Over the last six months, Extinction Rebellion Southwark has participated patiently and cooperatively in Southwark Council’s complex and legalistic New Southwark Plan hearing process. The New Southwark Plan contains the borough-wide planning and regeneration strategy for the next 10 years – longer, in fact, as it dictates planning policy until 2035. Accordingly, it is an incredibly important policy, not only in demonstrating the Council’s commitment to tackling the climate emergency they declared two years ago, but with a meaningful impact on the borough’s carbon emissions.
Throughout this process, we have diligently and exhaustively worked to explain to the Council why it is so fundamentally important for this plan to directly address the climate emergency, including offering suggestions on how they can do so. As such, in October 2020, we dutifully wrote four 3,000 word essay submissions on a range of topics, marshalling our members to spend weekends researching and suggesting alternative policy wording. In March 2021, we took days of annual leave from work to attend all-day Zoom meetings with Planning Inspectors, preparing statements and questions for the Council about their response. We even sought an official Statement of Common Ground with the Council as to how the New Southwark Plan’s non-existent climate policy commitments could be strengthened to make it a meaningful and actionable document which could address their climate emergency declaration. It’s a technical, complicated, and genuinely overwhelming process for residents to engage with alongside our day jobs.
And yet, to us as Southwark Residents, this process has been nothing but a devastating let down.
Some context: This local plan is being developed and finalised at the same time that global temperatures are soaring. We are already at 1.1ºC above pre-industrial levels, and are heading for around 3-4ºC or more by the end of the century. We are leaving a safe operating point for human life.
We are at real risk of destabilising the entire planet. 9 out of the 15 big biophysical systems that regulate the climate – from the permafrost of Siberia to the great forests of the North to the Amazon rainforest – are at risk of reaching tipping points, which could make Earth uninhabitable for humanity. The droughts, floods, wildfires, massive storms, and species loss we are seeing now is just the beginning. Southwark cannot solve this crisis alone, but it can choose to play a part.
It’s clear that local planning in its current form is not sufficiently adaptive to the increasingly fast-moving climate crisis. This plan has spent seven years in development, during which time all scientific indicators as to the extremity of climate crisis have become increasingly decisive. For the plan to barely mention the climate crisis – let alone respond to it – is as alarming as it is absurd. Southwark Council themselves declared that we are in a climate emergency in 2019 and committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030. That was two years before the finalisation of this plan. Additionally, there is nothing in the final draft that even mentions a pathway to decarbonisation.
Southwark Council haven’t just failed to do their homework. This plan is criminally negligent.
The fact that climate was seemingly added as an afterthought to the final date of the first part of the hearing (because there wasn’t time two weeks ago when residents had taken time off work) feels representative of Southwark’s whole approach. (Note: we have detailed our specific points of disagreement at the end of this article).
This process has really worn down those of us involved. To realise the sheer extent to which elected officials, who say they care about the climate emergency for children’s futures, will then lie, obfuscate, and push paper around to avoid bringing meaningful change is frightening.
Despite this, XRS are glad to have witnessed this process as active participants. We have had the chance to support local groups such as SPN and Friends of Burgess Park who have been making these points for years before us, and to lend our voices to theirs in solidarity and strength: we are grateful for those connections forged. Although we’re disappointed with both the plan and process, we believe that the long evenings of Zooms calls and research were worth it if we were able to shift the Council’s thinking as to what is possible and necessary in responding to the climate crisis – even if it just sees the words ‘climate emergency’ included 34 more times without any more meaningful actions (we counted). And lastly, XRS have once again engaged with the Council on how best to tackle the climate crisis, adding to months of dedicated policy work from our brilliant lobbying team of local residents.
If they keep dragging their feet on the climate crisis, Councillors should not be surprised to find those same policy ideas becoming a key battleground during their elections in 2022.
Comments on the plan
The New Southwark Plan itself
- This plan is being examined two years after Southwark Council declared an emergency, so the Council have had plenty of time to update it. The urgency of the climate emergency has been well known during the course of the plans development from 2014.
- Minor modifications to the Plan which came through this week seem to be ticking boxes by including the words climate crisis every now and then. This is greenwashing at its worst.
