Eco 2021: Once a fringe issue, how Camden came to declare a climate emergency

Council must consider the environmental impact on every decision it takes

Monday, 11th January 2021 — By Richard Osley

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Climate change campaigners outside the Crowndale Centre on the night Camden declared a climate emergency

IT may be hard to believe now, but it wasn’t that long ago that environ­mental issues would never really be seen on the front pages of newspapers.

Alongside the crises in housing and mental health, it could be said only persistence by campaigners – and a sudden glaring realisation ­by politicians and editors that we all have a stake in what happens next – has helped the environment rise up the agenda.

When Camden Council appointed its first eco-champion back in 2006, the role was seen almost like a novelty.

A former BBC journalist, Alexis Rowell was a pugnacious character who rubbed some people up the wrong way because he felt there was not time for petty Town Hall politics; for being a know-it-all about climate change, he was nicknamed the “Ego” champion by a few of his opponents.

He runs a permaculture farm in France now and might not remember how he was mocked for blogging about nut roast recipes or the sighs whenever he brought up rainfall collection devices at planning meetings during his time as a Lib Dem councillor.

Camden’s first ‘eco-champion’ Alexis Rowell

He was not the only one who was trying to change the agenda in Camden. Sian Berry, before she was elected as a Green councillor and later the party’s national co-leader, could be found covering 4×4 cars ­– gas-guzzlers – with fake parking tickets complaining about their emissions.

Again, she was given lots of nicknames based on corny clichés about how you must act and dress if you were interested in green issues. And then there were the environmental groups meeting in small numbers at first, not so interested in party politics but sharing their fears and devising strategies that might get them heard. London’s problem with air pollution was being warned about years ago without much action, yet now everybody wants to know how it will be cleansed.

The Age Of Stupid

From Camden, campaigner Franny Armstrong directed The Age Of Stupid, a film in which the late Pete Postlethwaite starred as a man in 2055 wondering why nobody had done anything to halt the destruction of the earth

. Ms Armstrong also ran the 10:10 campaign urging local authorities, businesses and other organisations to take the lead on reducing carbon emissions by 10 per cent by 2010. Many high profile institutions did get on board but everyone involved in that campaign knew that it could only be a start.

Then there was Tamsin Omond, who had grown up in Belsize Park. She helped to found Climate Rush and was scaling the roof of the House of Commons in protest at the lack of interest among those sitting inside – long before the dramatic interventions of Extinction Rebellion.

Sian Berry ‘ticketing’ gas-guzzlers in 2006

Some campaigners went through the political route in the end – Ms Omond stood in Hampstead and Kilburn as a rebellious independent candidate – others joined protests, but those who kept the faith could afford a wry smile, just for a moment, when Camden finally declared a climate emergency in October 2019.

We may be in a health emergency with the coronavirus pandemic right now, but officially we are also tackling one to save the planet.

All councillors in the chamber that night were rational enough to know they had not found an instant solution to a threat that exists on a global level, but the mood had changed from those days when local authorities were tinkering around the edges as unvarnished deputations asked for greener policies.

With universal support, a motion was passed committing new resources to the battle, and agreeing to look at 17 recommendations drawn up by a citizens’ panel the council had formed.

Camden is rarely shy about saying it was the first to set up such a body; several other councils are now trying something similar and Sir David Attenborough recently said he himself had felt “awakened” by a national version. Behind the warm intentions remains the challenge as to whether what the assembly – a randomly selected panel of 50 residents – asked for, will become a reality.

Tamsin Omond scaled the Houses of Parliament after founding Climate Rush

These suggestions include installing more cycle lanes, planting more trees, fitting solar panels and encouraging people to eat less meat.

The council’s credentials are also tested when green groups come to the council’s meetings and ask about why it continues to use glyphosate weed killer or how far it has got with the divestment of pension investments from fossil fuel companies. If they sound touchy in their response, ruling Labour councillors privately feel their positive efforts on the environment should merit more comment too.

There is always someone more radical coming up, but Camden has followed a call from Extinction Rebellion that night in the chamber to change its constitution so that every decision the Town Hall takes must consider its impact on the climate emergency.

In that week, when the protest group was getting attacked from certain tutting quarters for blockading roads, the council at least heard them out. And that’s what will surely be key for the next stages: collaboration.

You might not believe it from some of their newspaper columns – the parties were given carte blanche to write on climate change in the New Journal this week but couldn’t help one or two partisan swipes – but there is a loose consensus that only working together will work.

And that’s not just between the political parties, but with the groups who grew here in Camden to push “saving the planet” up the agenda.

This week, they took over the New Journal‘s front page. Who knows, if the politicians don’t take their demands – or polite requests – seriously, maybe they will take over their seats in the Town Hall chamber too.


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