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Climate a top Council priority: Cabinet member Dagnall outlines city's plans

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Sam Wakeling's proposal for CycleSheffield to redesign Division Street

A series of recent protests, organised by groups including YouthStrike4Climate and Sheffield Green Parents, have called for Sheffield City Council to do more on climate breakdown.

In an interview with Now Then, Cabinet Member for Climate Change Lewis Dagnall has outlined the Council's policy plans, as well as his response to the demonstrations.

"I thought it was a really constructive and positive demonstration of feeling," he said, in response to the Extinction Rebellion 'die-in' on the steps of the Town Hall on 15 May.

"What I thought was really good of them yesterday is that they put on this rally with the purpose of putting climate change at the top of the agenda for the coming municipal year of the Council."

We are prepared to bring the date forward to 2030 if that's what we need to do

"It coincides with what we've agreed as a group," he continued. "For us, it's one of our number one priorities for the year."

We asked when the target date for the city to become carbon neutral, which was set at 2050 in February, would be changed to 2030 as pledged in Labour's local election manifesto.

"We iterated that carbon neutrality by 2050 is the basic aim we need to achieve," Dagnall said. "But we wanted to go away, commission research, and find out what our concrete obligations are if we're going to meet the IPCC's deadlines.

"We are prepared to bring the date forward to 2030 if that's what we need to do. This side of the summer - May, June, July - we're going to be reporting back."

One of the central demands of Extinction Rebellion is the establishment of citizens' assemblies at a national and local level to inform policymaking on climate breakdown.

In April, the Labour-controlled Oxford City Council announced they would be the UK's first local authority to establish an assembly. It will be formed of a representative sample of Oxford residents.

"It's hard to transfuse participatory democracy into a system that is so rigidly based around representative democracy, but I think we need to start thinking about it," said Dagnall, when we asked if Sheffield City Council would set up a similar assembly.

"Climate change is an issue where we need to find a way of bringing the whole city together. It's something where I want to sit down with Extinction Rebellion and work out what it would look like. I'm very open to being persuaded on it."

Hopefully with a change of government we won't have the same zero-sum choices

However he expressed concerns that an assembly would take up resources that could be used on practical measures to tackle climate breakdown.

"If I have a zero-sum choice between spending part of our Council budget on working out concrete steps on climate change or setting up a citizens' assembly, I'd be minded to do the concrete steps," he said. "Hopefully with a change of government we won't have the same zero-sum choices."

Last year a 'Safe School Streets for Sheffield' petition, which called for road closures outside schools at pick-up and drop-off times, was signed by 1,518 people.

After a meeting with Dagnall's predecessor on transport Cllr Jack Scott was postponed, campaign organiser Graham Turnbull was told by Dagnall's office on 17 April that a meeting was "not necessary at the present time."

On air quality, I think we are rising to the challenge

"We have got a team working on it and scoping out the options, and given the regulatory framework it's not a straightforward task," said Dagnall, when we asked why he hadn't met the Clean Air For Sheffield group. He also said the timing around the local elections made arranging a meeting difficult.

He said: "When we're at a point where there's a meaningful conversation to have, we'll absolutely sit down with the group and talk about it."

Dagnall said that regulations from central government made it difficult for local authorities outside London to implement a School Streets project.

"I love what they're doing on school streets in London, installing the Automatic Numberplate Recognition cameras and closing down streets during school opening and closing," he said. "We don't have that power to do that outside of London.

"We've got a team of officers who are seriously looking at what we can do with school streets. But under the powers we have as a non-London council, we'd have to get a guy to go out and close a gate every morning."

Hackney and Southwark are among the London boroughs who are trialling road closure schemes.

"We find it incredibly frustrating," Dagnall continued. "It should be very simple to trial these things. But the bureaucratic way that local authorities are regulated means that your local councillors can't decide to try things like this as easily as those in London can."

A few weeks ago, designer Sam Wakeling's proposal to redesign Division Street and close it off to traffic went viral on social media.

We would like to close school streets during drop-off and pick-up times

Dagnall said that as part of the Heart of the City II project, the Council was already creating more space for cyclists and pedestrians in the city centre, and that to see a similar scheme at Division Street would be "fantastic."

"We're completely open to ideas like that," he said. "I saw it myself and I thought it looked really interesting. It looks like a thing we would really like to do if we had the money to do it. Under austerity, it's a question of priorities and how we should fit it in."

Dagnall pointed to Portobello Street, which he says the Council are redesigning to be a "better cycling and walking route", linking up with the University of Sheffield's pedestrianised campus around The Diamond.

We asked Cllr Dagnall about the ten campaign outcomes of the newly-formed Sheffield Green Parents group, who held a huge protest march through the city centre on 12 May.

"I think we're heading in the same direction on all of those [outcomes]," he said. "It's just a question of pace and ability. We would like to close school streets during drop-off and pick-up times. That's an example where we share a common intention with a group like this."

Sheffield Green Parents have called for a public plan to improve air quality.

"On air quality, I think we are rising to the challenge," Dagnall said. "We've got the 'no idling' signs up as a deterrent, and we send out people to stop idling. Legally we can't issue an on-the-spot fine."

"I absolutely understand that people are rightly ambitious to sort these problems out as quickly as possible," he continued. "It would be helpful to get that ambition directed also at the government, which is holding us as a Council back."

I don't think these public transport systems work as a free market

Dagnall told us that a consultation on introducing a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) would open in the next few weeks, after approval was granted by the Department for Transport.

Pending the outcome of the consultation, the CAZ would be introduced within the inner ring road in early 2021, and would see the most polluting vehicles charged for entering the city centre. Private cars will not be included in the scheme.

The cabinet member pointed out that some of the group's demands, such as local schools adding climate breakdown to the curriculum and adopting a planetary health diet for school meals, fall outside the remit of the Council.

We also asked Cllr Dagnall about plans to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), which was included in Labour's 2018 local election manifesto but disappeared from this year's manifesto.

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A WPL would see city centre businesses pay a levy on their workplace parking, with the revenue invested into public transport. In Nottingham, a WPL scheme has partly funded a new tram line.

"We support it in principle," said Dagnall. "Our previous manifesto commitment was to scope it out and work out whether it would work. The evidence that came back, and our feeling about it, is that we're not 100% sure it's the top priority for achieving the change we need."

The cabinet member said that Nottingham has a bigger commercial sector in the city centre, and that Sheffield has a different "spatial pattern" to its economy, with a smaller city centre and more jobs in Don Valley and at Meadowhall.

"It's still something we'd actively consider, but it's that question of priorities. A lot of our officer time has been put into developing the Clean Air Zone."

Dagnall said that he hoped the recently agreed devolution deal for the Sheffield City Region would see further action on bus franchising. "It's one of the objectives we want to see fulfilled," he said. "I don't think these public transport systems work as a free market," he added.

Sam Gregory

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