Council Trekka minus
The council’s new minibuses, above, will be diesels – just like its old ones

Two Greenwich Labour councillors have demanded to know why their town hall is spending £1.8 million on new diesel minibuses rather than choosing electric vehicles instead.

Nick Williams and Maisie Richards Cottell say that the council’s plan is contrary to the climate emergency it declared four years ago, which pledged to make the borough carbon neutral by 2030.

However, the council’s officers say that going electric at this time would be “prohibitively expensive” and not worth the extra cost – even though all council vehicles will need to be zero-emission in seven years to meet the town hall’s deadline.

The two beckbench councillors have formally challenged a decision by Mirsad Bakalovic, a senior officer at the town hall, to spend £1.8 million on 22 17-seater Treka minibuses to replace seven-year-old Mercedes Sprinters that the council says are “nearing the end of their economic working life”.

However, the new minibuses will have Euro VI diesel engines – no better than their predecessors. Neither old nor new vehicles will have to pay the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone charge.

According to council documents, Williams and Maisie Cottell have demanded that Bakalovic and his team explain “why electric vehicles were not suitable” and why promised electric charging facilities at the council’s Birchmere depot in Thamesmead are not ready.

They also say that if Greenwich must buy the diesel minibuses, then it should set out a timeline for a speedy switch to electric because after seven years, the diesels will “have negligible resale value”.

But a report by Tom Bartlett, the council’s interim fleet manager, says that buying electric would be more than twice as much money – at up to £200,000 each – and that this would swallow up any savings from going electric.

Birchmere depot from the street
No date has been set for converting the council’s Birchmere depot in Thamesmead so it can be fully used by electric vehicles (image: Google)

The council is already spending 15 per cent extra in fuel costs, to use a hydro-treated vegetable oil-diesel mix, which cuts carbon emissions by 30 per cent compared with standard biodiesel, the report says. But there is “no fixed date” for when the Birchmere depot and staff homes will be fitted out for electric charging. Birchmere would need two new substations and a hefty upgrade to its supply to feed 200 charging points.

Greenwich declared a climate emergency in June 2019, but did not lay out its climate neutral plan until November 2020, by which time the council’s officers had already decided their plans for replacing the town hall’s 550 vehicles with more up-to-date models.

The intervention from Williams and Maisie Cottell shows how many of the borough’s newer Labour councillors – they were elected in Greenwich Peninsula and East Greenwich only a year ago – are more keen to push environmental policies than their predecessors were.

Greenwich’s climate emergency declaration came only four months after Denise Scott-McDonald, then the cabinet member for the environment, dismissed the notion and said the council, claiming that “different councils have different definitions of what an emergency is”.

At the meeting when the declaration was made, Scott-McDonald – who remains a cabinet member – also claimed that the Silvertown Tunnel would cut emissions because it would “smooth traffic flow”.

A panel of three councillors will hear from both sides next Thursday and could force the issue to to be decided at a full council meeting instead.

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