A CONSERVATIVE-led local authority which declared a climate change emergency has had its environmental ambitions called into question amid accusations of ignoring residents and acting disgracefully towards the group it set up to tackle carbon emissions before axing it completely.

In the week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson described climate change as the most “enduring threat” to future generations if action was not taken, Conservative-led Darlington Borough Council has been condemned for disbanding a climate change working group it established and allegedly maintaining secrecy over what steps it is taking.

Consternation erupted among campaigners and opposition councillors in July 2019, when the authority’s leadership declared a climate emergency, but limited its target to making Darlington Borough Council carbon neutral by 2050, rather than the borough of Darlington carbon neutral by 2030, as had been proposed.

As part of the move, the Tory administration set up a cross-party working group to develop an action plan and milestones to achieve carbon neutral status. However, members of the seemingly non-political group said the council’s leadership had since systematically undermined its chairman, veteran Conservative councillor and environmentalist Gerald Lee, cut meetings and deprived the group of information, leading Cllr Lee to resign, a request that went unanswered by the council’s leaders for a week.

Cllr Lee has declined to comment on his resignation. Nevertheless, members of the group said it had set out to develop ideas and challenge the council’s officers to embrace carbon cutting initiatives before being told, without explanation, that it must limit itself to monitoring the council’s progress.

The group was told senior council officers were leading the development of carbon cutting ideas, details about which could not be shared.

Members of the group have also claimed they were even prevented from meeting the climate change champions that the authority set up in each of its departments. 

Councillor Matthew Snedker, a member of the group, said while Cllr Lee had been “treated shockingly by his own party”, the action plan the council approved developing some 17 months ago was still not ready for implementation and none of the agreed milestones were in place.

A full meeting of the council next week will hear calls to reinstate the group and start setting an example to the borough’s residents and traders over climate change. 

Kendra Ullyart, coordinator of Darlington Friends of the Earth, said; “We are in an emergency and want action now. We have demonstrated how quickly we can respond during this current pandemic and ask for the same urgent response to prevent climate breakdown.

“We were delighted the group set itself the challenge of looking outwards, to see how policy changes by the council could have the greatest benefit for residents now and in the future, to improve quality of life as well as challenging the council’s own behaviour, but sadly it seems that those in charge didn’t like this kind of ambitious pressure coming from within.

“This town aspires to be ‘Ingenious Darlington’, we urge our council to reinstate the group, allowing it to meet as before, so they can continue to come up with ambitious  new ways to tackle the emergency which will celebrate the ingenuity of Darlingtonians.” 

Paul Foster, of Darlington Climate Action, said the council should set up a ‘Citizens Assembly’ to give residents a voice on the issue. He said: “We wrote to the council asking to be involved in climate discussions, but were told our contribution wasn’t required at this time.”

Responding to the claims, the authority’s leader, Councillor Heather Scott, said she was taking the issue of climate change “extremely seriously” and would be attending a national conference in January with the climate change officer the council had appointed. She said the working group was only set to up establish a plan, which had been implemented. Cllr Scott said the authority had strengthened its ambitions by making every cabinet member responsible for ensuring climate change was taken into account in every decision the council made.

Cllr Scott added the working group had been disbanded as, due to resignations, it was no longer a cross-party body and dismissed suggestions the working group had been a sop. The council leader said claims Cllr Lee had been treated badly were “personal opinions”.

She said any residents who wanted to contribute climate change action suggestions could contact their ward councillors. Cllr Scott said: “We have got to start doing things rather than talking about it.”