Local authorities and climate change: responding to the green challenge

Jon Bloomfield

What lies ahead for local government in 2021? We know the pandemic will continue to loom large. But all the signs are that with the UK hosting the crucial, international climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow next November, the issue of climate change will be high on the policy agenda.

Over the last 18 months many towns and cities have responded to the growing environmental emergency and declared their commitment to go carbon-neutral. In early December, 38 local authority leaders committed to cut their own carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. Among the leaders to sign the net zero pledge set out by the NGO UK 100 are the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, plus council leaders in Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. Together the signatories represent almost a third of the U.K. population. A  Zoom virtual conference saw more than 500 council leaders and officers participating.

The international political climate is favourable. Reversing four decades of Washington neo-liberal consensus, the International Monetary Fund has given its seal of approval to public investment strategies irrespective of the rising debt consequence. The national mood music is positive too. Boris Johnson’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution recognised that we need a low carbon transition transforming all sectors in the economy. In the lingering shadow of Trumpist climate denialism, it was reassuring. The really tough question is how to make good on these national and local targets. The words are easy: the action is harder.

What is the best pathway to follow? The green recovery should focus on the exploitation of what we already know can fulfil a low carbon, ‘levelling up’ agenda. Here there are three key policy arenas, energy, mobility and buildings and in all three,  local authorities, their staff, community groups and local neighbourhoods have key roles to play.

Take buildings. The country needs a large-scale programme of state investment in the regions to both reduce emissions and create jobs. The quickest and simplest way to do that is to focus on decarbonising our building and housing stock. Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and the investments are rooted in local supply chains.  Central to green recovery should be programmes where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs, in partnership with local stakeholders. That means looking to develop neighbourhood schemes so that entire streets are renovated together, rather than the government’s current green grants to individual householders. A community approach would bring economies of scale; permit accredited programmes with approved contractors; enable retrofit to be undertaken along with boiler replacements and renewable energy installations; introduce smart, digital appliances; and   on-street vehicle charging infrastructure. In other words, a comprehensive approach that takes citizens with you. Neighbourhood renovation and refurbishment offers lots of new jobs across the whole of the UK, with warmer homes, lower fuel bills and plenty of opportunities across the building supply chain. Plus a chance to engage local people in the revitalisation of their own streets and communities. What’s not to like?

But this all requires council officers to have the understanding and grasp of climate change transitions thinking and with the social and participatory skills to engage with neighbourhood and local groups. Climate change policies cannot be simply imposed from above. A huge social challenge won’t be addressed without some friction and tension. As we have seen with the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods policy over the last few months, if people aren’t engaged, then suddenly vocal resistance to these measures can arise.

Addressing climate change means we shall have to alter the ways that we live, move and work. The issues of climate transition are effectively an emerging policy arena. They require an understanding and marshalling of a new combination of skills amongst a wide cadre of local government officers, councillors and engaged citizens. Planners, traffic engineers, housing officers, finance and procurement staff: these and more all need additional skill-sets. Councils can set ambitious targets. But unless they have the staff within their ranks with the competence and skills to tackle them, then they will fall short.

Jon Bloomfield has been involved with the EU’s Climate KIC programme for over a decade, helping to develop educational and training programmes and experimental projects which help companies, cities and communities to make effective transitions to a low carbon economy.

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