Waterloo Bridge
Protesters occupied Waterloo Bridge last week

Greenwich Council is to declare a climate emergency, a senior councillor revealed last night, just two months after she dismissed a proposal to make the borough carbon neutral by 2030.

Denise Scott-McDonald made the revelation under pressure from councillors at a meeting of the regeneration, transport and culture scrutiny panel which also saw a veteran air quality campaigner criticise the council’s recent record on pollution and climate change.

Neighbouring Lewisham Council declared a climate emergency two months ago, two months after campaigners had called on Greenwich to do the same. Last night’s disclosure came only a few hours after 853 reported that two other neighbouring boroughs – Tower Hamlets and Newham – had made the same declaration.

“We are going to be declaring a climate emergency,” Scott-McDonald said to the evident surprise of the scrutiny panel.

Scott-McDonald was updating the scrutiny panel on the work she was doing when the panel took a question from Phil Connolly, who was behind the Greenwich Action to Stop Pollution campaign which backed legal action against the council on the issue in the 1990s.

Referring to Scott-McDonald’s report to cabinet members, he said: “There’s no mention of climate change in the report. I found it quite a disturbing report, really. I just felt like we’re turning the clock back to 1994 took Greenwich Council to court to close Trafalgar Road when we exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines. We’re really very little way forward.

“Everything’s going back out to consultation, and yet we know the science, we know the medical consequences, and everything gets kicked into the future. We’re suffering a huge amount of delay and a huge amount of inertia, and something’s got to change.” (See 30 minutes and 40 seconds in video above.)

Pressed on the issue by committee chair Gary Parker, Scott-McDonald said: “I can’t comment about 20 years ago – all I can comment on is literally the last few months.” She started to explain that the council had an air quality working group and talked about the council’s three-year-old climate strategy, as she did when pressed on the issue by campaigners in February.

“Some councils have said, we’re going to declare a climate emergency, then write a climate change strategy, which I thought was really disappointing, because we’ve already done that. We are thinking about it, we are incorporating it.

“There’s lots of things going on, but I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of telling people about it … That said, there is more to do, and we’re more than happy to sign up to do more. It is on the agenda, I don’t know if it answers your question.”

Parker responded: “In part, and there’s no doubt the council is doing good work, but people want a lot more. They want structural change. They want public acknowledgement of this. Unless you can do that – quite frankly, that’s why other Labour authorities are declaring climate emergencies.” (See 37 minutes in the video above.)

“We are doing to be declaring a climate change emergency,” Scott-McDonald said.

“It’s good to hear you say it in public,” Parker replied.

The disclosure clearly surprised councillors. “We’re planning a public event,” Scott-McDonald added.

The council’s decision comes after a week of high-profile protests by the Exctinction Rebellion pressure group, which is demanding the Westminster government commit to making the UK carbon neutral by 2025 – five years earlier than the Climate Emergency campaign. And yesterday, teenage activist Greta Thunberg branded the UK’s response to climate change – including supporting fracking and airport expansion – as “beyond absurd”.

The Extinction Rebellion protests echoed similar demonstrations by Reclaim The Streets in the mid-1990s – including one in August 1995 in Greenwich town centre, when Connolly’s group was taking court action against Greenwich Council over pollution in the area, which eventually led to the council banning HGVs from passing through the town centre.

…but council still supports Silvertown Tunnel

Greenwich’s record on the environment – including supporting the controversial Silvertown Tunnel project, which campaigners fear will exacerbate congestion and pollution – has been less distinguished since then. In the same meeting, the council’s top transport officer Graham Nash said it supported the tunnel, among other reasons, because it would have a lane for HGVs. What he didn’t say was that it would allow HGVs bigger than those currently allowed at Blackwall Tunnel – bringing more of them onto the streets of the borough.

He was pulled up on this point by Greenwich West councillor Aidan Smith, who said HGV drivers would be attracted to the area “in droves”. “Surely that increases capacity rather than decreases it?”

Smith also asked about a recent Highways England report that said many road schemes aimed at reducing bottlenecks had failed to reduce congestion. “Traffic lights seemed to be the main cause. Considering the Silvertown Tunnel finishes at some pretty heavy signalised junctions on the other side of the river, I wonder whether TfL is adapting plans to learn lessons from that report?”

Nash responded: “In terms of the oversized HGVs – they’re not supposed to use Blackwall, a lot of them do, and that closes the tunnel five or six times a day, adding to congestion and the air quality issue.

“We want detailed modelling – TfL have done sufficient modelling to satisfy the secretary of state, but they have an obligation to do more detailed modelling and we will be holding them to account, and that will include the traffic lights.”

Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy – who as the council’s deputy leader supported the tunnel in 2013 – said: “One of the principles of the borough is that Greenwich is a great place to grow up in. It seems to me that if we had the knowledge we have now, considering our response to Silvertown [Tunnel], we would never have supported it.” (A report commissioned by the council at the time, but suppressed by it, had already criticised the scheme.)

He added: “What is the legacy that we are going to leave in the longer term? It seems to me that we really need to be more robust in our approach about not actually increasing the opportunities for more cars on the roads.

“The fallacy from TfL that the Silvertown Tunnel is going to increase jobs and opportunities – the evidence isn’t there. We should just hold up to that and understand it.”

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