Last month, influential climate experts stressed the crucial role of local authorities in creating a sustainable UK.
Announcing its sixth Carbon Budget – a route map for a fully decarbonised nation – the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said Government, regional agencies and local authorities must work ‘seamlessly’ together to tackle climate change. The committee added: ‘More than half of the emissions cuts needed rely on people and businesses taking up low-carbon solutions – decisions that are made at a local and individual level.’
But how to make this aim reality – and address the gaps in local authority powers, policy and funding identified by the CCC? A coalition of local government organisations, environmental NGOs and academics, backed by around 100 councils, has set out a blueprint for change. Ashden, ADEPT, Friends of the Earth and others are arguing for urgent action to ensure the UK meets its 2050 target for net zero emissions.
Big changes are needed to the way we heat our homes, how we travel and what we eat. This is where local authorities come in, due to their responsibilities in areas like transport, housing and managing green spaces, and their convening power and influence.
Three quarters of councils have declared a climate emergency, so we know they are ready to act. They recognise the importance of a green recovery which can rebuild local economies, and deliver wider benefits such as safe and clean streets, warm and cheap-to-heat homes and better jobs.
But councils are under-funded and under-resourced. To unlock action at the scale and pace needed to address the climate and ecological emergencies, they must be given new powers and funding by central government.
The coalition’s five priorities for action
- Invest more in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure including public transport networks and renewable energy;
- Prioritise and focus support for reskilling and retraining for green jobs so that local authorities can target training where it is needed most;
- Ensure that our homes are fit for the future, by investing more in retrofitting to high energy efficiency standards with social housing a priority, and ensure that councils are able to require zero carbon housing in all new development;
- Make it easy for people to walk, cycle and work remotely by extending funds for active travel and enabling local authorities to permanently allocate dedicated space to walking and cycling; and
- Accelerate tree planting, peatland restoration, the creation of green spaces and other green infrastructure. This must include resourcing for local authorities to maintain existing parks, plant trees and improve access to green.
Barriers to progress
In developing the blueprint, we have drawn extensively on the experience of local authorities as they develop their own climate action plans. They have shared key challenges the Government must tackle as an urgent priority.
First is a shortage of long-term, detailed policy implementation plans. While more Government funding is essential, councils recognise that the private sector will provide much of the investment for the low carbon transition. But to unlock this funding, it is essential that there is long term policy in place. This must go beyond setting a general strategic direction. Detailed implementation plans, including intended regulatory changes, are needed.
Government should also reform national infrastructure investment and the Green Book so that the appraisal of public sector policies, programmes and investments includes the economic costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation. And new government policy must be consistent with net zero goals. For example, the role of planning is critical to creating sustainable and resilient places and is not just a vehicle for delivering volumes of houses, as set out in the recent White Paper.
Finally, a joint local and central government taskforce is needed. Traditionally, councils have had relationships with individual government departments. But climate action demands a holistic approach. The blueprint recommends the setting up of a joint local and central government taskforce, as previously called for by the Local Government Association.
The message from the CCC is clear: ‘Top-down policies go some way to delivering change, but can achieve a far greater impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks.’ Government must do more to embrace a locally-led approach, and create a brighter future for communities across the UK.
Cara Jenkinson is cities Manager at Ashden