Change is in the air

By Heather Jameson | 19 May 2021

COVID is not the only crisis facing the UK. The climate change crisis was with us long before the pandemic hit, and it has not abated. At a recent round table The MJ and the National Audit Office (NAO) gathered some chief executives and senior officers virtually to talk about what they are doing – and what they needed from central government.

One of our NAO colleagues sets the scene. At the end of last year, the NAO published two wide-ranging reports, on how well-placed the Government was to deliver, firstly, its net zero target and, secondly, all its other environmental goals.

‘We weren’t really confident at that point in time that the cross-government arrangements were in place yet to suggest the Government was in a good place to deliver in the next era.’

The NAO recommended more should be done to incorporate local government perspectives into the net zero strategy, and to ensure local government had the right capacity in place. The watchdog’s next report – due to be published in July – will be looking at local government’s role in achieving net zero, and how local and central government are working together.

Most local authorities have declared a climate emergency with targets for reaching net zero. But the next steps – and what that actually means in terms of action – is a mixed picture.

One of our debaters says they have begun work to understand their carbon trajectory and have asked the public their views. ‘Ninety per cent of our respondents agree the Government and local authorities should take a lead in addressing climate change,’ they say. ‘But interestingly 89% thought businesses should also take the lead.’

When it comes to their own responsibility there was a ‘real groundswell of support’, with 84% of people who wanted to make a difference – but that’s not yet translating into behaviour change.

Their council is also introducing a ‘decision impact assessment’, rating the sustainability of all council decisions by a traffic light system. ‘It enables us to really address some of those thorny tensions as we go through decision making.

Another colleague describes the citizen’s assembly they convened to develop a jointly-owned action plan with local people and businesses. But having captured the low hanging fruit ‘we are now having to go into those really difficult paths to reduce carbon emissions,’ they say. ‘We had a study done that [suggests] if we were going to reduce carbon by 68% by 2031, we would have to have an investment of £950m.’

Added to that, there is a further £550m to retrofit council homes, and £100m for schools. They are now trying to work out how to address those ‘chunky’ issues – and to address the skills shortage to do the retrofitting, lining it up with local employment programmes.

Those big ticket figures are familiar to everyone. A third participant suggests they calculated £250m to decarbonise the council’s entire estate, they add: ‘The good news is we need less estate as a result of COVID.’

There are a host of other initiatives happening to try to reach environmental targets. One council is starting to look at what they can do around low carbon food, with an investment strategy being developed.

Several are looking at electric vehicles – although one debater points out they couldn’t procure electric refuse vehicles. ‘We have had to buy very efficient diesel ones, which causes me and members huge anxiety,’ they add.

Another has appointed a scientific adviser to make sure the authority has an evidence-based plan to meet its environmental targets.

Senior level attention matters. One council chief suggests their authority puts its carbon neutrality programme at director level, driven by the deputy leader. The authority has a waste-driven district heating programme and 30% of its fleet is ultra-low emission. It also offers loans to private hire drivers to get them into ultra-low emission or electric vehicles.

‘It makes for a really exciting agenda,’ they say. ‘We really do see it as an opportunity for the council.’

A further guest at the round table talks about biodiversity. ‘We’ve got a real commitment to our wildflower meadows,’ they say. ‘All that is connected to our community engagement…really getting the community to buy into what we are doing at a local level.’

But despite all the good work, one of our roundtable participants says of all climate change declarations and net zero targets: ‘To be honest, they’re politically driven more than science driven.’

Not only politically driven, there is also a whole host of political minefields to navigate. One chief describes a ‘very strong, but small opposition’ to an otherwise popular policy of traffic-free neighbourhoods. ‘We have big debates about carers, and taxis…it’s a real daily dilemma about how much you reinforce your position in order to minimise traffic.’

There are similar dilemmas running across authorities. Someone suggests their corporate plan has climate change running through ‘absolutely everything’. But they ask: ‘How do you engage with social services around their impact? You get into those real world tensions’.

‘When you say “Hey, how about changing the way you travel” there is [a response of] “No, we can’t possibly compromise what we are doing if it means that we might be compromising our safeguarding role”. And that’s an absolutely valid point of view.’

Some areas are working regionally, across local authority boundaries to get ‘wider engagement to make it a whole region effort.’

Someone suggests: ‘I think there are things you can do at scale that single local authorities struggle to do. Local authorities don’t necessarily have the staff or the innovation and the capacity to move it forward.’ Whereas pooling staff adds up to more than the sum of their parts.

