How and why South Tyneside is getting greener
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire, because it is”.
The powerful words of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, which helped thrust climate change into the global spotlight.
According to a recent UN report, there is just over a decade left to limit irreversible damage to the environment.
In recent months, the issue has spilled out onto UK streets with widespread protests calling for action.
As the debate rages on, it has also trickled down to council chambers in the form of ‘climate emergencies’.
In July 2019, South Tyneside Council joined a long list of North East authorities making a formal pledge to reduce carbon emissions.
This included the council becoming carbon-neutral by 2030 and exploring new projects to boost its green credentials.
While critics including the local Green Party have called for earlier targets, Labour leaders on South Tyneside Council have said the move was realistic.
In coming months, the council plans to develop a bespoke climate strategy and host a climate change summit to flesh out its approach to climate concerns.
Ahead of the changes, we chatted to cabinet member for Area Management and Community Safety, Coun Joan Atkinson, who will be leading on the council’s green priorities.
The senior councillor said national debates around climate change can create a danger of public “confusion” due to the range of viewpoints and messages.
Although many international factors around climate change are out of the council’s control, she explained, everyone has a part to play to reduce carbon emissions.
“I think education is probably one of the biggest challenges as a country we have to overcome in terms of understanding how we can play a part towards making things more sustainable and giving our children and grandchildren a more sustainable future,” she said.
“We need to understand what more can be done from a national level and global level politically to understand our contribution on a personal level, council level and country level.”
Going Green: South Tyneside Council projects
In recent years, several projects have been developed to reduce the council’s carbon footprint – from renewable energy to sustainable travel.
According to the council, the schemes have helped to reduce carbon emissions in South Tyneside by around 48% since 2014/15.
From eco-friendly street lighting to a £15 million investment into flood prevention work, council bosses say they have directed resources to make a difference.
Currently, larger leisure facilities benefit from combined heat and power systems – a process using waste heat to generate electrical power.
An investment of £1.5 million has resulted in new LED lanterns on street lanterns with 26% completed and the rest to be considered for conversion in coming years.
Around £17million has also been secured over the last eight years for energy-saving works on council homes in a bid to tackle fuel poverty, including solar panels.
And last year alone, around 200 homes benefited from cavity wall and loft insulation while roof replacements were carried out at over 500 homes.
Looking forward, major projects are planned to cut waste in a drive towards the 2030 target.
This includes a new recycling station at Middlefields depot which aims to handle 12,000 tonnes of blue bin materials.
The scheme, taking place over the next year, will save 140,000 litres of fuel a year and remove 400 tonnes of CO2.
The roof space will also be used for solar panels with water recycled from the roof to supply mechanical brushes – reducing the council’s water demand.
Other aspects of the green agenda include boosting the use of electric vehicle charging stations, increasing tree canopy coverage and reducing journey times through transport improvements.
South Tyneside is also home to the North East’s first ‘carbon negative’ social housing development in Sinclair Meadows, South Shields.
The £3.1million scheme saw 42 properties built in 2012 to ‘level six’ of the government code for sustainable homes -with solar panels, extra insulation, and biomass heating systems.
Coun Atkinson added that some schemes are “easy fixes” while others “require investment, initiative and commitment.”
This includes drawing power from the River Tyne to heat 11 council buildings in Jarrow’s ‘Viking Energy Network’ – a project currently under development.
A new 900kW wind turbine is also planned for the Middlefields site to cut energy costs.
Carbon-neutral by 2030?
Although many councils across the UK have committed to 2030 targets, some activist groups have said this fails to match the urgency of the climate crisis.
In South Tyneside, council bosses were similarly criticised for failing to commit to a date to make the whole of the borough carbon-neutral.
Original proposals from Green Party councillor, David Francis, included the council becoming carbon-neutral by 2023 and for the borough to follow by 2030.
At the meeting, the Labour-controlled authority amended the motion removing the borough-wide pledge.
For Coun Joan Atkinson, making the whole of South Tyneside carbon-neutral is reliant on key partners and industries in the borough.
“We made the climate emergency based on some knowledge but we think there’s a lot more to find out, we didn’t want to be unrealistic,” she said.
“We have to recognise as a council that we’re only a small part of the energy use that goes into this borough, we have some manufacturers and producers here.
“That’s a good thing, we need businesses and places for people to work and it’s having those conversations, do those businesses and producers do their own thing?
“How can we promise that they will be in the same place the council aim to be 2030?
“What we can do is influence, support and listen and enable, if we can, for them to be on the same track that we aim to be on by 2030, which is carbon-neutral.”
She added: “We have taken an early view that 2030 is an ambitious but achievable deadline.
“We spoke to experts, it’s not just a figure plucked out of the air, it’s officers, lead members and members who are thinking about the implications of this and taking this very seriously.
“Thinking about and what we can achieve as a council and what can we achieve for the whole of the borough.”
The council boss said the climate emergency pledge could help shape the borough going forward.
This could include influencing housing developers to meet eco-friendly standards and extra electric vehicle charging points on developments.
Other ideas include individuals or businesses signing up to a council eco-pledge.
For Coun Atkinson, understanding local challenges is key to delivering results.
“This is a moment in time,” she said.
“We have recognised and stated that the evidence is to a point where we have to take bold decisions, however we can’t make reckless decisions.
“For me, we can make a bold decision in two or three years time building on what we have already said.
“There is nothing stopping us saying this is what we have achieved and the influence we have had [and] we can get the whole of the borough to think about being carbon-neutral.”
Going forward, the council plan to have a “scoping exercise” to help develop their new climate strategy.
Ideas around tackling idling cars, green spaces, transport, energy use and “influencing others in South Tyneside and beyond” are expected to be on the table.
Although details of the climate summit event are currently under wraps, a range of experts are expected to take part.
Government have already committed to a ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas target of 2050.
But Coun Atkinson said ministers need to do more by developing strategic policies and providing more funding.
This including actions to reduce over packaging, investment into sustainable transport and more education.
“We need government to listen to pressure groups, Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have done a good job raising awareness,” she said.
“But it’s the government as well as us who have to act and listen, and ask what more can we do.
“We need government to put its money where its mouth is, if they make claims or come to a strategic decision then actually back it up with funding to be able to do it.
“Rather than passing the responsibility on, give us the legislation and funding available to enable it to happen. We have to have that.”
‘Leading by example’
Coun Atkinson added: “Climate change is something which our children in schools will be able to hold us to account for and we should hold ourselves to account as a council.
“To achieve that ambition of carbon-neutral by 2030 as a council we will do all we can given sometimes the pressures we face from outside of our control and the harsh funding regime that councils are operating under.
“I think we will do all we can to encourage individuals, families and organisations to do their bit.
“For me, that is the council’s role, leading by example and making information available so they can make informed choices.”