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.

The Transformative Politics of the European Green Deal

by Jon Bloomfield

COVID 19 has highlighted our fragile relationship to the planet. But it represents a minor challenge compared to the permanent havoc that runaway climate change threatens. Politicians and governments – some at least – are beginning to recognise the scale of the danger. In this article we assess the evolution of policy thinking on how to make climate transitions happen; the potential of the European Green Deal; and how progressives need to shape it and any UK counterpart to meet the challenges of modern society.

The European Green Deal initiative launched in December 2019 arose from a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum. Yet its central thrust of active government offers the prospect of reviving a battered social democracy. Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post COVID19 offers a second chance. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis but it offers major opportunities for social democracy, if it is able to embrace a pluralist and environmentalist approach suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

So what can a ‘social democracy re-born’ offer?  The starting point has to be a recognition that the climate crisis requires a re-making of everyday politics, on the Left as well as the Right. The 19th and 20th century model of high-carbon, fossil fuel intensive economies where the core task is for ‘man to conquer nature’ has run its course. To safeguard our common future a new low carbon model of sustainable development has to become the ‘common sense ‘of the age. That’s what the policy specialists and architects of the European and the US Green Deal have formulated. Politicians and parties across the spectrum are trying to catch up. The anticipated post-Covid, green recovery programmes in the run-up to COP 26 will show which political forces are best able to translate this thinking into everyday politics and to make low or zero-carbon initiatives the golden thread that runs through their policy proposals.

The elements of active government, collective goods, and social inclusion chime with the social democratic tradition yet it needs to overcome the contradictory baggage of utopianism on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. There are four areas in particular where a shift in social democratic thinking is needed.

Firstly, it needs to adopt a 21st Century modernity. The Green Industrial Revolution should no longer be the metaphor of choice. It speaks to a technocratic, top-down model of traditional Keynesianism.  This conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals.  Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas.

Secondly, the potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions should be highlighted.

Thirdly, pluralism has to be at the heart of any effective, green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision.

Fourthly, the 21st century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, Continental and global.   The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change which is why centralised, top-down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission-driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge-led approach where national government specifies the broad direction but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level.  The classic big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle on the UK’s COVID test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.

Our article indicates the openings here for a pluralist, ecological Left. The run-up to the next global climate conference –COP26- will be a vital period which will show whether parties and governments across the world are prepared to meet the climate change challenge.

Jon Bloomfield HeadDr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate change.