Hustings for a Sustainable Future – what do Edinburgh councillors have to say?
Candidates from each political party gathered on Tuesday 25 April to discuss and answer questions from the audience on their approach to sustainability if they are elected to Edinburgh city council on the 4 May.
Representing the Green Party was Chas Booth, a current councillor for Leith ward. The conservative candidate was Cameron Rose, a councillor for Southside/Newington. For Labour was Maureen Child, current councillor in Portobello/Craigmillar; for the SNP, Adam McVey, current councillor of Leith, and for the liberal democrats was Vita Zaporozcenko, a candidate for Leith. Speakers were asked to answer six main questions which would shape the evening’s debate:
1. If elected, would you call for the divestment of fossil fuel holdings from the Lothian Pension Fund and re-invest them in renewable energy?
2. Would you support the introduction of a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Edinburgh to combat air pollution?
3. What would you do to improve the quality of home insulation across Edinburgh?
4. Would you commit to increasing the number of solar panels on public buildings in Edinburgh? And how?
5. Would you support the use of land for allotments and community growing food projects in the city?
6. Given how Westminster has already totally ignored the wishes of local people by overturning Lancashire County Council's decision not to permit fracking, what do you and your party think are the biggest threats to the people of Edinburgh from fracking and what are you doing about this?
First up to speak was Chas Booth of the Green Party. Booth claimed that electing more green councillors would bring Edinburgh rent pressure zones, a living wage plus of £9.20, and an expanded public transport network. He spoke proudly of past achievements, such as a successful motion in February 2015 which called for a ban on Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in the Edinburgh area. Booth said that he will continue the push for divestment of the Lothian pension fund from fossil fuels, after a recent motion on divestment was not able to pass the pensions committee.
Second to pitch their vision was SNP councillor Adam McVey. McVey outlined key SNP manifesto policies such as 1000 new trees in the urban environment, and spoke of the ambitious targets in the council’s current Sustainable Energy Action Plan that commits to a 42% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Several other topics were brought up, such as the expansion of community growing spaces, minimising waste through efficiency of production and consumption processes, and higher standards for new build homes. McVey said that the council’s energy company, Energy for Edinburgh, which he chairs, is looking at expanding solar energy, rolling out district heating, and measures to reduce fuel poverty. Finally, McVey’s approach on divestment was that it is a difficult issue, and that the issue of fiduciary duty (for fund managers to maintain consistent profit for their pension holders) was a significant impediment. Nevertheless, McVey said that addressing this issue is on his to-do list.
Cameron Rose of the local conservative party was next to outline his case. Rose took each question at a time, first addressing why he believed there were many pragmatic, legal, principled and academic reasons why he thought that the divest Lothian campaign was inappropriate. Second, Rose believed that the introduction of Low Emission Zones (LEZs) should be partnered with evidence-based policy, and third, that the conservative manifesto has a section on improving home insulation through efficiency and council house maintenance. Fourth, Rose said he would only commit to increasing solar energy on public buildings unless there was a proper business case; fifth, Rose would support the increase in growing spaces due to the substantial waiting list for allotments. Finally, Rose said that his position on fracking was that the government needs to get on with it. His argument behind this is that cheap energy (fracking proponents argue that it would reduce the price of energy) has been able to alleviate poverty in the past, and can do so again in Scotland.
The Liberal Democrat candidate for Leith, Vita Zaporozcenko, spoke next. Zaporozcenko described that liberal democrat policy is to support a healthy mix of renewables, an expansion of community growing spaces and allotments, not building on the green belt, improving the public transport fleet, and the introduction of low emissions zones. She mentioned how the liberal democrats in the 2007-2012 council administration worked on introducing LEZs and creating an allotment strategy with an annual target for new allotments. Finally, Zaporozcenko spoke in favour of the introduction of a deposit return scheme, and efficiency schemes not only for council and private housing but also for ex-council houses, which are often left out of support.
