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A message for East Sussex County Council, outside County Hall on 12 July 2022. Photo: Steve Lewis

County Council and local pension fund have spent over £200k resisting calls for climate action

Over the last two-and-a-quarter years, East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and the East Sussex Pension Fund (ESPF) have spent over £200k resisting calls for them to stop investing in the giant fossil fuel companies that are driving the climate crisis, a series of Freedom of Information Act requests has revealed. Gabriel Carlyle from Divest East Sussex reports.

The East Sussex Pension Fund, which covers Brighton & Hove as well as East Sussex, is administered by ESCC. It currently has tens of millions of pounds of local people’s pension monies invested in oil and gas companies like Shell and BP. Its investments in fossil fuel companies have been the focus of a ten-year campaign by East Sussex and Brighton residents.

A long list of organisations and individuals have called on the Fund to divest from fossil fuels, including: Bexhill Town Council, Brighton & Hove City Council, Hastings Borough Council, Lewes District and Town Councils, Peacehaven Town Council, Rother District Council, Saleshurst & Robertsbridge Parish Council, Maria Caulfield MP (Cons, Lewes), Caroline Lucas Green MP (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and UNISON.

£200k and counting

The five-person East Sussex Pension Committee is expected to hold a long-delayed vote on fossil divestment later this year.

A series of Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by Divest East Sussex have revealed that:

  • Last year the ESPF spent £55k on a whitewash report on ‘Engagement vs Divestment’ that re-hashed long-refuted arguments, misrepresented divestment and ignored crucial evidence.
  • Since January 2022 the Fund has also spent almost £100k employing a ‘Pensions Communication Manager’ – in large part to counter ‘controversy, campaigns and questions’ resulting from the Fund’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels (see box below).

ESCC itself has spent a further £54.8k on ‘absurd’ security at County Hall, on eleven occasions spanning Oct ’22 – Feb ’24: ‘protecting’ the Hall from the likes of petition hand-ins, giant newspaper headlines and a pair of giant cardboard feet.

‘Controversy, campaigns and questions’

The East Sussex Pension Fund has employed a ‘Communications Manager’ (at a cost of at least £44,258 / year) since January 2022.

But why on earth does the Fund need a PR person?

The post was created in response to the Fund’s January 2021 Communications Review (see pages 159–177 of this document).

The latter bemoaned the fact that ‘board members, fund staff and the County Council must regularly respond to criticisms and questions from vociferous campaigners’ regarding the Fund’s ongoing investment in fossil fuel companies (p.173), noting that the Fund had logged ‘more than 70 pieces of media coverage’ regarding its activities over the previous 24 months, ‘the vast majority … made by reporters from local or regional media organisations … in direct response to action taken by Divest East Sussex’, and ‘largely negative’ (p. 172).

The need for the Fund to ‘Tell a strong and clear story about the fund’s actions on environmental, social and governance issues’ (while continuing business as usual) was one of the review’s three ‘key themes’ (p. 159).

If you’re in a hole…

If you’re in a hole, the very first thing you should do is stop digging.

Likewise, the very first thing that any local Council that is genuinely concerned about the climate emergency should do is to stop investing in the giant fossil fuel companies (Shell, BP etc…) that are driving the crisis.

Instead, East Sussex County Council and the East Sussex Pension Fund have spent ten years – and significant amounts of public money – fighting calls from the public and lower-tier authorities for them to take this most basic of steps.

It’s time for the Council and the Fund to stop wasting our money in this fashion and finally do the prudent, the responsible and the right thing and make a public commitment to stop investing in these rogue companies.

You can find out more about the campaign to make local authority pensions fossil-free on the Divest East Sussex website.

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Posted 11:34 Wednesday, Apr 3, 2024 In: Campaigns

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