Kent County Council in fresh pensions row over investment in fossil fuels
PUBLISHED: 08:40 24 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 24 September 2015
Campaigners have revealed how much cash KCC invests in the sector and demands it withdraws
Kent County Council’s finance chief John Simmonds says he’s ‘unapologetic’ after it emerged the local authority’s pension fund invests hundreds of millions of pounds in the fossil fuel industry.
The figure – according to research from green campaign groups Friends of the Earth, 350.org and Platform – sits at £324 million which is almost eight per cent of KCC’s total pension pot investments.
The money is that from local authority workers who pay into its pension fund and which, in turn, are invested in various industries with a view to generating a return.
But Cllr Simmonds – KCC’s deputy leader and cabinet member for finance and procurement – says that fossil fuels are not only a perfectly good place to park the cash, but he’d be failing in his duty if funds weren’t invested in the sector.
He told Kentnews: “Our prime responsibility is to get the best possible return for those who invest in the pension fund, and who will need it when they retire. There is nothing illegal about investing in fossil fuels, so I don’t think we should feel bad about this.”
Campaigners against investing in fossil fuels disagree, with Brenda Pollack, who works for Friends of the Earth taking aim at the council.
She said: “Many people working for councils and schools across Kent will be concerned to learn that their future is tied up with such a risky and polluting industry.
“There are financial risks in investing in fossil fuel funds as governments start taking action to avoid climate change. It is the right decision both financially and ethically for Kent County Council to divest as soon as possible.”
The council invests money in the pension fund for a range of other organisations as well, with other local councils as well as schools across the county seeing their cash distributed through the fund.
It isn’t the first time the council’s pension fund decisions have been put under the spotlight, though.
The council’s public health expert Marian Gibbon resigned last year in protest due to KCC’s pension pot investing in tobacco companies.
Cllr Simmonds said that, like tobacco, the council had to get a return for people who would rely on it.
He told Kentnews: “My priority will always be to get a strong income stream. The whole principle of a pension fund is to ensure the capital value of the fund is sustained, while making payments to those who rely on it to live. I never heard a word of protest from members of the pension fund about investing in tobacco, and I doubt I’ll hear one about this.”
One woman who isn’t happy about the investment is Fran Long.
Ms Long – a member of the Friends of the Earth in Tonbridge and Malling – has started an online petition calling on KCC to rethink its investment approach.
She said: “Most fund members and taxpayers won’t be happy to learn that their money is funding climate change. As local residents we are calling on the council to stand on the right side of history and give up investing in fossil fuels.
“The council should reinvest this money into building new homes, clean renewable energy or public transport.”
It’s not a view which Cllr Simmonds agrees with, pointing to the fact that when most people drive to work, or put the heating on, most are making use of fossil fuels.
He said: “If every pressure group had its way, there’d be nothing left to invest in. Investments in oil and gas often pay good dividends, and tend to grow at a steady rate, so it has been good for the pension fund to allocate cash to them for our members.
“If we weren’t able to keep growing the fund, there would be serious problems, and in fact, if KCC couldn’t afford to fund payments, it would be the taxpayer that had to pick up the tab. It’s our responsibility to ensure it keeps growing, so I’m unapologetic about investing in this sector.”
South east Green MEP Keith Taylor says that he believes the information will cause outrage from pension contributors who weren’t aware their cash is being pumped into the sector.
He said: “There will be outrage up and down the country today as people find out that their money is being invested into fossil fuels which our hugely damaging to the climate and our environment.
“The money should be immediately reinvested into affordable housing and clean energy technologies.”