What Councils Do Matters

Under the UK’s legally binding 2050 Net Zero target, local councils are required to take action on climate. But, UK100’s Polly Billington argues, there’s huge diversity in the way Councils are approaching this, and a big funding gap. She explores how Councils can take ambitious action on climate, support local activists and seriously engage with Net Zero.

If there’s one stereotype that’s been irreversibly destroyed over the past decade, it’s that of ‘the climate activist’. Gone are the days of being written off as a mung bean-sprouting, hemp bag-pushing social pariah – we’ve got the likes of Bianca Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Fonda on our side! But perhaps the biggest development when it comes to fighting climate change is the fact that, these days, the most productive and prominent activists are the people who live next to us.

In an age when globalisation is the standard, local activities are often overlooked. Who cares what goes on in our town when the headlines are being made on the international stage? But the hard truth of the matter is that climate change and all of its sweaty ramifications is a local issue. It’s a local issue when our rural communities have their bridges washed away by flash floods. It’s a local issue when local food producers can’t provide adequate amounts of grub because crops have failed. And it’s a local issue when our city centres and streets get so clogged with polluting traffic fumes that children’s lungs are stunted and people, disproportionately people of colour, die earlier because of our addiction to gas-guzzling cars. Local authorities can arguably be the local activist’s most powerful ally.

It’s a local issue when our rural communities have their bridges washed away by flash floods

The UK has legally committed to meeting Net Zero by 2050, a target that councils are therefore also tied to. While not every local authority is ambitious at making climate action their priority, there are over 100 that are chasing Net Zero targets that will beat the Government in making areas carbon neutral.

Local government doesn’t always deliver; we know that. From badly-run recycling schemes to unpopular new developments, councils across the country can get it wrong. But in the context of ever diminishing budgets and increasing demands on that money, the fact so many are still committed to climate action is impressive. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial ruin is a threat to many. Croydon Council declared insolvency last year, while Luton has had to rely on an annual £33m dividend from its ownership of Luton airport to pay for its core services. These institutions have never been under such tremendous pressure; the only solution is to help them be part of a green recovery.

We’re already seeing how this might look; in my own borough of Hackney (where I’m a councillor), we’ve launched a £1m Green Homes programme that offers insulation measures to all privately owned or rented homes in the borough. That saves residents money, and makes their homes more comfortable. We could see a massive boom in green jobs up and down the country, with the Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) forecasting that, with the right kind of investment, nearly three million local green jobs could be made available in England as we transition towards Net Zero. But many of the decisions that will enable those jobs to be created will be made by local councils. So what councils do matters.

Many of the decisions that will enable green jobs to be created will be made by local councils. So what councils do matters.

One local activist that I’ve worked with is Cllr Joe Porter, the 24-year-old Cabinet Member for Climate Change at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council. For Joe, responding to the climate emergency and the fall-out from COVID-19 means getting involved with the politics and policy of environmentalism. ‘Young people are the future and need to shape the future of our communities. Our generation should be actively involved in tackling climate change, especially policy-making and practical practices on the ground. Electing young people onto local councils is one of the best ways of ensuring climate change is prioritised in communities across the country.’ Joe has been busy advocating for all sorts of things, from biodiversity protections to better cycling routes in his area.

"Electing young people onto local councils is one of the best ways of ensuring climate change is prioritised in communities across the country"

Over in Swansea, we can see an example of how younger people can benefit from Council-led plans aimed at helping elderly populations out of fuel poverty. The City Council (a UK100 member) has been working with Cardiff University to retrofit a number of council homes that were poorly insulated and heat inefficient. By double glazing windows, fitting solar panels and providing ground source heat pumps, residents (many of whom are elderly) no longer have to choose between putting food on the table or heating their bungalows in the winter. That project has seen 14 tradespeople being directly employed, Council staff who faced redundancy being retrained with green skills and four apprentices being brought on to be mentored. Better jobs, better homes, better planet. That’s local power in action.

At UK100, we’re pressing the Government to devolve more powers, funding and capacity to local communities so that they can have more agency over their green recoveries and we’re also calling on more councils to sign up to our pledge to beat the 2050 target. In an ideal world, we’d want every local authority to commit to reaching Net Zero sooner. We can’t afford not to be ambitious anymore and we’ve got to work with local community groups – whether they’re permaculture associations, community energy groups or Transition Towns partners – to ensure that people are properly supported as we adjust to a new and improved reality. The need for a green recovery has never been so urgent and while local councils haven’t always at the vanguard of climate action, their participation and leadership is now essential.