Sustainable housing policy is a hot-topic at the minute. The autonomy that local authorities have had from central government since 2007 to require local energy efficiency and sustainable construction that supersede those in national building regulations is set to be revoked. The government has raised concerns that because so few local authorities are embracing this autonomy there is a hotchpotch of standards in different parts of the country, creating an un-even playing field and raising costs for developers. The decision to strip local authorities of this legislative independence represents a serious blow to the question of whether the sustainability of housing can be raised but, importantly, it also forces us to ask why the uneven playing field was created in the first place.
This experiment to involve the local level in the design and adoption of sustainable planning policy has failed not because of a lack of environmental concern amongst local authorities but because central policy makers and academics alike are unaware of the social, economic and political factors that affect the ability of local government to embrace any autonomy they are granted. They failed to see that conditions on the ground simply weren’t right for a significant number of local authorities to face up to developers and require more from them. Political, institutional, economic and sociotechnical barriers prevent a large number of local authorities from raising local standards, even when the will was there.
In my PhD research I attempt to increase our understanding in this regard by focusing on the barriers faced by local authorities. Up until now there hasn’t been much work that looks at what factors encourage or inhibit local government to legislate in pursuit of environmental goals, so my research doesn’t just help us understand this policy area but helps us refine our analytical models of the politics local government in processes of sustainable development.
It is becoming clear that for change to occur policy champions must push sustainable construction proposals through the local legislative process, there must be a culture of innovation and sustainability and a sense of ecological optimism in the council and proponents of change must be organised and resourced well enough to counter any challenges. It looks like these conditions simple weren’t there in the majority of local authorities to the extent required for reform of spatial planning policies.
Of course this provides only a snapshot of a bigger, far more complex picture. Spatial planning in particular and sustainable development in general cuts across many areas of policy, economics, society, technology, history and geography and the answer to why a local authority is more or less willing to legislate for either goal lies in a particular combination of factors drawn from all of these areas.
My work is therefore part of a bigger picture, one that policy makers and academics alike need to start painting. We need to recognize the important role that local government plays in the transition towards a more sustainable society and ask how we can understand the barriers they face in order to encourage more, and better, policy.
That brings me on to the main point I want to make here: If we are to prevent a repeat of this failed experiment then we need to increase our understanding of whether and why local authorities embrace the legislative autonomy granted to them in the context of environmental policy. Doing so will allow us to increase our certainty that future devolutions from the national to local level will be successfully endorsed. If, alternatively, we continue along our current trajectory of ignorance of the politics of local government’s role in legislating for sustainable development then we can expect any future experiments to fail.
Local authorities have an enormously important role to play in the provision of sustainable development and we cannot afford to ignore the mechanisms that permit or prevent them exercising that role.
Max Lempriere is a second year PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.