Another attack on local democracy?

DEADLINE Friday 19th February, 11.45pm

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NEW - Guardian article:

Divestment campaigners are worried that the government's current consultation on local authority pensions investment contains a significant attack on local democracy and ethical investment.

The main purpose of the proposed new rules will be to require local authorities to be more cost-effective by pooling their pension funds in larger groupings. But within the consultation are explicit restrictions on local authority ethical investment decisions. The main intent appears to be preventing boycotts of companies operating within the illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Divestment from the UK arms industry would also be forbidden: "using pensions and procurement policies to pursue boycotts, divestments and sanctions against foreign nations and the UK defence industry are inappropriate" (Research in 2007 revealed local council pension funds to have over £300 million invested in BAE alone).

It is acknowledged that local authorities may have regard to "environmental, social and corporate governance matters". But when the government is seeking to restrict local authorities' investment choices to prevent disinvestment in some areas, it is hard to be confident that restrictions on fossil fuel divestment will not follow within guidance (as yet unpublished). If local authorities have to stick to central government policy and invest in UK arms companies, will government be any keener to allow them to divest from fracking? New regulations would give the Secretary of State the power to intervene if a local authority is deemed not to be following government guidance.

It has been calculated that local authorities' pension funds have altogether £14 billion invested into fossil fuel companies. Under pressure from local campaigns, some have taken the first steps towards divestment. Oxford council will make no further direct investments in fossil fuel companies. South Yorkshire pension fund committed to divest from coal and tar sands companies, Haringey to divest from coal and invest a third of its funds in a low-carbon fund, and neighbouring Hackney are reviewing their fossil fuel investments. As global divestment campaigning has now led to over 500 institutions divesting, fully or partially, from fossil fuels, many more councils are expected to join these.

Alongside this, local councils can make positive investment decisions, for example in low carbon infrastructure such as locally owned renewable energy or public transport - divest to re-invest.

But will new restrictions put a brake on this?

The government's consultation states that in formulating their policies on investment and environmental, social and corporate governance matters, local authorities' "predominant concern should be the pursuit of a financial return on their investments". As Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, stated last year, the financial system has not responded adequately to threats posed by climate change, such as stranded assets in unburnable fossil fuels (the 'carbon bubble') partly because such risks are seen to be in a future beyond the normal business (and political) cycle. If any investments are obliged to take account of these long-term risks, it should be pension funds.

Take action

The consultation is open until 19 February.

Several organisations have put together a joint e-action to allow you to submit a quick response.

If you are able to spend a few minutes writing a response to the consultation in your own words (send to stressing the importance of democratic investment decisions made locally on ethical grounds in relation to fossil fuels as well as human rights, arms trade, and other issues of concern, this would have greater weight.

Please share widely with friends and networks - particularly those whose own pensions will be affected.

Further restrictions

As well as restricting investment decisions, the government is apparently set to ban local authorities from boycotting unethical companies when purchasing goods and services. "Under the plan all publicly funded institutions will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank."

Why do we say this is 'another' attack on local democracy?

The government's localism rhetoric seems to be wearing thin when councils fail to endorse fracking in their area. David Cameron gave reassurances last summer that "decisions must be made by local authorities in the proper way, under the planning regime we have," but a few months later the Secretary of State announced that he was prepared to overrule Lancashire council on fracking. And a recently leaked letter revealed plans to remove decision-making powers from local councils, putting them in the hands of planning inspectors instead.

This follows previous measures to fast-track fracking planning applications. These are in stark contrast to restrictions placed on local authorities to make it much more difficult for them to approve onshore wind. It seems that only one of these industries is deemed 'in the national interest' - unfortunately it is the one which is a threat to our climate.

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