The Leaseholder Cladding Scandal and When Ministers Direct

Chris Game

You probably caught at least something of the Commons ‘cladding’ debate last Monday (1st Feb), and almost certainly some of this week’s fallout.  Called by Labour on one of its designated ‘Opposition Days’, the debate sought “urgent” Government action to end the scandal of lease-holding flat owners, living in unsafe, unsaleable, uninsurable properties, being forced to pay unaffordable sums of money for the removal of flammable cladding.

And, if 43+ months after the Grenfell Tower tragedy qualifies as “urgent”, we finally got it this Wednesday, in the form of a statement from Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for the whole thing – Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Important as that statement obviously is, neither its content nor even its questionable squareability with the PM’s most recent pledge that “no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that are no fault of their own” are the central concerns of this blog, which by comparison – Reader Alert! – are arcane verging on nerdy. For the record, however, Jenrick’s three key proposals are for:

  • a further £3.5bn of government grant to pay for the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding systems on buildings over 18 metres tall;
  • for buildings below 18 metres, a long-term “financing solution” of a government loan to the owner, repaid by leaseholders, with a payment cap of £50 per month;
  • a new levy for developers, to become applicable when planning permissions are submitted for high-rise developments.

Back, though, to last Monday. Labour’s motion, introduced by Shadow Housing Secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, called for the Government to establish a new, somewhat Starmer-sounding, cladding taskforce that would make buildings with dangerous materials safe and protect leaseholders from the costs. Initial respondent for the Government was, remarkably, the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Chris Pincher, not due formally to assume office as Minister of State for Housing for another 12 days. The so-called – and here so appropriately – wind-up was done by Eddie Hughes, Junior Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing.   

As for the not generally publicity-shy Jenrick, he apparently “stayed away entirely”. Which inevitably reinforced the impression, conveyed by his being openly accused of “incompetence” in this matter by his own backbench ‘colleague’, that neither he nor the Government as a whole were any more bothered than they had appeared previously about even being seen to regard this scandal as a major priority.

For the record, Monday’s motion was passed by 263 votes to nil. The Ministers seemed unable to convince anyone that the Government was addressing the issues with anything like the requisite urgency. But Conservative backbenchers, increasing numbers of whom had already been seeking, without noticeable Labour support, to amend the Fire Safety Bill to avoid remediation costs being passed on to leaseholders, chose to abstain, rather than give HM Official Opposition unearned credit.  

At which point I must temporarily side-line cladding, while explaining how, almost by chance, I happened upon one of the latest updates in the Institute for Government (IfG)’s occasional series of ‘Explainers’ – on Ministerial Directions (MDs) – a topic about which previously, I confess, I’d bothered myself relatively little.  

Poor show perhaps, for someone actually endeavouring to teach students about British politics. My rationalisation would have been that, while broadly aware of what MDs were/are and their obvious importance, I sensed that their usage wasn’t that frequent, and that anyway, until “the rules” were changed and GOV.UK was launched in 2011/12, most such directions would indefinitely have remained state secrets.

Unwittingly, I was actually right about the numbers – as shown in one of the IfG’s several excellent graphics: an average of under two a year while I was teaching, compared to 31 in the past three years and 19 in 2020 alone. The explosion, and indeed MDs generally, seemed worth further inquiries.

min-explainers

First, then, what exactly are ‘Ministerial Directions’?  In this case, just what it says on the tin: formal directions from Ministers instructing their department to proceed with a spending proposal – and in so doing overriding the principled objection of the most senior civil servant: the Permanent Secretary (PS), who is also the ‘Accounting Officer’, accountable to Parliament for how the department spends its money.

