Brighton and Hove News » Green councilor attacks pension bosses over fossil fuel stakes

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A green Brighton councilor has urged East Sussex County Council to halt its fossil fuel investments.

Elaine Hills, who represents Hanover and Elm Grove Borough, told Borough Councilors that Brighton and Hove City Council had called for an end to fossil fuel investment three times since 2017.

The last request was made about six weeks ago when Council members supported the signing of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Councilor Hills spoke this week because East Sussex County Council administers pensions for staff at Brighton and Hove City Council and several other councils and public bodies.

Speaking at a full council meeting in Lewes yesterday (Tuesday March 22), she said Brighton and Hove City Council staff had paid 32 per cent of the fund’s dues.

But the council has no political representatives on the pension investment committee and no way to hold the fund accountable, she said.

In a written query, Councilor Hills said Hastings Borough Council and Lewes District Council had asked the pension fund to move away from fossil fuels.

So are Lewes, Peacehaven and Bexhill councillors, she said, as are union Unison, Green Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas and Conservative Lewes MP Maria Caulfield.

Some 1,500 organizations worldwide have divested $39 trillion from fossil fuels, including six UK pension funds, she added.

With only 0.5 percent of the fund’s investments going into fossil fuels, Councilor Hills said a public commitment to divest poses “no financial risk.”

She said: “By making such a public commitment, the fund would send a strong signal to policymakers to get serious about addressing the climate emergency, which requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

“Given the facts above, why does the East Sussex Pension Fund continue to deny calls for it to publicly commit to fully moving away from fossil fuels in the next five years?”

Conservative councilman Gerard Fox, chairman of the pensions committee, said the fund’s leadership is not political.

He said: “There is no employer representation on the fund’s investment committee, not even East Sussex.

“The board of the fund has employers’ representatives – and Brighton and Hove City Council has one seat.

Council member Elaine Hills

“Brighton and Hove City Council does not represent its system members. The interests of their policyholders are looked after by the quasi-trustees of the fund on the committee.”

Councilor Fox said East Sussex councilors made up the committee as it is the managing authority, one of 89 in England.

He added: “I really don’t see why Brighton and Hove, one of 130 employers in the fund, should sit on the investment committee when no other employer does.”

In response to the written question, Councilor Fox said the fund’s Responsible Investment Principles statement was against a “blanket divestment” of any sector as it was not “effective management” for its retirees.

Councilor Fox added: “Removing a fossil fuel company from the fund does not change real carbon emissions as it does not reduce global demand for those fossil fuels.

“Instead, it shifts the problem elsewhere — either to an investor who is less climate-aware, or to gain market share from national oil companies, which are less transparent about their operations and have, on average, a higher carbon footprint per unit of fuel than listed fossil fuels companies.”

He said the pension fund believes that, as a shareholder, it has greater influence over high-carbon companies.

Outside County Hall in Lewes, activists from Divest East Sussex held a “sham marriage” between East Sussex County Council and fossil fuels on Tuesday.

Brighton and Hove City Council officials have previously been asked to produce a report examining whether the council could withdraw from the East Sussex scheme.

The report was to be presented at the Policy and Resources Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 24.

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