Controversy over ‘wholly unrealistic’ climate targets

Dr Nik Johnson

Dr Nik Johnson, Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. - Credit: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has been accused of not cooperating with some council leaders as he accepted a host of recommendations to cut carbon emissions.  

The Combined Authority acknowledges that the accepted recommendations will require policy-changes that are not all within its powers to implement, and that it cannot compel councils to take action.  

They include all new buildings in the county being net-zero-ready by 2023 at the latest and designed for a changing climate, and that all buses, taxis and council-owned vehicles should be zero emission by 2030. 

The new mayor, Labour’s Nik Johnson, focused his electoral campaign on a theme of cooperative working. 

But Conservatives at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority board said that he was doing the opposite. 

They were unhappy at being asked to sign up to climate change targets that they needed more time to consider and, in some cases, may not be feasible to implement. 

The mayor said he was not asking councils to make commitments, but said: “our house is on fire. 

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"Sometimes when you are confronted by an emergency and someone won’t jump from the window you just have to grab them and take them out with you and the safety net will be there for you.  

That is what our constituents want.” 

The recommendations to address climate emissions were put to the Combined Authority by an Independent Climate Commission, chaired by Baroness Brown, which was commissioned under the former Conservative mayor.  

But while the Combined Authority said it accepted the recommendations, its detailed response acknowledged that in a number of policy areas the powers to implement lie elsewhere, such as with councils or the Government. 

“By accepting the recommendations, the Combined Authority has agreed to take all the recommendations forward and work will now take place on how each of the recommendations might be implemented,” a spokesperson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.  

There was controversy over a recommendation that the Combined Authority and councils should operate on a net zero carbon basis by 2030. 

The Combined Authority’s detailed response said that it should aim to be net zero by 2030, but that its member councils would have to decide their own position.  

“We are certainly not all in the same place on this subject”, said Conservative councillor and leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Anna Bailey. 

She added “the most overarching concern with all of this is that none of us have had time to put this paper to our constituent councils and to garner the views of our individual councils. 

"This does need to go through a process”.  

Leader of Fenland District Council, Chris Boden, said the wording of some recommendations calls for actions including targets which are for some councils “wholly unrealistic, which just gives some people the opportunity to indulge in virtue signalling”. 

“It’s absolutely inappropriate for us to be making promises and signing up to things that cannot be delivered,” he said, adding as an example “we just cannot manage the 2030 net carbon zero target.” 

Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, Conservative Ryan Fuller noted that the Combined Authority acknowledged it could not compel councils to act on the recommendations, but said by accepting them “we are creating expectations and we are setting up accountability around those points”.  

Liberal Democrat and leader of South Cambridgeshire District council, Bridget Smith, called on councils to “get on the same page” and accept the recommendations.  

“We have not got time to faff about quite honestly. We are way behind the curve here and we have to act. 

"And just because it’s going to be difficult is absolutely not a good reason not to do something. 

"The reason this has been on the backburner for 50 years is that it has been in the too-difficult pile” she said.  

The Combined Authority’s response to the recommendations was approved by a majority, with one Conservative, the mayor’s deputy and leader of Peterborough City Council, Wayne Fitzgerald, supporting.