And it’s not just a clash of wills, or opinions. There are specified criteria any spending proposal must meet: that it’s within both the department’s legal powers and agreed spending budget, meets “high standards of conduct”, constitutes value for money, and stands a feasible prospect of being implemented as specified within the intended timetable. If a PS has doubts about a proposal meeting any of these criteria, they must seek explicit direction from the Minister, who thereupon writes a ‘directing’ letter and takes accountability for the decision.  Interestingly, that’s often how it seems to work: less a Minister’s wanting to spend overriding the horrified protests of a cautious civil servant than the civil servant seeing or at least agreeing the need to spend but constitutionally requiring the Minister’s say-so.

British politics being conducted in the ‘civilised’/secretive way it generally is, even the traditionally rare occasions on which such clashes come to a head are rarely much publicised, but there are exceptions. Remember Joanna Lumley’s ‘Garden Bridge’ over the Thames – proposed as a largely privately-funded project, but taken up with characteristic enthusiasm by the then Mayor of London and given significant pre-construction funding by the Department for Transport?  At which point the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, came back wanting more – arguing to the ‘Accounting Officer’ (the PS)  and in his Ministerial Statement that there were more than mere transport benefits to be considered and that the Department’s pre-construction commitment should be increased by up to £15 million.  It duly was, and of course the Garden Bridge is today the “iconic tourist attraction right in the heart of our capital city” that the Mayor and Minister predicted. Sorry, is it not?

A more specifically local governmenty Ministerial Direction was that the MHCLG should not recover from councils £36 million that, through an error in civil servants’ methodology, they had been overpaid for participating in 100% business rate retention pilots (2017/18). Nice one, Sajid Javid!

What had particularly caught my interest, though, was that noticeable rise in MDs over the past 2-3 years and the positive explosion under the Johnson Premiership, certainly since the arrival of Covid.  In fact, the IfG’s graph reminded me almost immediately of the well-known view of one of the ugliest buildings in London – the Vauxhall Tower overlooking St George Wharf – and, as it happens, just two bridges down-river from the IfG.

tower

There have already been 14 Covid-related Ministerial Directions – worth possibly a blog in their own right – but I’d gone in looking for cladding business, and there it was, in May 2019 – two months pre-Johnson. James Brokenshire, Jenrick’s predecessor as Housing and Communities Secretary, had made clear both his and PM Theresa May’s view that leaseholders should not have to pay – even assisted by the kind of loan scheme announced this week.

It’s worth reading the full exchange of letters between Secretary of State Brokenshire and the Permanent Secretary, but the following extract from Brokenshire’s will convey at least the flavour:

“I  understand  that,  in  making  these  choices,  the  taxpayer  will  pick  up  the  vast  majority  of remedial costs.  However, I have considered that against the safety implications for residents and the need for pace.  I consider those two factors to be more important.”

The only thing, however, seemingly throughout this whole wretched business, to have happened at any pace was Brokenshire’s own departure, like that of Theresa May herself, to the backbenches. A pity – somehow I don’t feel he would have taken last Monday afternoon off, or that nearly 20 months later there would still have been no Government policy.

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Elections in a pandemic

Jason Lowther

Well over a thousand British citizens are currently losing their lives each day to Coronavirus in the UK, tens of thousands more are still dealing with ‘long Covid’ aftermaths.  As new variants of the virus appear more infectious, and the vaccination campaign gets into high gear, is the Government’s insistence that 65 million citizens should be voting in elections in 14 weeks’ time a valiant defence of our democratic freedoms – or a foolish waste of time and money that will likely be pulled at the last minute? 

Thursday 6th May 2021 is scheduled for a mass of elections across the UK – including all 24 county councils, six unitaries, three Combined Authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners, and all seats in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.  Every citizen in England, Scotland and Wales would be involved in one or more of these elections. Some of these elections have already been delayed for a year, depriving citizens of the chance to choose their elected representatives.

But are safe and fair elections feasible at this stage in the pandemic? 

