The Green Party have alleged that Oxford City Council has misrepresented its financial commitment to combating the climate crisis. Last month the Council announced an extra £19 million to supplement the drive to bring Oxford’s carbon emissions to net zero. 

It had been announced that the funding was made available in response to recommendations made by Oxford’s Citizens’ Assembly on climate change, but the Oxford branch of the Green party have now claimed that as little as £550,000 of the extra funding is new. Further, it has stated that it believes a significant proportion of the money is dedicated to causes unrelated to the climate crisis, such as air quality assessment. 

The party also claim that the Council has failed to make good on repeated promises to prioritise the climate in policy making, criticising the scale of the Council’s investment in climate change, and the prioritisation of other policy areas over tackling the climate crisis.

In a statement released to Cherwell Dr Hazel Dawe, Oxfordshire Green Party Treasurer and law lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, said: “There are two disturbing features of Oxford City Council’s approach to its own Climate Emergency policy. First, nearly all of the money in the £19 million proposed to be spent on Climate over 4 years is money which was already committed before the Citizens Assembly made its report to the Council. Only about £550,000 out of the £19 million is additional funds, and only this can be considered a financial response to the Citizens Assembly report.  £19 Million on the Climate Emergency is a very small proportion of the City’s capital and revenue budgets, over 4 years: £18m is 4.5% of the capital budget and the other £1m is only 1% of the revenue budget.

“Within the Budget and Strategy consultation, achieving a Zero Carbon Oxford is 4th in the set of key City Council priorities NOT top. Greens can take credit for pressing the Council to adopt its Climate Emergency policy last January. But, now, the City Council needs to shift money towards Climate policies and away from increasing car parking in particular.”

Cherwell has been unable to reproduce the precise calculations and estimates made by Dr Dawe, but can confirm that a number of existing budget commitments appear to have been misrepresented as responses to the recent Citizens’ Assembly. A recently published (December 2019) budget report includes a section titled “In response to the Citizens’ Assembly the Council has initiated work in the following areas”, which lists work on the Zero Emissions Zone. However, the zone had been proposed as early as July 2017.

In the same section, the budget makes the claim that the council has “Included an additional £1.040 million of revenue spend over the next four years in addition to an existing £18 million of capital expenditure over the same period [in combating climate change]”. In contrast, a statement by Tom Hayes, Oxford City Councillor, made during the announcement of the Council’s new budget, states that “We’ve listened to the Assembly and our brand new climate emergency budget acts on its findings by providing at least £18m of new money to the City Council’s zero-carbon mission, plus a further £1m of new money to ensure that we deliver on those investments”. The second statement implies heavily that the Council would be making an extra £19 million available, while the statement made in the budget makes it clear that £18 million had been committed in advance of the report by Oxford Citizens’ Assembly.

Responding to a request for comment, Tom Hayes dismissed Green Party allegations as unwelcome politicking, and expressed dismay at the claims: “To be honest, this baseless allegation is why politics turns people off. Our climate emergency budget is literally there in black and white, so the Green Party either hasn’t read the report on which they are making claims or they don’t want to understand the facts.

“So far parties have played their part in tackling the climate emergency. I’m disappointed that the Green Party are trying to score political points instead of trying to play a more constructive role, and I have to wonder about the role of the upcoming local elections in their change of tack. Let’s stop electioneering until May when it needs to happen, spend the next few months making important climate-related decisions, and truly treat our climate emergency like an emergency.

“The Climate Emergency Budget is out to consultation and asks the public for their views. Our Labour and Co-operative city council has committed over £1 million of new operational funding and £18 million of new capital investment to address the climate emergency. This new money is on top of £90 million of ongoing investment to tackle the climate emergency in Oxford and countywide. Oxford City Council will be a net zero council from the end of this year and we’re funding the UK’s first Zero Emission Zone here in Oxford, to be introduced at the end of this year. We’re acting quickly and meaningfully because the situation demands it.

“We’re not acting from a standing start. This is about us adjusting our ambition significantly upwards and putting the initial steps in place precisely because we were told to by the Citizens’ Assembly set up by the Labour Party. 

“For the Green Party, 2020 is a crunch year. For the fourth election in a row, we woke up to a Tory government and this time, the Tories won their biggest majority since Thatcher. Our Labour city council has beaten the odds and protected our public and environment because we’ve been focused, creative, and other parties have more or less been constructive critics. But now the Greens propose to abandon their scrutinising role to baselessly attack the greenest council in the country. I don’t know another council that does as much as Oxford to tackle our climate crisis and we need real scrutiny to go further and faster, not petty party political point scoring.

“I’m also disappointed as a progressive by the baseless Green allegation. The Greens are part of a wider left which should work together to protect our people and planet against the Tories. Instead they’re forcing the left to fight itself on spurious grounds, not the Tories who are the real threat.”

“Where do we go from here? I hope the Greens create a clear and consistent vision, like the Labour Council. I also hope they realise that a responsible approach to tackling climate change has to be based on a just transition. Central to this has to be a meaningful engagement with trade unions and the workers they represent. There’s no climate justice without workers’ justice. Sadly, Green representatives decided to throw these principles out the window with repeated attacks on trade unions during the campaign. It shouldn’t need explaining as to why millions of workers coming together to improve their lives is a crucial thing.”

In September 2019, Oxford became the first city in the UK to host a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change. 50 residents were selected randomly selected through a stratified process, such that the selected group was an accurate representation of the population of Oxford. The group convened twice and, following the advice of experts, made a number of recommendations on climate strategies for local government. These included a recommendation that Oxford achieve carbon neutrality before the national target of 2050.

Although the Green Party made a number of criticisms of the Council’s climate strategy, it also lauded a number of initiatives. These include green energy contracts and offsets, and the energy superhub, the world’s largest hybrid battery system.