johnson now the new Head of Environment and Waste Strategy and Desiree Mahoney acting as the Community Engagement Officer. Mark Richardson is the Green Team Manager and Ray Fox the Parks Manager; Rebecca Farrar is the Tree Protection Officer and Steve Whitbread is Biodiversity Officer. There has been a recent advert for ‘Head of Transport and Environmental Operations’ at the Council, LINK , stating that the role is within the newly formed Environmental Services Directorate and that the “post holder will be responsible for fleet management of over 300 vehicles, Special Needs Transport Service, Waste and Recycling collections, Trade Waste Collections, Street Cleansing and Ancillary Services, Parks and Open spaces and other associated support services. The post holder will be responsible the management of a revenue budget of £25 million and a capital budget of £8 million.” LINK
This is a huge range of responsibilities for one person, especially in light of the fact that the Environmental Services team has recently been reduced (which roles, is still unclear). This advert does reveal the department’s budget figure though, something that is almost impossible to establish otherwise or the individual spending and allocations within the department. The remaining roles (and other unestablished ones) within the Environmental Services team are integral to ensuring our local environment is healthy, sustainable, green and biodiverse. With the latest round of staffing cuts, it can only be seen that this will be detrimental to our local environment and make it even harder for the council to meet its climate targets.
Greens call for Action, Investment and Transparency
Whilst we are dealing with an onslaught of problems brought on by ten years of austerity, coupled with the economic, social and health difficulties as a result of the pandemic, the climate emergency is not going away and must be addressed. As the UN Environment Programme Head warned in August 2020 “There is no vaccine for climate change. We must embed sustainability into COVID-19 recovery” . Unfortunately, at the moment, Harrow Council appears to lack the vision, financial investment and staffing to fully realise its aims of reducing the borough’s carbon emissions and become carbon neutral. Harrow residents deserve a council who leads on action to mitigate the worse effects of climate change, being accountable and transparent every step of the way. It is imperative that the council takes urgent action on the climate emergency to avoid the impending ecosystem collapse we potentially face.
In my next blog…I’ll be taking a look at how Harrow’s parks and green spaces have been impacted by ten years of council cuts and how these rich, biodiverse spaces are an excellent way for the council to move towards meeting their climate change targets. I will also be shining a light on the many amazing volunteer environmental organisations we have in Harrow and how they are leading the way in maintaining and improving our green spaces.