Empowering English local government to lead on sustainable and resilient development of their localities

Paul Corrigan and Paul Joyce

We have just been having a conversation about English local government and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. One of us had begun by being idealistic about it. Too idealistic. But our exchange led to this blog in which we end up wondering what local government can do pragmatically to encourage sustainable and resilient localities.

Let’s start with the realism. As a result of developments over the last forty years, as compared to much of Europe, English local government is an anomaly. To put it bluntly, English local government has a very low level of autonomy compared to local governments in Europe (and elsewhere), even though its national system of public governance is quite capable. Taxes are a relatively low proportion of local government revenue in the UK, and this is so in the context of a very low level of local government expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Surely, to have more autonomy in a locality local government needs to be able to find much of its revenue from locally set taxes. It is generally believed that if local government must rely on grants determined by central government, and especially if the grants are earmarked by central government for purposes decided by it, then there is little potential for local autonomy.

Countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway have reputations for much greater local government autonomy than the UK. These three are all countries which are rated as having very effective governance, high standards of living, high standards of health and education, and, on average, very happy citizens. Plus, they have enviable records in terms of public confidence in government, as compared to the situation in the UK over many years. It seems that you can have both good national outcomes and local government empowered with a lot of local autonomy.

We can see the financial situation of UK local government using OECD data for the year 2019:

Local government revenue and taxes (2019)

We should not give the impression that the only issue is one of finances. It is probably very important that English local government is embedded in a national system of public governance that is both strategic in character and operating in a whole-of-government manner. Arguably, the implication of such a governance system is that strategic coordination between levels of government is not attempted in a purely top-down way by central government. Another less obvious implication is that that there is a high level of social capital that local government can tap into so it can powerfully deliver sustainable development goals.

Now for the idealism. Local government has a long-term responsibility to its citizens to ensure that local communities survive and thrive for future generations. Consistent with this is the view that local governments (and regional governments) should be at the forefront of delivering the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. At the very least we can argue that local government has a critical role to play in their delivery.

Ideally speaking still, we can use some of the ideas of the United Nations’ Committee of Experts on Public Administration to suggest questions we might pose to local government everywhere – in every country – about their work in delivering the sustainable development goals (United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration 2022). The suggested questions are:

  • Have they aligned their visions for the development of their communities, their associated strategic plans, and their budgets and service policies with long-term sustainable development goals? 
  • Are individual local governments able to act in a way consistent with a whole-of-government approach to the delivery of their visions and strategies?
  • Are they able to track and account for their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals?
  • Are they able to evaluate and report to the public and other stakeholders on their performance in delivering the sustainable development goals in their locality?
  • Are they carrying out data analysis to identify the occurrence and extent of poverty and inequality as a prelude to local policy making?
  • Are they acting in their local areas to reduce poverty and inequality and to create more human development and empowerment?
  • Are they acting in partnership with citizens and other stakeholders through strategies such as community-driven development and participatory budgeting?
  • Are they able to engage the public in initiating and designing local public services?
  • Are they acting in accordance with the principles of open local governance?
  • Are they able to interact with central government and a get a cooperative response to problem solving from it?
  • Have they got the necessary skills and sufficient scale of financial resources they need to play a decisive role in sustainable and resilient development of their communities?

Finally, we arrive at the moment of pragmatism in this blog.  After the last forty years, which include the austerity years since 2010, we must recognise that English local government is placed in very challenging circumstances. We would say that they do not have the right legal framework, they do not have sufficient organisational capacity, and that they need more public support and resources to do what would be implied in the 11 questions above. They are currently exceptionally constrained in what they can do.

But the English local authorities have gained great skill in forming and developing partnerships and so they could develop stronger partnerships for sustainability. They could, for example, begin by consulting the public on community priorities. These priorities could be an input into local conferences to discuss voluntary coordination and efforts involving all the sectors (public, private, and voluntary). Finally, individual local authorities could prepare for better targeting of their highly constrained resources by auditing their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals.

In effect, pragmatic and idealist arguments suggested here call for the community leadership role of local government to be focused on delivering sustainable development mainly through encouraging and coordinating others at the local level.

Paul Corrigan has been a social science academic, a local government officer and a special adviser on health policy to New Labour Secretaries of State for Health and the Prime Minister Tony Blair. He now chairs Care City an innovation community interest company in the East End of London.

