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Is localism delivering for climate change?

Faye Scott, senior policy adviser for Green Alliance, discusses the effects of the localism agenda on approaches to climate change in local authorities and the opportunities it offers, drawing on the findings of the recent Is localism delivering for climate change? report.

Green Alliance is an independent think tank working to bring environmental priorities into the political mainstream.

Local authorities have a key role to play in tackling climate change. Their efforts to reduce emissions are vital contributions to meeting national targets. Beyond that, they can pursue energy efficiency housing and sustainable transport through their planning powers, help to secure low carbon jobs and opportunities for their local economy, develop adaptation plans to ensure their communities and local environment are resilient in the face of climate change, and engage their citizens in green living.

Some local authorities are well aware of the potential that taking a lead on climate change offers them. Many understand the economic benefits of reducing their impact and the clear growth opportunities of the low carbon economy. Others are committed to action because they recognise the costs and impacts of dealing with severe weather events and want to avoid them in future. But can we assume that all local authorities will take this far sighted view?

The new reality

Local authorities face a new reality in which they are dealing with significant budget cuts and a localism agenda that promises them the freedom to set their own priorities. Without direction from the centre, and with local authorities no longer subject to national indicators, it is important to understand what this new context means for action on climate change.

Is Localism Delivering?

Green Alliance’s new report, Is localism delivering for climate change?, examines this question. Our local authority survey found that:

  • 37 per cent are deprioritising climate change or state that it was never a priority;
  • 35 per cent remain firm in their commitment to climate change and believe that action could even increase in the context of localism;
  • 28 per cent are narrowing their ambitions to focus on reducing emissions from their estate and ceasing work on wider environmental issues.

Taken together, the results suggest that climate change work has narrowed, is very weak or absent in 65 per cent of local authorities.

Action is being encouraged, so climate change hasn’t fallen off the agenda entirely. But in keeping with the localism agenda, the encouragement is very hands-off and relies on voluntary engagement. The Nottingham Declaration is being revamped and will support local authorities signing up to voluntary targets, the money-making potential of opportunities like the Green Deal are being promoted, and ‘permissive guidance’ will set out what local authorities could do on climate change. All of these are important, but they will only reach those already committed or interested in taking action. They will fail to reach those opting out.

Opportunities

On the positive side, there are opportunities. Localism has created new entities which have the potential to strengthen local action on climate change, as long as they are properly supported and resourced.

Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) are tasked with securing local growth. They bring local authorities and businesses together and many have identified low carbon growth as an area to focus on. Around a third have detailed plans in place that set out how they aim to seize its opportunities. But their ambitions will be hard to realise without specialist expertise and support. And not all LEPs will see the low carbon economy as relevant. To avoid their growth ambitions having a detrimental impact, all LEPs should be tasked with accounting for the climate change impacts of their work programmes.

Neighbourhood plans bring communities and local authorities together in a new way, with the chance to pursue sustainability at the very local level. Emerging evidence from neighbourhood plan ‘front-runners’ suggests that communities will integrate sustainability into their ambitions. As with LEPs, there are significant resource questions about the expert support that would help communities do this effectively. And they must also be allowed to set out greater ambition on sustainability than their local plan.

These opportunities are welcome, and the freedom of localism may see committed local authorities go further, faster than they did before. But local authorities opting out remain a significant problem to address. The freedoms of localism must still come with responsibility for acting on shared challenges like climate change. Without this, the government may find it needs to intervene from the centre further down the line in order to secure the action needed to meet national targets. This will be wholly at odds with their localist ambitions. They can avoid it by developing an approach that allows localities the freedom to tackle climate change in different ways, but is underlined by clarity about the responsibility that each has to act. Green Alliance will be working on what this approach could look like in the coming months and welcomes thoughts from stakeholders.

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