Finally, Labour’s Maureen Child voiced her opinion on both her and Labour’s vision for sustainability in the council and beyond. Child spoke of several measures as ‘no-brainers’: the introduction of a LEZ, increasing the number of solar panels on public buildings, and growing more community food. Child also mentioned her continued manifesto push for congestion charging in Edinburgh, of which the revenue could be used to invest in making public transport easier for those who have accessibility issues. On Fracking, Child spoke of the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and that the potential benefits are more than outweighed by the environmental costs. Child referenced her support for Labour MSP Claudia Beamish’s plan to pass a bill in Scottish Parliament calling for a ban on fracking.
Child took issue with divestment, stating that there is a need for responsible investment but simply divesting is not the answer, as it is other people’s money that ‘we should not be playing politics with’, and any holdings that the council sells off just go straight into the hands of those who care even less about ethical investment. Instead Child attributed the fact that in Scotland, Lothian pension fund has the lowest investments in energy companies, due largely to the engagement strategy they have implemented in asking fund managers whether they have considered pulling their money out of stranded assets.
The debate then moved on to questions from the audience. The first of these was related to misinformation around fracking, with the questioner claiming that a report from 2014 found fracking in Scotland to be a safe endeavour. The opinion of the questioner was that banning fracking in the UK would increase global emissions as the UK would resort to importing energy from elsewhere.
In answer, Zaporozcenko stated that she felt that the reports stating fracking was safe were in the minority, and that the overall liberal democrat party policy is to ban fracking. Cameron Rose agreed that there was misinformation on the fracking debate, and outlined his scepticism on the severity of the effects of anthropogenically-induced climate change. Rose said that Friends of the Earth England & Wales were fined by the Electoral Commission in the 2015 general election for misinformation on fracking, and reiterated his point that fracking is key to reducing emissions in a low-carbon energy transition as, he argued, the US has reduced their emissions substantially by increasing fracking.
McVey responded directly to Rose’s comments, that the US, whose emissions are ‘gargantuan’ and whose environmental standards are of poor quality, cannot be compared to those of Scotland. He mentioned that the Leith SNP had started SNP Members Against Unconventional Oil & Gas (SMAUG) under efforts to ban fracking.
Booth mentioned that if you go to Lanarkshire, or the US, or Australia, where fracking has affected the groundwater and the air for the local residents, it shows that it is not safe, and reiterated that fracking has no place in Scotland.
Later in the debate, the audience member who mentioned the misinformation on fracking claimed that the 2014 report on fracking was the most comprehensive report he had ever read, and that regulation in the UK is different to the US, where it is not as safe. He said that he was happy for people to criticise something so long as they do it with evidence, claiming that the reason the SNP didn’t go ahead with fracking was because of political reasons. Zaporozcenko claimed that she was waiting to see more peer reviewed papers on the effects of fracking. Rose agreed with the audience member on misinformation, questioning how he could know what Booth was saying about fracking was accurate.
Efforts to address the food system
The second question was on whether the parties would commit to being more ambitious on food growing. Zaporozcenko agreed that food justice was important, and that there is a need to raise awareness on local organic producers and healthy eating, particularly for those on low incomes. Rose agreed on the need to make the most of unused spaces for growing, but believed the food system itself did not need changing, as supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl provide cheap good quality food due to efficient supply chains, affordable to those on low incomes.
McVey claimed that the problem with the urban environment is that it does not make visible the sheer amount of chemicals being sprayed on the food being bought in supermarkets, and this can be addressed with more local growing. Finally, Booth mentioned Edinburgh’s efforts to address the food system change through Edible Edinburgh, and that the Green party’s manifesto contained a significant amount of this taken from Nourish Scotland’s suggestions.
