What is the council doing to tackle the Climate Crisis?

Councillor Lisa Mulherin is Leeds City Council’s Executive member with responsibility for Climate Change, Transport and Sustainable Development and it’s clear that she relishes this new role when we met at Leeds Civic Hall.

I started by asking her how declaring a Climate Emergency in March 2019 had affected the Council. Cllr Mulherin talked me through work over the last year including holding the ‘big conversation’ with residents and the creation of her current role following the local elections in May. She explained how every member of the Executive board now has a responsibility for Climate change and how every decision making report of the council now has a section on climate emergency and what impact the decision that is being made has, whether it’s positive or negative and if it’s negative, what is going to be done about that.

A report to the January Executive Board looked at the measures necessary to make Leeds a zero carbon city, and the Council’s role in that. But Cllr Mulherin stressed that Leeds wasn’t starting from standing start, the Council has been involved in the Leeds Climate Commission for several years alongside the University of Leeds, business and the third sector.

Leeds has the largest electric vehicle fleet of any local authority and is developing initiatives such as the district heating scheme known as PIPES. This uses heat generated by the waste incinerator at Cross Green and it heat Council buildings in the city centre as well as 2,000 council homes. This will reduce the Council’s carbon footprint and tenants’ energy bills.

With Leeds regularly gridlocked, I asked how the Council can help people move away from using cars everyday.

“What we are doing, and part of the issue with gridlock at the moment is some of the work that is enabling this, is giving buses priority. Rather than private cars keeping a bus stuck in traffic, buses (will) have their own lane, and gateways where they will have priority to get through and cut through traffic.”

She continued that they are “taking traffic, apart from buses, out of City Square over next two years. Traffic will also come out of Neville Street, which you probably know is the most polluted street in Leeds, again making that bus and cycle only, which will make a huge difference to that gateway from South Leeds into the city centre.”

“I think we have to have improvements in place to public transport so people can say they have got an alternative. We are still looking for funding for a mass transit system. We are the biggest city in Western Europe without a mass transit system as Boris kept telling everyone during the election campaign, so we’re holding him to that and reminding him of what he had to say and what was in the Conservative Party manifesto and they need to now back that up with some funding and some real investment in Leeds.”

Moving on to the Clean Air Zone, I asked how it would benefit residents in South Leeds which has been left out of the charging zone.

“Buses are already making the transition to electric vehicles, and we’ve put a lot of investment into supporting taxis and private hire cars to make the transition and that’s going really well. Many of them are outside the zone, but they need to cross the zone for business purposes. That does mean that the benefit goes to areas that are outside the zone.”

Cllr Mulherin also pointed to the electric vehicle trialling scheme that we reported on last month, whereby business can try out an electric vehicle free for two months before making their decision whether to invest.

Aviation puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so I asked Cllr Mulherin where the council stood on the planned expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport.

She explained that the Council is clear that the expansion of aviation with current aircraft is incompatible with tackling the Climate Emergency, but their influence was limited by outdated national planning guidance.

“(We are) asking the Government to include aviation in the national carbon reduction targets. That would do a number of things: all local airports would be operating on a level playing field, rather than competing against each and we need the government to also look at how you get the regional balance better. The other thing it would do is get investment in research for cleaner technology and put pressure on the other G7 countries, where the big economic decisions get made.”

Staying with transport we moved onto HS2, the new high speed rail line. Cllr Mulkherin explained that the Council was waiting to see more information and designs on the planned viaduct through South Leeds and what mitigation there would be.

“The very clear thing is that we don’t want (the viaduct) to affect communities adversely. We had no detail, no drawings of what it might look like so we are pushing them for more detail now that they have the funding” she said.

She was very clear that the new HS2 station that will be south of the river, but linked to the existing station should not “turn its back on the South Leeds community.”

“It’s actually such a short distance (from south Leeds) into the employment and educational opportunities in the city centre, we ought to be able to make that a nice attractive route to walk or cycle. Linking the new green space in the developments at Tetley’s and Temple, with the historic buildings and the new city park – there’s great potential for making that work really well for people.”

I asked whether she supports the school strikes that had prompted the Council to declare a Climate Emergency last year.

“We were asked about this at the secondary school Youth Summit last month. Cllr Fiona Venner (Executive member for children and families) said Yes we want young people to be actively engaged in making their world better, but we also believe it’s really important for them to be engaged in their education. So as a Council we can’t support people missing school.”

But Cllr Mulherin is enthusiastic about the role children can and are playing. She’s keen to “enable them to actually be making a difference and feel it’s not something just to be worried about, but there is something practical I can do.”

She cites a new top tips guide with suggestion for children to challenge at their school, at home, or their youth club, such as starting a uniform bank at school to reduce waste and save money.

Schools will also be trialling meat-free Mondays where children can test out different types of food.

“All schools already have a meat free option every day, but on Mondays none of the options will include meat products. Hopefully that will encourage families also to try a meat free diet at home.”

Summing up, Cllr Mulherin told me: “There is lots to do, and lots happening, but I think we’ve made a good start.”