Dorset Council environmental decisions: moral and economic madness?

Moral and economic madness? That is the charge being laid at the door of Dorset Council, by local environmental activists, who question whether the Council understands the realities of the climate crisis.

Just six months ago, the UK hosted the UN Climate Change Conference (‘COP26’) in Glasgow, in November 2021. That conference concluded with a clear ambition to secure global net zero by mid-century, keeping 1.5 degrees of global warming within reach. This week, the World Metereological Association (WMA), has warned that there is a 50 per cent chance of passing that 1.5 degrees threshold within five years, even if only briefly before improving again. In terms of the long-term average, the average global temperature is already about 1.1 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average. “Loss and damage associated with, or exacerbated by, climate change is already occurring, some of it likely irreversible for the foreseeable future,” said Maxx Dilley, deputy director of climate at the WMO.

Local authorities have been charged with developing and acting upon plans to help meet the government’s commitment to net zero. Dorset Council only came into being in 2019 and they declared a climate and ecological emergency at their first council meeting in May that year. By July 2020, they had set out a draft strategy and plan to change the way the Council delivers its services, to ensure it is carbon-neutral by 2040.

Campaigners are not impressed with the way things have been handled in Dorset since then, and there was some disruption at April’s Council meeting. When the Council meet at County Hall this week, they will be greeted as they arrive, by environmental action groups like Extinction Rebellion, who want to remind them about the need for consistent and urgent action.

These campaigners say Dorset Council are not joining the dots between their climate emergency action plan, and other Council strategies such as finance, planning and transport. Some contradictory decisions undermine their promises and undo good progress, campaigners claim, like the Council’s recent motion to support new fossil fuel energy production in Dorset, such as oil drilling near Puddletown and a proposed waste incinerator on Portland. The activists believe that Dorset Council are saying one thing and doing another. Extinction Rebellion say: “No new oil and gas extraction, no more fossil fuel investments in our pension scheme or incineration plants to burn waste materials such as plastics, is our anniversary message to Dorset Council.”

In the light of last month’s disturbances, Conservatives on the Council have raised a motion to condemn the two climate protestors who interrupted last month’s full Council meeting. Will this get support from opposition parties, like newly elected (April 2022) Green councillor Belinda Bawden? Councillor Bawden was elected for Lyme Regis and Charmouth ward, in a by-election following resignation of former Conservative councillor Daryl Turner. She claimed 44 per cent of the votes in this (usually) conservative heartland, partly by appealing to voters who wanted change. Belinda’s election leaflet reminded voters that “Dorset Council is dominated by Conservatives. One more Conservative won’t change anything but an extra Green councillor will make a real difference.”

As a newcomer to Dorset Council, she admitted she was unprepared for the amount of apparent party-political hostility from the Conservatives towards other groups. The Greens and Liberal Democrats had tabled a motion asking Dorset Council to urge the government to change part of the National Planning Policy Framework, to enable local councils to reject developments on their climate impacts if they chose. The Conservatives voted as a group against this proposition, then the Leader proposed a counter motion in which the third and fourth clauses were similar to the just-rejected motion proposed by the Greens and Liberal Democrats. That seemed contradictory, to say the least.

However, the first two clauses of the Conservative motion urged the government to pursue a strategy of energy self-sufficiency ‘by all means available to us’. Such a policy would fly in the face of all scientific opinion and all government targets and international reports – and, in the opinion of Councillor Bawden, the 44 per cent voters in Lyme Regis and Charmouth, who had chosen her as someone pledging action on the climate and environmental crisis. As the motion was debated, moving towards advocating increased use of coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy, two protestors calling themselves ‘Grannies for the Future’ interrupted proceedings, which were temporarily halted. The meeting was reconvened in a committee room but, once restarted, the chairman refused to allow the debate to continue, going straight to a vote instead. Several councillors protested and some walked out.

This month, the Conservatives have proposed a motion, condemning disruption by the two climate protestors at April’s council meeting. Perhaps those proposing the motion will have cheered at the Queen’s speech, this week, in which the government has promised to criminalise so-called ‘disruptive protests’, possibly leading to 12 months in jail for anyone convicted?

How does Councillor Bawden feel about this motion, after such a baptism of fire last month? In contrast to the demonstrators, she has some sympathy with Dorset Council, which she says has made strenuous efforts to work on its Climate and Ecological Strategy. Also, she understands some of the practical difficulties in putting plans into action as fast as the activists would wish.

Despite her annoyance at the curtailed debate and disrupted vote last month and with elements of the planned demonstration by Extinction Rebellion this week, Councillor Bawden is not as keen to condemn the protestors as the Conservatives seem to be. She explains “I fear that Dorset Council has brought this (the planned protests outside this week’s meeting) upon itself. The chairman could have adjourned last month’s meeting or allowed the debate to continue. To refuse to allow any opposition voices to be heard and forcing a vote on such a contentious issue has infuriated many, many people. It is also disingenuous of the Conservatives to blame this outcome on the protestors – it was a political choice by the majority party to prevent a discussion and force the motion through.”

Fresh from her recent by-election campaign and sweeping victory, Councillor Bawden is better placed than most in Dorset to comment on on-the-ground public opinion in this county, which had no other local elections this year. She senses a large and increasing disconnect between views of those who voted for her (and who trounced the Conservatives elsewhere) and the current Conservative majority. How much longer will Conservative councillors continue to push policies that are unpopular with so many of their constituents?