Other countries have been running elections through 2020.  An interesting example is Bavaria, the largest and second most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states (Länder).  As the Covid pandemic hit the region hard in late March 2020, the second (run-off) stage of their election was completed 100% by post.  Ballot papers were automatically sent to all electors in the relevant districts.  Voters did not need to take any action, instead they received their postal vote at home automatically and could submit their votes by post up to 6pm the evening before election day.  An evaluation by Rebecca Wagner, a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute (PRIF) in Frankfurt, found that turnouts were not adversely affected and concluded ‘a competitive electoral environment was evident with no particular electoral advantage for the incumbent parties’. 

Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics at Newcastle University, have looked at the evidence from more than 100 local and national elections held in other countries during 2020.  Their findings again highlight the importance of enabling postal voting in aiding turnout and reducing risks to staff and the public.  To do this in the UK, they say urgent action would be needed to spread the voting over several days, provide councils with extra funding for the task, and make policy decisions more transparent and inclusive.

100% postal ballots may not be feasible by May.  Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said at the start of January 2021 that all-postal ballots were not a practical solution for the May elections, and could increase the risk of fraud.  We could also ask where the additional money will come from, given councils are in severe financial distress already?  The Covid Expenditure Pressures Grant is already stretched extremely thinly.

Looking at the UK, the Electoral Commission has reported findings based on its assessment of six more traditional council by-elections held during Covid restrictions last year.  They found that it was possible to have elections under the restrictions then in place (before more infectious Covid strains developed), but that additional time and money is needed to do this safely.  Venues, for voting and for counts, are crucial – for example, will the usual schools and church halls be available? 

Council staff and members are worried that running elections at this stage in the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be very difficult.  In late January, a Local Government Information Unit poll of council Chief Executives (who act as returning officers), heads of Democratic Services and Council leaders showed that 66% were “very concerned” about holding the elections in May.  Even higher percentages were worried about recruiting and training election workers, disenfranchising voters with Covid concerns, the costs of running Covid-safe arrangements, and candidates being unable to campaign effectively. Chloe Smith MP, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, has recently written to political parties confirming that the traditional door-to-door leafleting and canvassing is not acceptable under Covid restrictions. 

Neil Johnston’s excellent House of Commons Library research briefing  on the impact of coronavirus on the 2021 elections notes that the devolved administrations are one step ahead of Westminster.  The Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill in December 2020, giving emergency powers to be used as a last resort. They would allow for all-postal voting, voting over more than one day and to delay the elections for six months.  Similar powers are included in emergency laws introduced in Wales this week.

Listening to council chief executives over the last couple of weeks, there’s a real concern at spending money and moving staff unnecessarily when there is so much pressure on councils already.  And almost incredulity that the Government seems unwilling to seriously consider delaying until October. 

Looking at experiences here and internationally, the Westminster government too might be wise to start contemplating a Plan B.  As always, local government will rise to the challenge if the decision is to go ahead in May. But let’s consider that by late summer, all nine groups at highest risk from Coronavirus are due to have been fully vaccinated – we could by around October be in a much more stable position for these important elections to take place safely and fairly, and without detracting from the vital roles councils have in tackling the pandemic right now. 

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV).

The UK’s Covid-19 early response

Paul Joyce

There are many lessons to be drawn from the UK government experience of responding to COVID-19 in 2020 (see Joyce 2021). But some of the most important concern the problems created by a weak surveillance system and a passive response at the start of the year and by the centralised and command-and-control approach to decision making that denied the national government the full benefits of cooperation in a multi-level system of governance.

Weak Surveillance and Passive Response Early On

The UK Government was expecting a flu pandemic: in 2019 a National Security Risk Assessment document went to the UK Cabinet that stated that a flu pandemic was the top civil risk. Its experts seemed to be suggesting that the threat posed by COVID-19 might be thought about as a threat somewhat akin to a flu pandemic: in February 2020, with the COVID-19 virus spreading outside China, a committee that formed part of the UK Government’s structure of expert advice, produced a paper in which it judged that the reasonable worst case for pandemic influenza “would be an appropriate scenario at that point” (SPI-M-O 2020). This expert judgment was based on the evidence available at the time, but the evidence was limited: the UK Government was slow to increase its testing and tracing capability and even in April, after the lockdown had begun, its testing capacity was still quite modest (see Chart).