Paul Joyce is an Inlogov associate.  Paul has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book is Strategic Management and Governance: Strategy Execution Around the World (Routledge, 6 June 2022). He is a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University.

Decarbonising Transport: How Can we Work Together to Make an Impact?

Dr Louise Reardon

With the COP26 climate change conference only days away, the media is awash with pieces on the challenge we face and the policy options available (or not) for us to meet our net-zero commitments. One of the areas needing significant attention is transport.

Transport contributed 28% of total domestic Green House Gas emissions in 2018, making it the UK’s largest emitting sector. To date the sector is proving a tough nut to crack, with transport emissions 4% higher now than they were in 2013 and only 3% lower than in 1990. To be on track we need an annual rate of emissions reduction of at least 6%. We therefore need bold and significant action.

While electric vehicles have been the primary focus of central government attention and are an important part of the policy mix, many experts have highlighted how they alone will not be enough to achieve the sustainable transition we need. We also require significant behaviour change (shifting from car use to walking and cycling for example) and less travel full stop.

Easier said than done. Our current CREDS research is identifying the multitude of different ways organisations are (and can) work together to decarbonise transport at the city level and their views on the barriers and opportunities for affecting change. Some of the issues arising are cultural (the car as a status symbol for example), some are institutional (lack of capacity to focus on decarbonisation, for instance), and others political (will the electorate support this?).

Whatever the issues, no two towns and cities will have the same mixture of challenges, solutions and therefore pathways to a more sustainable transport system. Moreover, the reasons why we travel in the first place (and the means of doing so) are a result of complex intersections of social, economic and political factors. To change this system therefore requires a multitude of coordinated interventions, including action from individuals and a diverse range of institutions all pushing in the same direction.

With that said, it can be hard to know where to start. While the climate change challenge is global, there is real opportunity and need to act locally on transport to make significant progress. While many rightly turn to their local authority for action, it is unrealistic to think they can act alone, especially when many of the changes we need to make may be potentially controversial (at least for some).

To help identify ways forward we will be hosting a webinar (on 11 November) as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. Two inspirational panellists – Karen Creavin (CEO, The Active Wellbeing Society) and Chris Todd (Director, Transport Action Network) – will join us. Both of whom, in their different ways, have sought to transform our transport system to a more sustainable and fair one and have plenty of insights to share.

The session will be interactive, aiming to get a real conversation going about the strategies we can employ to make sustainable transport a reality. It’s free to attend and we’d love to hear your views and insights. You can register here. Do join us!

Louise Reardon is Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy at INLOGOV and currently leading the CREDS funded project Facilitating Policy Change towards Low-Carbon Mobility, in collaboration with INLOGOV Lecturer Timea Nochta and Li Wan, University of Cambridge. You can also follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseReardon1

Inter-municipal Cooperation is the key to better environments in our cities.

Victor Osei Kwadwo

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) aims at “Uniting the World to Tackle Climate Change”. While the technical aspects to addressing climate change is more evident in the goals of COP 26, it is time attention is equally paid to the governance of climate change at the metropolitan scale made up of our major cities.

Due to rapid urbanization, the world is increasingly becoming metropolitan. Cities have expanded outwards and have become more interdependent with their immediate peripheries. Cities occupy only approximately 2% of the world’s total land yet host 54.5% of the world’s population. Cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s GDP, over 60% of global energy consumption, 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of global waste.

As cities agglomerate, the footprint and interdependence within and between cities blur existing administrative boundaries to the extent that development issues in one local government jurisdiction have spillover effects on neighbouring jurisdictions. These spillover effects have led to a call for cooperation on functional grounds, making metropolitan areas a salient scale for public policy interventions. Metropolitan areas such as Cape Town, London, Mexico City, São Paulo and Tokyo are mainly characterised by densely inhabited functional urban areas and their surrounding interconnected lower-density areas.

In the management of metropolitan areas, for instance, many cities in the USA, Greater London, Brussels, Dar es Salaam and Greater Accra, the joint provision of metropolitan-wide services or jointly addressing a cross-boundary problem is an explicit choice of local governments that make up the metropolitan area. This voluntary nature of cooperation poses a collective action dilemma when local governments have to address problems jointly.

