‘I can hear Extinction Rebellion banging on our doors now!’ – bid to reuse £100k of climate action cash to boost East Devon businesses is rejected

A bid to boost small businesses in East Devon – by reusing £100,000 of cash earmarked for tackling climate change – has been turned down. 

District council chiefs rejected the request, despite it netting previous support, with one member saying: “I can hear Extinction Rebellion banging on our doors now.”

Councillor Mike Allen has proposed that money from a fund allocated to a climate change action plan be diverted and used for economic development instead.

He had hoped the cash could be used to pay for two new posts in the latter field and his idea had been backed by East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) overview and scrutiny committees.

But the authority’s cabinet scuppered the move at its February meeting.

Cllr Allen, who represents the Honiton St Michael’s ward, said there was a need for a senior commercial officer in East Devon to focus on working with businesses.

He added the role would allow the council to broker the growth of small business units in the area.

It would also make sure there is someone with commercial property experience able to ensure there is inward investment which encourages ways in which business can grow, said Cllr Allen.

He added: “We have lots of small businesses and have people who have been landlocked in terms of available space. They want to expand but simply can’t.

“The reason is they don’t know the best way to do it and there is no mechanism for us to help them as our resources are overstretched.”

The proposal would have seen £100,000 used for two additional posts in the economic development service – reducing the climate change action plan fund from £323,000 to £223,000.

However, Cllr Ian Thomas, portfolio holder for finance, expressed concern the proposal was linked two different aspects of the budget.

He added: “We declared a climate emergency and wanted to put it at the core of everything that we do.

“I’m not comfortable that this proposal comes from the climate change budget and am concerned that this is not supported by the officer teams or the SMT [senior management team].

“I feel we have a mismatch and I think we should refer it back to the service department for a review.

“If the service lead supports these additional staff, then we do have funds in the budget that could be used for this purpose, but it should not be linked to the reduction in the climate change budget.”

Cllr Geoff Jung, portfolio holder for the environment, said: “I cannot approve reducing the climate change budget. It would be the wrong direction for the council.

“We should be serious about the climate change action plan or not – and do you want to expand a department to promote economic growth and take it from the budget for climate change?

“I can hear Extinction Rebellion banging on our doors now.”

Cllr Kevin Blakey, portfolio holder for the economy, added: “As much as I want to see economic growth in the district and it may be that some additional staffing is needed in the future, I don’t think now is the time.

“Funding it should be part of a long-term commercial plan and it should not be coming from the budget from the climate change action plan.”

The cabinet rejected the proposal and recommended a draft budget to full council for approval.

Members also recommended that full council adopts the Climate Change Strategy 2020–2025, which incorporates the action plan.

John Golding, strategic lead for housing, health and environment, said an initial assessment has been made on the cost implications associated with ensuring EDDC becomes carbon neutral by 2040.

He told the meeting that electrification of the council’s fleet of vehicles, sourcing green energy, and investment in air source heat pumps for its council housing stock are among proposals.

EDDC has budgeted for £10,000 to be spent on each of its 4,200 dwellings.

However, Cllr Thomas said that figure might not be enough and – if a £25,000 investment was needed – it would costs more than £100million,.

He said this was ‘a sum larger that we borrowed to buy the whole housing stock in the first place’.

“This shows that we are not even in the right millennium in terms of our funding and, if we are to meet the objectives and aspiration, we will need central government support as we cannot do it under our budgets,” added Cllr Thomas.

Cllr Jung said: “It will cost a lot of money, but we have to get started now and get on top of climate change.”

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