Chart: Extent of testing for Covid-19

Chart Note: The data was obtained from Our World in Data. Available at: http://www.OurWorldInData.org [3 June 2020]. There are important national differences in the production of the data (e.g., whether tests from all labs are counted, the inclusion of pending tests).

The UK government did eventually expand its capacity to carry out testing but in the early months, when its response emphasis was on surveillance, it was handicapped by a lack of data.

Generally speaking, the initial UK Government response was quite passive by comparison with many other countries, which had often responded quickly with measures to address the threat of the virus entering the country. The UK was different. By the end of May 2020, the UK government still had no measures in place to deal with the threat posed by international travel.

We might call the initial strategy of the UK Government a “spectator” strategy, because it mainly relied on treatment rather than prevention, counting on the NHS hospitals to treat those who became seriously ill; aggressive containment was definitely not part of the initial thinking. The advice coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) in early March 2020 was quite at odds with the UK’s spectator strategy. The WHO’s Director General strongly advocated an aggressive containment response: “So activate your emergency plans through that whole government approach, […] If countries act aggressively to find, isolate, and treat cases, and to trace every contact, they can change the trajectory of this epidemic. If we take the approach that there is nothing we can do, that will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s in our hands.”

Centralised and command-and-control decision making

One question that came up repeatedly concerned whether exactly the same measures should be applied to all four countries of the UK in identical ways and at the same time. It appears that on the whole there was a high degree of commonality in the design and application of measures – but with some differences in detail and timing. The Prime Minister’s briefings to the public on his aspirations and proposals for future measures had sometimes seemed to refer to the whole of the UK when, in fact, his remarks were just applicable to England. The Scottish First Minister, speaking at a televised daily briefing to the people of Scotland, said: “I will, as I have done before, ask the Prime Minister when he’s talking about lockdown and lifting restrictions to make clear that he is talking about England alone”.

In the early months of 2020 London was the place where infections and deaths rapidly increased and the hospitals were put under immense pressure by the pandemic. This is not surprising given London’s importance as a centre of commerce and tourism in the UK. The mayor of London was responsible for public transport in London, amongst other things, and clearly might have been expected to want to engage with the national decision-making process about responding to Covid-19. There was a newspaper report about the 2 March 2020 COBR meeting and the non-inclusion of the mayor of London in that meeting. The report said he had not been invited and quoted someone speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister: “The prime minister’s spokesman said Mr Khan was not invited because the meeting was meant to deliver a “a national response”, while London – and other areas – were involved through local level resilience forums.”

The UK Government decisions about how to end the first lockdown were also a focus of some friction in the UK’s governance system. In particular, some prominent council leaders in local government in the North of England were unhappy about the proposals to reopen schools on 1 June 2020. The concern for them was that they judged that the pandemic had not been adequately contained and controlled and the Prime Minister was bringing forward proposals that were too risky. For one local government leader, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the source of the problem about too much risk in how the lockdown was to be ended was the advice being given to the Prime Minister by his special adviser, Dominic Cummings. He said: “Far from a planned, safety-led approach, this looked like another exercise in Cummings chaos theory.”

The problem in multi-level governance was not just one of friction. Sinclair and Read, writing in April 2020, pointed to the failure of the UK Government to take advantage of capacity existing at local government level:

“The government has been accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus. … PHE’s [Public Health England] contact tracing response team was boosted to just under 300 staff, deemed adequate for the containment phase of handling the Covid-19 virus up to mid-March… tracing was scaled back when the UK moved to the delay phase of tackling coronavirus in mid-March… in Germany, thousands of contact tracers are still working – with more being recruited.”