The same is true for finance and investment, and for lobbying the Government. ‘Our hands are so often tied by the way in which resources are reaching us,’ we are told. ‘Yet we could do so much more if we had more freedom to manoeuvre, both in terms of cash and resource, finance, but also some of the powers.’

‘What about the idea of devolving regional carbon targets?’ we are asked. ‘It could be devolved to the region, almost like a devolution deal.’

When it comes to what the sector needs to help it work with central government, it is a long list.

Someone kicks off: ‘I think the first thing I would say is that we need cultural change.’ The current system of government handing down ambitions to tackle net zero and trickling down funding is getting us nowhere.

Using retrofitting as an example, we are told: ‘The Treasury had to claw back, as I understand it, £1.5bn from its original commitment because it couldn’t, in a centralised way, get the money out the door in an effective and efficient manner.

‘The narrative then becomes that local government has failed, when in actual fact it was the mechanism by which it was delivered.’

The bigger point is the need for culture shift. ‘There is a need to recognise that local government can be trusted to deliver these things now.’ There is a capacity issue after 10 years of austerity, but: ‘The way I see it, central government, both politically and in terms of civil servants, believe the only way that we are going to hit the target is by them controlling everything from London.’

There is a second culture shift, around Whitehall working in silos, getting different departments to work together as a ‘whole system’. Climate change hits on transport, housing, business, environment, and Whitehall does not join the dots.

Even the policy needs to be joined up. ‘Our latest local plan is going to require all new build to be carbon zero by 2030. That’s much higher than the national standard,’ we are told. ‘The planning White Paper is threatening to take that flexibility away from this.’

Government could also change its approach to funding, away from ‘project funding’ and bidding processes which take up capacity. There is, we hear, ‘often a set of initiatives, not a strategy’. What is needed is a long-term investment stream to transform and roll out projects at scale that can be replicated.

‘Government could support us in the development and alignment of our plans,’ one debater suggests. ‘We are spending quite a lot of money commissioning data and evidence.’ That could be done more effectively at scale ‘if you had a funded duty on councils to produce climate action plans, and a duty to collaborate…to get the information and intelligence to develop our strategies.’

Another round table guest asks: ‘How do we pool and share expertise and support each other so that we can actually innovate and get stuff done?’

So far the big shifts have come from big policy changes ‘speaking the same language at a local and national level’. There also needs to be an alignment of policy and persuasion.

And on the subject of funding, we hear: ‘The Treasury is debating who should pick up the costs. Whether it is Government, business or individuals.’ It is the wrong way to look at it.

‘This is an investment, and should be seen as an investment in the long-term,’ we hear. ‘Whoever bears the cost…it is actually borne by society as a whole, so this argument about who puts in the immediate pennies, or pounds, or millions, is a bit of a duff argument.

‘That mindset has to change fundamentally.’

While another debater suggests: ‘I think we’ve got to be really honest: the level of investment by Government does not match the ambitions. It will not allow us to do the things that we need to do collectively.’

It is the elephant it the room. ‘If we’ve got the ambition, then we need to have the long-term investment that goes alongside it.’

As we have worked our way through COVID, it has demonstrated that having a real priority can cut across everything. It shows what can be achieved – albeit at the expense of the climate crisis agenda over the past year.

‘Does climate change need to be the first priority?’ we are asked. ‘My view would be absolutely it does.

‘We are seeing an increasing realisation throughout government and all levels of society that we have got to tackle this – this is the big one.’

The MJ/NAO round table participants

Mel Barrett – Chief executive, Nottingham City Council

Polly Cook – Chief officer, sustainable energy and air quality, Leeds City Council

Ed Cox – Director of public service reform, West Midlands Combined Authority

Caroline Green – Chief executive, Oxford City Council

Sharon Kemp – Chief executive, Rotherham MBC, SOLACE spokesperson on environment and climate change

Gillian Marston – Executive director for supporting communities, Camden LBC

Steve Read – Director of environment, West Sussex CC; chair of ADEPT environment board

Kate Ryan – Chief operations officer, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council

Will Tuckley – Chief executive, Tower Hamlets LBC

Abdool Kara – Executive director, NAO

Keith Davis – Director, Defra and environment Value for Money, NAO

Katy Losse – Manager, climate and environment Value for Money, NAO

Heather Jameson – Editor, The MJ (chair)

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