- There is still no baseline data encompassing all carbon emissions created by the built environment; there are no clear targets; there are no measurable indicators.
- The plan does not align with the Council’s own stated commitment to net zero by 2030 or their requirement in law to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 – but XRS asks why are we aiming for net zero by 2050? How is this a stepping stone to 2030? Planning officers worryingly declared the Council’s own target of net zero by 2030 as just a ‘political steer’ and not something they are legally obliged to meet. This begs the question: what was the point of Southwark’s unanimous Climate Emergency declaration which set this target in 2019? Did they even mean it?
- The Council sent a key document the day before the key hearing on climate after claiming this plan has been in development for seven years, thus giving us and other local participants no time to prepare on the information contained in it.
- The Statement of Common Ground processes ran adjacent to the hearing dates, and another key schedule of factual updates to the plan were sent less than a week before the climate topic hearing date.
- These factors combined have given residents little time for comprehensive analysis around day jobs, despite Council having years to bring the plan in line with the legal requirements and Southwark Council’s own targets following the climate emergency declaration.
Our attempted Statement of Common Ground with Southwark Council
- We’ve tried seeking a Statement of Common Ground with the Council but the truth is there is no common ground. We believe, along with scientists and voters worldwide, that we’re in a climate emergency like we’ve never seen in the history of humanity, and based on this plan and their response, Southwark Council is not meeting their duties to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
- These were the supposed areas of common ground the Council sent back to us:
1. The New Southwark Plan is in general conformity with the London Plan.
- Thanks to our efforts and those of other local groups, Southwark Council input some wording to mention the climate emergency. It still does not meet the legally required net zero target by 2050 and therefore does not even meet the London Plan standard. As stated above, there are no evidenced based targets as to how emissions will be reduced to net zero by 2050.
2. The New Southwark Plan is compliant with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) (as amended) and mitigates and adapts against the impacts of climate change.
- The New Southwark Plan doesn’t do enough to mitigate climate change because it does not go far enough in addressing mitigation through its policies – for example, only focussing on the operational life of new buildings in the energy policy when at least 40% of carbon emissions come from the construction sector. The plan does not have any clear policies on adaptation to climate change, such as clear policies on reuse and refurbishment before demolition and adaptive design. There is only a more cursory mention in the reasons under policy P13 to sustainable design. Policies are confused and contradictory about when a whole-life cycle carbon assessment will be required and there is very little to substantiate the claim that Southwark will commit to a circular economy.
3. The New Southwark Plan is in compliance with the Climate Change Act (2008) as amended and contributes to the meeting of the net carbon zero target of 2050.
- We could not possibly agree to this. The most stark and concerning omission is that the plan contains no evidenced-based target reduction of emissions to net zero by 2050. Their first energy background paper admitted that Southwark Council would not meet this target. Southwark Council are now saying that they do meet this target with some minor amendments to policies in the New Southwark Plan but there is no evidence as to how these modifications will actually contribute to net zero by 2050, in contrast with the earlier energy background paper.
4. The Energy addendum has provided sufficient clarity on the approach to climate change taken by the Council.
- We do not agree with this at all – as stated above.
5. That this is an evolving process and the Climate Emergency is a moving target which is constantly under review because of the nature of the Climate Emergency.
- This we do agree with, but we’re not sure the Council actually shares this view as they haven’t even met their legal requirements and or shown how they will reduce carbon emissions by 2050. This is coupled with the fact that it is nonsensical to say the 2050 target can be a stepping stone to the 2030 climate emergency declaration target.
The New Southwark Plan in its current form means that Southwark is behind before we’ve even started. Any suggested edits to this plan have come too late in the process to make a meaningful impact: it’s aiming for the wrong target, there’s a lack of clear direction on how it will actually reduce emissions, and it’s simply just not good enough.
If you want to tell Southwark Council they need to step up and act now on the climate crisis, you can use the tool Write to Them to find your local Councillor. You can use this draft letter to let them know your concerns about the climate crisis in the borough.
Finally, lead our full objections as submitted to the Council at this link.