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27 protestors took the petition to County Hall just before the full council meeting began on Tuesday 21 March. Image credit: Natasa Leoni

Divestment victories creep forward at a faster-than-glacial pace

This week there have been two more small victories for the Divest East Sussex campaign. Erica Smith celebrates the slow creep towards divesting from fossil fuels.

On Tuesday 21 March at County Hall in Lewes, campaigners carried a seven-foot by four-foot ‘oil barrel bearing the words ‘Tax Big Oil / Divest Now’ and presented the vice-chair of East Sussex County Council (ESCC) with a 5,236-strong petition.

The petition, which has been signed by 5,236 people from across East Sussex and Brighton & Hove, demands that East Sussex County Council (ESCC) ‘stops investing in fossil fuels, and that it publicly supports a proper permanent windfall tax on Big Oil and a rapid transition to a system that provides affordable green energy for everyone.’

On the way to County Hall, 21 March 2023. Image credit: Natasa Leoni

The East Sussex Pension Fund, which covers Brighton & Hove as well as East Sussex, is administered by East Sussex County Council (ESCC). It currently has tens of millions of pounds of local people’s pension monies invested in the giant oil and gas companies, like Shell and BP, that are driving the climate crisis.

A second debate in May?

Any petition with 5,000 or more local signatures should be enough to trigger a debate on these issues at the Council’s meeting on 9 May. If so then this would be the second time in less than four years that members of the public have forced the Council to debate its continued investment in fossil fuels.

The 27 campaigners from across Hastings, Lewes and Brighton were surprised to be met by a hired-in security team which outnumbered them. ESCC had apparently mis-read publicity about the 2-dimensional banner in the shape of an oil barrel and were concerned that campaigners were intending to spill real oil across County Hall!

Growing support from residents and organisations across East Sussex

Campaigners outside County Hall prior to the hand-in of the latest Divest East Sussex petition, Tuesday 21 March 2023. PHOTO: Natasa Leoni

I have been involved in the Divest East Sussex Campaign since its inception nearly ten years ago. In 2019, a petition was handed in to ESCC – it had taken over three years to gather 5,000 signatures. This time, it took a mere six months.

When knocking on doors to collect signatures, it was noticeable how much more responsive people were to the petition and how awareness of the climate emergency that we face has grown in the last four years.

The petition also has the support of a wide range of local organisations including: Brighton Energy Co-op, Eastbourne Climate Coalition, Divest East Sussex, Energise Sussex Coast, Frack Free Sussex, Friends of the Earth Brighton & Hove, Hastings & District Trades Council, Just Stop Oil – Sussex University, Lewes Climate Hub, Seaford Environmental Alliance, South East Climate Alliance, Transition Town Lewes, Weald Action Group, XR Eastbourne and XR Hastings & St Leonards.

International acknowledgment of the climate emergency

In September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that: ‘We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account. That includes the banks, private equity, asset managers and other financial institutions that continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution.’

He also called ‘on all developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies. Those funds should be re-directed in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis; and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices’.

In a similar vein, climate lawyer Tessa Khan has noted that: ‘The loophole [in the current “windfall tax” on companies like Shell] amounts to us effectively giving £11 billion to oil and gas companies … enough to make sure that every NHS worker and every teacher in the UK gets an inflation matching pay rise.’

Pension fund member and lead petitioner Sarah Hazlehurst outside County Hall prior to the hand-in, Tuesday 21 March 2023. PHOTO: Natasa Leoni

Pension Fund member demands divestment

Pension Fund member and lead-petitioner Sarah Hazlehurst told campaigners:

‘The tide of public opinion is turning and residents and pension fund members want change. Many more people are aware of the climate emergency, the insecurity of relying on fossil fuels in a time of war, the cost-of-living crisis and the need for a proper windfall tax. Many people I spoke to when getting signatures were shocked and surprised that their local authority pension schemes were still investing in fossil fuels.

‘We are asking that ESCC do the right thing morally and for the sake of our pension security. It’s less than a year until I get mine and we don’t have much longer to stop irreversible climate change.

‘I hope to hear from the council shortly about when they will be debating our petition. We think it will be at the next full council meeting on 9th May.’

In December 2022, Divest East Sussex members collected signatures for the Divestment petition in Robertsbridge – Councillor Paul Redstone’s ward.

Robertsbridge and Salehurst Parish Council adds its support to the divestment campaign

On Monday 20 March at Robertsbridge and Salehurst Parish Council (SRPC)’s meeting, 

the councillors also voted to support divestment from fossil fuels.

Despite being a small parish council, this action is significant because it is the home of Councillor Paul Redstone – the ESCC Councillor for Northern Rother and one of the five councillors on the Pension Committee which holds the power to choose to divest the pension scheme from fossil fuels.

The vote came hard on the heels of a similar motion passed by Rother District Council last month.

Prior to Monday’s vote, local resident Paula Williams told the SRPC meeting: ‘We would like you to send a clear message to the Fund … that it’s time for them to do the responsible thing, the prudent thing and the right thing, and finally make a commitment to fully divest from fossil fuels.’

To find out more about the Divest East Sussex campaign, visit the campaign website.

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Posted 21:39 Wednesday, Mar 22, 2023 In: Campaigns

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