Meeting the council’s emission targets
The third question related to a criticism from one audience member, asking the current councillors why they are not doing enough to meet their emissions reduction targets which they are unlikely to meet. McVey responded that he is optimistic about meeting these targets, citing the considerable emissions reduction experienced recently from the decarbonisation of the electricity supply. He said that so long as the council expands public transport and rolls out district heating, then heat and transport can experience the same level of emissions reduction and Edinburgh will meet its targets.
Booth agreed on the need for councillors to be held more to account, claiming that had the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) not changed the method for emissions accounting, Edinburgh would have missed its most recent reduction targets by 8%. He claimed that the council was taking steps in the right direction with Energy for Edinburgh, but that this needs to be staffed more to be effective. He cited the need to work with Lothian buses to completely phase out diesel buses, with the help of LEZs. Furthermore, Booth claimed we need to mainstream sustainability in the council by having a dedicated member of staff to hold the entire council to account on their emissions targets.
Maureen Child took a slightly different stance, mentioning that the council cannot achieve sustainability by themselves, and that they need the help of the residents of Edinburgh to meet their targets. Child stated that the person in charge of sustainability in the council should be the CEO, but again they can only do so with the political will from Edinburgh’s locals.
A fourth question was asked on what councillors will do to encourage community energy projects. Booth mentioned the Green party manifesto commitment of a 10MW target for community energy in Edinburgh, but stated the need for council officers to be better at supporting community groups, identifying opportunities and bringing them forward. McVey stated that the council itself cannot decide what would work, but that demand needs to come from the community.
Rose said he would be happy to support community energy projects if they have a viable business case. Answering a follow-up question on strengthening the Edible Sustainable Development Partnership (ESDP), Child reported on her involvement in ESDP and its overall positive effect on the Edinburgh partnership model, while McVey stated that whatever mechanism is used, there is just a need for a strong political mechanism to be able to get things done.
Low Emission Zones
Next, an audience member provided a rebuttal on an earlier comment by Rose, stating that Friends of the Earth England & Wales was fined by the Electoral Commission for fear that their campaign would lead to people voting for anti-fracking candidates, and that the fine was never anything to do with misinformation. He then asked the candidates why councillors denied the recent motion on Low Emission Zones, put forward by Booth. Child said that Booth was quite good at putting in motions on things the council was already doing, while Booth argued that the motion was uncontroversial and should have been carried forward. McVey claimed that the motion was politically motivated, but that he would personally be lobbying the government to make sure Edinburgh is the recipient of the single LEZ as promised for the nation. Zaporozcenko reiterated the liberal democrats’ support for LEZs.
A comment was made by an audience member on how the evidence is clearly out there on the negative effects of fracking. They claimed that moreover, there is a systematic attack on democracy across the world, symbolised by the UK government’s decision to overturn Lancashire County Council’s decision to ban fracking, which they had put considerable time, resources and expertise into making. Booth and Rose agreed that the planning system was not suitably democratic for a situation where local government decides to ban fracking, and that this needs to change.
Local housing development
Finally, a question was asked on the new housing development in Portobello, regarding how candidates would ensure it was as green as possible. Child and Booth both mentioned how they voted against the development from the outset, but now there was a need to make sure the standards are effective. McVey explained that his reason for voting for the development was that there is a need to expand the housing supply and that this location was the best possible as it is close to public transport. Rose talked of how the standards for energy efficiency have gone up considerably, and that pushing them up further puts the cost of energy even higher. He claimed that he was the only panel member talking about the effects of this on those in poverty.
Zaporozcenko argued that they are talking about poverty because improving the standards of housing and district heating schemes helps with poverty by bringing energy consumption down. She criticised the system we have where elderly people are freezing in their homes, and that this needs to be tackled.
Overall the debate was fruitful, interesting, and controversial in areas, inviting thoughtful discussion. Friends of the Earth would like to express gratitude to all the councillors that gave their time to voice their opinions, and all the audience members that came to listen and contribute. We hope to keep the debate ongoing on how we can ensure a sustainable future for Edinburgh and beyond.