Giving local government the power to go green

Local councils have been criticised for failing to address environmental concerns. But, according to the Local Government Association's senior policy advisor, Sarah Coe, a lack of expertise is to blame - not the enthusiasm of the sector. Interview by Simon Jennings

There is plenty of will among local councils to tackle environmental issues, as a full house at the Local Government Association’s (LGA) November conference on climate change testified. “We are finding that some councils are really seizing the initiative,” says Coe.

Nearly half of the 468 local authorities in England and Wales have signed up to the Nottingham Declaration. This is an agreement launched by Nottingham City Council in partnership with energy-saving organisations, which serves as a pledge from councils to actively tackle climate change both in their area and nationally.

But a lack of autonomy at the level of local government has seen councils pegged back from tackling environmental issues. In some cases, government policy overrides that of councils – even if it is less environmentally friendly. A case in point is the government’s “worrying” planning policy that demands only minimum environmental conditions to be met by developers. In areas where councils have driven standards up in order to satisfy local environmental concerns, their policy is unenforceable because central government guidelines do not support them – a situation that Coe describes as “a backward step”.

Lobbying central government on autonomy for local authorities has always been a priority for the LGA. But nowhere is it more important than in the context of tackling threats to the environment.

Coe supports the devolution of powers to the local level in order to address environmental issues. “It’s about trusting a local authority, locally elected people, to deliver what’s best for local people in their own way.”

She points out that “the benefit is negligible” where local authorities have to report to central government, and that increased freedom brings better results.

“The way forward is to report what’s happened in your area [to cut carbon emissions] and if you’re delivering it in Middlesbrough through action on insulation, fine. And if you’re delivering it in Croydon by work on transport, equally fine. You’ll work out the best thing for your area.”

Despite the progress made on many local authorities, there are still 200 or so that have not yet signed the Nottingham Declaration. Coe says that the blame for this does not rest solely with the authorities themselves but comes down to a lack of available environmental expertise.

“The big issue for me is the smaller councils that need to get started that don’t have the resources,” she says.

For example, the Carbon Management Programme (CMP) run by the Carbon Trust is the principle training scheme for councils looking to curtail carbon emissions. But there are not enough training places to meet demand.

To train members of the remaining councils that have yet to sign up to the CMP would take another six years at the current rate. Coe believes central government could supply extra funding so that the training can be carried out in the next 12 months.

“The trouble with all government funding is you never know what’s going to be happening next year. It’s very stop-start, very difficult to plan and budget. You need certainty about it.”

Unfortunately, the funding issue is only going to get worse as environmental concern becomes a priority for both the public and private sectors. Coe describes it as “a double problem” where funds are already limited while more and more environmental experts are “creamed off” by the private sector making resources scarce and more expensive for local councils.

According to Defra, it would cost £28M to have a specialised environmental role on local councils. But, despite the budget constraints, local authorities are waking up to environmental concerns. And climate change is becoming a specific priority for local councils, according to Coe.

Where funds are lacking, many authorities are being “quite creative” by pooling resources in order to share environmental expertise. For example, Epsom and Ewell Borough Council and Elmbridge Borough Council have appointed a joint position on environmental strategy.

Other authorities have taken a strong lead on the issue. The Improvement and Development Agency is working with some of them to develop a toolkit for combating climate change in a given sector. Examples of this are how transport departments can encourage cycling or the use of low-emission fuels. These can then be adopted across the country according to suitability.

Councils in Nottingham, Shropshire and Derbyshire have launched communication programmes in the community, whereby residents are given continued support and advice on adopting environmentally responsible behaviour. “The added value is in actually changing behaviour rather than just giving the message,” says Coe.

This budget-intensive approach, funded by Defra, has proved highly successful. But elsewhere Coe believes local councils could do more to make information available about how each of us can help reduce climate change, for example via a website. “It would be nice if there was a link on every front page saying ‘climate change’.”

The LGA is taking effective measures to support local authorities in their fight on climate change. It acts as “a spider in the centre of the web” as it seeks to foster co-operation and disseminate advice and notices of policy changes between local authorities. The LGA’s conference on climate change in November provided a forum for sharing strategies and ideas between councils.

Coe also emphasises the role of the LGA in terms of its partnership with other organisations – such as the Energy Saving Trust, the Improvement and Development Agency, and the Carbon Trust – helping local authorities to combat threats to the environment.

Together, these organisations have created an online resource for local authorities trying to tackle climate change. Once authorities have signed the Nottingham Declaration, the website directs them on appropriate procedures according to the priorities of the local community.

The LGA plays a central role in getting councils to sign up to the Nottingham Declaration, with a current campaign informing local authorities that have not yet joined the scheme.

It has also carried out various regional launches of the campaign providing action packs and direct support on how to take measures to prevent climate change. Signing up to the scheme puts environmental issues high up a council’s central agenda, rather than letting them remain a side issue in a specific service area.

When it comes to emissions, there are currently no tangible targets. But the LGA is also working with government departments on a performance framework. Coe believes this is a key requirement for progress. “Councils must be required to look at measures on climate change in outcome terms.”

The LGA hopes the performance framework will give local bodies greater flexibility on tackling issues specific to their area.

The LGA’s recently launched Climate Change Commission will help matters further at the local level. Drawn up in October, the Commission will source specialists from NGOs, local government and the environment sector to research concrete action that different councils can take to optimise carbon reduction in their area. It seeks to identify areas such as housing or transport where environmental policies would be most effective in a given locality and where it is most cost effective to implement them.

The commission will also reinforce the idea that there is a particular need for leadership at the local level and give authorities the flexibility to react to issues in their own area. Authorities must recognise that environmental concerns cut across government departments, such as housing, transport or planning and need to be dealt with collectively.

The LGA is championing a broad approach to environmental issues, not only working across council departments but also in partnership with local businesses, the voluntary sector and public bodies.

“We see our role as a part of that partnership, so at local level, it’s not so much about who gets what money and who does what. It’s about delivering the right outcome.”

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