The big challenge facing the UK Government is to evaluate its experiences of COVID-19 in 2020 and to learn lessons about how future pandemics may be prepared for and handled better than this time. 

Paul Joyce is an Associate at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. He is also a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science and is currently writing a book on the execution of strategy in the public sector. 

His recent books include Strategic Management for Public Governance in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, with Anne Drumaux); Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2017, 2nd edition); and Strategic Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2015). 

In 2019 he became the Publications Director of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences, IIAS, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.)

No powers, no funds. How municipalities are working creatively to address the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Professor Vivien Lowndes and Professor Rabia Karakaya Polat

Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011. Turkey hosts the world’s largest community of displaced Syrians (about 3.6 million). Nine years after the arrival of the first group of Syrians, their future in Turkey is still uncertain. Our British Academy funded research is exploring the role of municipalities in interpreting, enacting and contesting Turkey’s refugee policy.

98% of Syrians in Turkey live in urban settings rather than camps. Half of the urban refugees live in border provinces; others are spread across the country, particularly in metropolitan areas. Istanbul, where we conducted our field research, hosts the largest number of refugees, more than half a million.

From 2011, Turkey pursued an open-door policy based on narratives of hospitality and religious solidarity. This narrative is now shifting towards cohesion, as it becomes clear that Syrians are in Turkey long-term. The government is also encouraging ‘voluntary return’ as a response to the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of new mass arrivals and the risk of losing votes in the face of ‘compassion fatigue’. While local government actors can’t influence these official policies, they do have to solve problems on the ground, with extremely limited resources and high political risks. 

Despite not recognizing Syrians as refugees, Turkey has offered them free public health care and education as part of a temporary protection scheme. In 2016, Syrians also obtained limited access to the formal labour market, thanks to a new law on work permits. Over 110,000 have now been granted citizenship, mostly based on skills and capital. But there remains a lot of policy ambiguity. This ambiguity and the absence of a universal rights-based refugee policy in Turkey leads to significant variation in local responses to refugees, and in their living standards and level of integration with the local community.

Local governments are finding themselves in a very difficult position. The role and responsibilities of municipalities have not been clearly defined, so local government actors are operating in a very ambiguous policy environment. At the same time, they do not get any extra budget to spend on refugees. Even if they host as many refugees as their own population, they do not get an extra penny from central government. Providing services to meet refugee needs has also contributed to the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in some local communities, especially as Turkey’s economic crisis bites.

But municipalities in Turkey are extremely pragmatic organisations. They know how to operate in a centralised and increasingly authoritarian political system. As one of our respondents put it: ‘Spending 1 lira on refugees today prevents you from spending 100 lira tomorrow’. They are cooperating with NGOs as a way of accessing international funds for refugee support, mostly from the EU, despite the government’s criticism of the EU on ‘burden-sharing’. Municipal projects include community centres built to serve Syrian refugees, cash-for-work projects to increase employability, and cohesion projects such as language classes, children’s drama groups, women’s projects, and cultural activities that bring the two communities together.

Our research identified five distinctive refugee policy narratives at local level.

  • A powerful narrative during the initial years of the refugee arrival, humanitarianism still acts as a driving force for some municipalities.
  • Pragmatism is also widespread as municipalities believe that, if needs are not addressed and opportunities provided, there will be bigger challenges in the future.
  • Equality is another powerful narrative for actors in opposition-controlled municipalities, who argue that Syrians should be provided with equal rights with Turkish citizens: ‘We shouldn’t be providing aid. We should be serving their rights’.
  • The gradual decline of the ‘guest’ narrative at the national level has led to a widespread social cohesion narrative, expressed in projects to integrate Syrians into district life.
  • Finally, anti-refugee narratives are also prevalent. Some community leaders complained about economic implications (rising rents, unemployment), cultural differences, language issues and a perceived lack of social mixing.

