Facing the climate emergency challenge in local government

19th March 2024

It’s well recognised that the public sector has the opportunity to work towards a national net-zero landscape that goes well beyond improving on its own performance; it can also influence through procurement and can direct through policy.

Local authorities have an additional and unique opportunity to influence behaviours via their proximity to local communities and in their role as local leaders. Most local councils are very ambitious on climate change mitigation, in great part because they’re in touch with their voters and responding to their concerns.

However, when it comes to the explicit climate responsibilities of local authorities, it’s an uneven picture across the UK

In many respects, addressing climate change is a devolved matter, which has led to different parts of the UK having different responsibilities. In Scotland, local authorities are required to set a target date for reaching net zero for their own organisations and Ministers are legally required to support this. They also work towards reducing area wide emissions. Wales has the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which requires its local councils to place sustainable development at the heart of their work and is further reinforced by the Environment Act 2016 which sets out specific steps for progressing towards net zero. In contrast, local authorities in England and Northern Ireland have no duty to deliver net zero within their own operations and no explicit responsibility to encourage area-wide emissions reductions.

Nonetheless local authorities right across the UK have made declarations of climate emergency and almost all of these have developed a climate action plan in response to their declaration. Although not required to do so, English, and Northern Irish local authorities recognise that they have an implicit responsibility to work towards net zero in their own operations.

There is a case for a mandatory approach

Some see the different levels of ambition as a missed opportunity for driving change.

Within the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee pointed out that the UK’s progress in reducing emissions to date has largely been driven by the phase-out of coal for electricity generation, and that the next wave of progress in reducing emissions and reaching net zero will have a strong local dimension. It also notes however, that local authority powers and duties are not sufficient alone to deliver net zero; there are gaps in key powers, there are policy and funding barriers in place, and a general lack of capacity and skills caused by funding cuts.

The Independent Review of Net Zero carried out by Chris Skidmore MP in 2023 made a recommendation, for immediate implementation, for central government to introduce a statutory duty for local authorities to take account of the UK’s net zero targets, based on a clear framework of local roles and responsibilities. The government’s response was not to take that recommendation forward, believing that a general statutory requirement would not be needed given the high level of local commitment within the sector already.

This reliance on voluntary action over statutory duty was further reinforced at COP28, at which the UK government declined to sign up to the Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships (CHAMP) for Climate Action. 65 other national governments, including many of our European neighbours, were signatories to this Coalition, pledging to enhance cooperation, where applicable and appropriate, with subnational governments in the planning, financing, implementation, and monitoring of climate strategies. Writing in Local Government First Councillor Marianne Overton MBE, who attended COP28 as part of the Local Government Association delegation regrets that despite their best efforts, the UK has yet to sign.

A double-edged sword? The pros and cons of a statutory duty

Would it be a blessing or a headache for local authorities in England and Northern Ireland to acquire a statutory duty to consider climate change? Certainly, a statutory duty is a service or action that authorities are compelled to carry out by law, whatever the associated costs may be. Local authority funding is already under immense pressure from the duties they already have, for instance to prevent homelessness and to provide adult and children’s social care. Clearly not all local authorities would welcome additional duties and it’s likely that none would were no additional funding also made available.

On the other hand, making net zero targets optional means that every local authority must forge its own path, and magic up the budgets to achieve the things it wants to do. Inevitably this results in an uneven pattern of funding and progress, and without doubt considerable duplication of efforts.

In 2022 Suffolk County Council, in collaboration with all the second-tier authorities within the county, put together an Environment Portfolio Holders’ Policy Asks document. It calls for the government to work closely with Suffolk on a low carbon transport network; to provide the framework for targeting appropriate levels of investment into electricity generation and distribution to enable the transition to a low carbon county; to deliver a robust national policy mechanism to incentivise whole house energy retrofit and low carbon heating solutions at scale; to put in place a sustainable funding policy that includes longer term, locally devolved multi-year settlements to preplace fragmented, short term competitive bid-based funds; to coordinate and fund a mass public engagement campaign to be delivered in partnership with local leaders to raise awareness on the climate and biodiversity emergency and encourage lasting behaviour change; and to enable flexibility in the business rates system to incentivise a positive green transition. David Walton MEIMA CEnv, Climate Emergency Programme Manager at Suffolk County Council concludes that a sustainable, long-term funding environment in particular would enable local authorities to collaborate more effectively to improve project delivery efficiency, rather than expending resource developing bids in competition with neighbours. The Blueprint Coalition Manifesto Asks includes similar calls: for placed-based approaches, genuine central and local government partnerships, and reforms to the structure of funding schemes.

IEMA’s approach

IEMA consistently campaigns for consistency of policy from central government which would enable local councils to plan and build up project pipelines, with adequate supply chains staffed by people with the right skills to do the job. In this election year it will be interesting to see the role that the environment has in the campaign manifestos put forward by the contenders, and IEMA is hopeful that all groups will take note of its policy asks document, published just prior to the party conferences in 2023.

IEMA’s webinar and papers are put together by topic specialists within its membership, and many of them are of use to local authority teams. ‘Climate’ and ‘environment’ are huge cross-cutting topics for local authorities, and it isn’t a stretch to say that working on associated projects is an enormous task. In some respects, we’re almost asking climate officers to reform the entire governance of their authorities. Recognising these challenges, which include changing mindsets and setting groundbreaking policies, IEMA’s papers aim to support decision makers to confidently make the right choices. Recent papers include: Guidance on the carbon impact of local plans, Outlook journal: Considering the Water Environment in Impact Assessment and Local nature recovery strategies - A pathway to prosperity. Alongside its policy advocacy IEMA continues to offer events and guidance papers put together by topic specialists that will help to support and develop local council climate and sustainability officers.


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