The dilemma arises from the externalities of environmental outcomes that drive low incentives for cooperation and a high risk of free-riding. To find joint solutions to cross-boundary problems in metropolitan areas, inter-municipal cooperation (IMC) is identified as critical for better economic and environmental outcomes in service delivery. There is empirical evidence that inter-municipal cooperation saves costs but does it also improve environmental outcomes?

Governments tend to be reluctant to cooperate when environmental outcomes are at stake, and this is partly due to the limited evidence on the impact of cooperation on environmental outcomes. It is therefore important to provide an evidential basis on which local governments can justify and initiate cooperation arrangements to address environmental concerns jointly.

In a study I co-authored with Tatiana Skripka, we provide this evidence using data covering 229 metropolitan areas in 16 OECD countries. The study tests the impact of cooperation in transportation on CO2 transport emissions. We did this by estimating a three-level mixed-effects model that takes into account both national and metropolitan-specific characteristics.

The results demonstrate that if local governments cooperate, better environmental outcomes can be achieved. Metropolitan areas that worked together on transportation issues were able to reduce CO2 transport emissions.

The findings give an indication of what needs to be done to effectively fight the environmental challenge. More significantly, beyond normative predictions, the findings provide a basis for local governments to justify and pursue local to local partnerships to address environmental issues.

What we measured

We used “working together on transportation” as a measure of cooperation and “CO2 transport emissions” for environmental outcomes to estimate the impact of cooperation on CO2 transport emissions reported in 2000, 2005 and 2008 for 229 metropolitan areas in 16 OECD countries.

We accounted for factors such as the year of observation, economic status, socio-cultural, geographical, technological and governance measures such as mitigation policies, enforcement, and metropolitan structure. The factors covered both the national and metropolitan area-specific characteristics: socio-cultural conditions, level of technology, geography, and metropolitan governance structure. We used data from the OECD metropolitan governance database, the OECD Metropolitan Governance Survey, the World Bank, among others.

Key findings

We found that metropolitan governance structures, whether fragmented or consolidated, are equally inefficient in delivering reduction in CO2 transport emissions. The finding contrasts with an increasing trend of scholars advocating for fragmented metropolitan structures that favour voluntary cooperation, compared to consolidated structures that address collective action problem through coercion.

We also found that countries with a higher GDP were more efficient in reducing CO2 transport emissions. In contrast, metropolitan areas with higher GDP recorded increases in CO2 transport emissions. While national funding can dictate climate-related interventions and standards, metropolitan wealth is more flexible in taking on such obligations. As metropolitan areas are mainly production centres, investments in environmentally-friendly interventions may be more easily sacrificed at the metropolitan level for economic gains.

We further found that CO2 transport emissions increase despite the mere presence of environmental mitigation policies. This is consistent with empirical observations. For example, while the Paris Agreement has 196 Parties adopting to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, emissions have continued to rise globally by 1.4 per cent per year on average since 2010. Environmental policy effectiveness lies in the ability of the cooperating parties to ensure widespread policy implementation and enforcement.

The crucial factor explaining the reduction of CO2 transport emissions in metropolitan areas is inter-municipal cooperation that facilitates coherence and widespread enforcement of mitigation policies. The impact of cooperation on CO2 transport emissions is magnified in metropolitan areas within countries that have stringent environmental mitigation policies.

Next steps

Inter-municipal cooperation (IMC) is critical in the governance of metropolitan areas if better environmental outcomes are to be achieved in our cities. Cooperation ensure policy uniformity, facilitates the possibility of widespread enforcement and reduces incentives for free-riding irrespective of governance structure. It is recommended that scholars and policymakers emphasise how to incentivise effective cooperation regardless of the metropolitan governance structure. Also, efforts must be geared toward uniform mitigation policies and their subsequent enforcement across local jurisdictions in metropolitan areas.

Read the full paper here

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03003930.2021.1958785

Victor Osei Kwadwo is a PhD fellow in Economics and Governance at UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University. He has broad expertise in political science, economics, and public policy with a special emphasis on urban governance and development. For his PhD, he explores how and why independent local governments cooperation arrangements emerge to address transboundary issues in metropolitan areas.

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.