Despite its increasingly authoritarian character, the national government’s policy narratives do not go unchallenged. In seeking to address practical challenges on the ground, both AKP and opposition controlled municipalities are developing their own understandings of refugee policy – becoming storytellers and performers in their own right – even where this directly challenges national policy narratives (notably anti-Western, religious and heroic elements). 

Our research shows that international or national policy pronouncements cannot be taken at face value.  Instead, we need to understand the active construction of what refugee policy means at the local government level, in situations of intense need and limited resources. Despite being weak vis-à-vis the central state, municipalities have been able to develop creative and varied responses to meeting refugee needs, even within the same province.  In policy terms, this points to potential benefits from harnessing local government creativity and flexibility, in preference to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to refugee policy.

Vivien Lowndes is Professor of Public Policy at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham. 

Rabia Karakaya Polat is Professor of Political Science at the Department of International Relations, Işık University (Istanbul).

Research to Help Rebuild After Covid-19

Jason Lowther

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, met (virtually) with over 100 researchers and policy officers to discuss the output of a six-month programme looking at some of the fundamental challenges to our society, economy and ways of living.  Commissioned by the Government Office for Science, the Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme aims to help government with medium- and long-term challenges relating to the challenges of Covid-19, captured under nine themes including “vulnerable communities”, “supporting services”, and “local and national growth”.


The overall programme was led by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver, two experienced social scientists whose work focusses on the use of evidence.  In their recent LSE article, they explain the background to the programme and how plans were upturned in March with the introduction of Lockdown in the UK.  

I was particularly involved in the “supporting services” theme, convening the work around local government.  It is an exciting initiative to be involved with, not just because of its scope and pace, but also because of the range of people engaged: researchers and academics, government policy and analysis officers, and funders.  What I found particularly interesting was how different Government departments and different academic disciplines were often looking at very similar issues but framing them from distinct perspectives and using diverse language to describe them.  This highlights the need to develop shared definitions of issues and ways to address these – considering “problem-based issues” in the round.

As well as summarising the existing research evidence around each of the identified themes, the work identified several “gaps” in the extant evidence base and opportunities for new research, policy/research dialogue, and knowledge exchange.

Within the Local Government theme, we recognised that LG’s role proved critical in the first stage of the pandemic, for example in supporting vulnerable and shielded people, enabling voluntary community groups, freeing up 30,000 hospital beds, housing over 5,000 homeless people, and sustaining essential services such as public health, waste collection, safeguarding and crematoria.  This role is likely to increase in future stages of the pandemic, with more responsibility for local surveillance testing and tracing, implementing local lockdowns, economic development, contributing to a sustainable social care system, and supporting further community mutual aid.

There is already a good evidence base showing how local government is playing vital roles in responding to and recovering from the pandemic.  We identified four main themes: empowering local communities, delivering and supporting services, devolution and localisation, and funding.
For each issue we considered the key policy and practice implications of existing evidence, the evidence gaps and the ways in which gaps might be filled.  

Around empowering local communities, for example, evidence showed that LAs responded quickly to the pandemic, and well-functioning local systems emerged to tackle the immediate crises in many parts of the UK.  Areas adopted a range of strategies in partnership with local communities. But informal community responses can lack coordination, resources, reach and accountability; and some groups face barriers to involvement.  Further evidence is required on what works in strengthening community support networks, empowering different types of communities, and co-producing public services.  Councils also need to understand better how staff, councillors and the institutions themselves can change to empower communities.

There has already been some important learning from this work, such as recognising the treasure trove of useful knowledge contained in existing evidence and expertise.   We need to get much better at using evidence from, for example, the evaluation of past policy initiatives.  The programme is helping to strengthen relationships across government, including some new and more diverse voices, and will be useful as government departments revisit their Areas of Research Interest post-Covid.  The thematic reports are due to be published in coming weeks.

I will be exploring the findings for other areas of interest to Local Government in future articles.

[This article also appeared in the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association December newsletter]

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.

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.