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Campaigners hand in the petition calling for divestment of the East Sussex Pension Fund from fossil fuel companies (photo: Divest East sussex).

Campaigners hand in the petition calling for divestment of the East Sussex Pension Fund from fossil fuel companies which prompted debate by the county council (photo: Divest East sussex).

Climate campaigners dismayed by ESCC’s contradictory stance

Campaigners were left flabbergasted and angered when East Sussex County Council passed a motion acknowledging that a climate emergency exists but overwhelmingly rejected a motion calling for its pension fund to divest out of fossil fuels. Nick Terdre reports.

Campaigners were hopeful of a positive response when their petition with 5,307 signatures calling on the East Sussex Pension Fund to get rid of its investments in fossil fuel companies forced a debate on the matter at the full meeting of East Sussex County Council on 15 October.

It therefore proved a huge disappointment for them when the meeting overwhelmingly rejected the motion, even while unanimously approving a motion “recognising and declaring a climate emergency”, as recommended by officers.

“It’s breathtaking hypocrisy for East Sussex County Council to declare a climate emergency while continuing to invest in the very companies that are driving the climate crisis,” said Julia Hilton of Divest East Sussex. “This was a litmus test for whether the Council is serious about tackling the climate crisis and they blew it on the day of their declaration.”

The motion, moved by Cllr Stephen Shing, proposed that the pension fund “immediately freezes any new investment in the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies” and “divests from its existing investments in these companies within five years.”

It was rejected by 35 votes to four, with 11 abstentions. Those voting in favour were Cllrs Ruth O’Keefe of the Independent Group, Daniel Shing and Stephen Shing , both Independent Democrats, and Hastings Cllr Trevor Webb (Labour).

Six Hastings councillors against

Six Hastings councillors voted against divestment, four of whom had voted in favour of divestment at a meeting of Hastings Borough Council in April 2016 – Conservatives Matthew Beaver, Martin Clarke and Peter Pragnell and Labour’s Phil Scott. The other two councillors were Labour’s Tania Charman and Godfrey Daniel.

“It’s outrageous that four Hastings Councillors who voted in favour of divesting the East Sussex Pension Fund in April 2016 reversed their position […], and that two more Hastings Councillors joined them,” said Gabriel Carlyle of Fossil Free Hastings.

Two other motions prompted by the petition were put to the meeting. One, proposed by the Liberal Democrats, called on the fund to instruct its investment consultants “to provide an analysis of the implications of fossil fuel divestment [and] its associated risks and opportunities … to allow the Fund to decide whether it can meet its long-term strategic objectives if it divests [its] current fossil fuel holdings.”

This motion was lost by 31 votes to 18, with one abstention. Divest East Sussex said it had been calling for this move for two and a half years.

In the end the meeting effectively kicked divestment into the long grass by passing a Tory motion requiring the pension committee to have its investment consultants investigate the issue.

Cllr Charman told HOT, “I voted for the Tory motion, which was a positive step from them to even acknowledge the issue. I am in favour of divestment. I didn’t vote for the liberal amendment.

Need “to be prudent”

“However there is a big duty on the council to be prudent with people’s money. I wouldn’t want the council to do anything without a careful exit plan and equal investments found.

“I agree in divestment, you need to ensure the Tories keep to what they say and push for timescales in line with their motion.”

For several years the pension committee, which oversees the fund’s £145 million investments in companies like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, has implemented a policy of ‘engaging’ with the fossil fuel companies.

In parallel it has rebuffed calls to reconsider these investments from several councils – Brighton & Hove City Council, Eastbourne Borough Council, Lewes District Council, Lewes Town Council, Rother District Council and Wealden District Council – which like HBC have passed motions in favour of divestment.

Calls to divest have also come from Maria Caulfield, the Conservative MP for Lewes, and public service union UNISON.

Approval of the climate emergency motion, a composite of proposals from the Tory and Labour groups, commits ESCC, among other aims, to set a target of achieving carbon neutrality in its activities as soon as possible and in any event by 2050, to set out a clear plan of action to reduce its carbon emissions, and to commit resources where possible and align its policies to address the climate emergency.

An amendment put forward by the Liberal Democrats moving the target date forward to 2030, calling for six-monthly reports on progress and requiring an environmental assessment on all council reports was rejected by both Tory and Labour councillors, which Nick Perry, the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Hastings & Rye, called “quite unbelievable.”

 

Posted 14:03 Friday, Nov 1, 2019 In: Campaigns

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