The Prime Minister has made great play in recent weeks of the need to create a more secure supply of energy for the UK, as a result of the war in the Ukraine. Yet perhaps our focus should also be on reducing the amount of fossil-based energy we use in the first place, or at the very least, using decarbonised forms of fuel.
Emerging slowly from the pandemic to be met with a cost-of-living crisis has hardly brought great cheer to the public. Next winter is likely to be severely challenging for the most vulnerable in our local communities. The energy bill rebate, as it stands, is unlikely to make a significant impact and those forced to make a choice between, heating and eating, will likely look to their council for further support.
Thinking longer term, many councils have made their own declarations on achieving net zero in their areas and set off with action plans aimed at achieving this goal. Domestic heating is a major part of a council’s own footprint, as well as that of the wider area, and councils need to provide leadership in decarbonisation, not only through their direct actions on their own assets, but also through their stewardship of the wider area. With an estimated 19m houses requiring retrofit between now and 2050, and the average price tag for retrofitting coming in at £18,000, this will not be cheap.
Across the political and media landscape, there is no shortage of reference to the potential for a ‘Roaring Twenties’ style recovery as we finally emerge from the majority of restrictions associated with Covid, which have been in place for the majority of the past two years. However, will local government be dancing and singing or is it another false dawn in terms of the prospect of better times ahead?
Whilst the 1920’s have been long considered as a decade of progress, following a global pandemic, which brought trauma to society, it is important to also acknowledge that the 1920s were anything but roaring for many in the UK, instead characterised by growing unemployment, stagnating wages and sluggish productivity.
In any attempts to draw parallels with the present it’s important to not get too carried away with a positive bias. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. As with the 1920s, today’s economic and political landscape is strewn with messy public policy issues that could stifle any roar into a whimper.
Local government is compelled to focus on the immediate problems staring it in the face, the impact of the cuts of the last decade can’t be forgotten. However, longer-term issues that require investment need to also be considered before they creep up and get past the point where they are resolvable.
Looking at revenue firstly, the announcements in the Comprehensive Spending Review were welcomed, £4.8B additional grant over 3 years plus the ability to raise a further £3.7B through council tax and precepts over the period. However, looking at the pressures on the sector with rising demand, inflation, pay increases and the impact of the national insurance rise then in reality this probably equates to at best a standstill position.
APSE’s Local Government Commission 2030 called for a longer-term settlement whilst fair funding was addressed, immediate moves to tackle the social care funding crisis, an end to competitive bidding pots and reform of business rates. Progress is being made but we all know that it hasn’t gone far enough, or fast enough, to resolve the systemic problems of finance, and it remains unclear as to whether fair funding will ever be reviewed!
It may have taken sometime but at last the UK Government has revealed its Net Zero strategy to cut the country’s carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 and to net zero by 2050. In the lead up to COP26 it will give Ministers the opportunity to portray the UK as one of the leading lights when it comes to tackling climate change, but when the dust settles, after the flurry of announcements, will the plan add up or will it fall short?
Much of what has been announced is welcome but it still leaves a number of unanswered questions, as to how the programme will be funded and a concern that yet again local government’s ability to play a key role in delivering such an important policy agenda, has been underplayed.
Whilst the strategy recognises that local government has a key role to play, its not clear as to what Government thinks this role is. What additional powers councils will receive! And, most importantly, whether any additional funding will come through the system to support delivery on the ground.
Connecting the route map to that outlined by the UK Committee on Climate Change, in its sixth carbon budget, is most definitely the correct approach to take - something that we at APSE have argued for over the past few years. Many councils have already forged ahead and focused their own strategies to meet their net zero declarations using this methodology, so perhaps we are really starting to see the beginning of some much needed joined up thinking at a national and local policy level.
Local government faces a triumvirate of hugely important announcements in the coming months which will have major ramifications for its role, responsibilities and resources in the short, mid and long term.
By the end of October, the Chancellor should have announced the findings of a three-year Comprehensive Spending Review, setting out the UK’s priorities for public spending. At present spending departments are submitting proposals to Treasury as to how they intend to tackle a raft of public policy conundrums as well as deliver public services over the period to meet need. Treasury’s role is to identify synergy across Government priorities to maximise the spending of limited resources.
Concern remains for local government over the potential focus on headline capturing capital announcements while the revenue that so many of the frontline services rely on continues to deteriorate. For councils, the pressure also continues to build on covid recovery, reshaping our high streets, digital transformation, the care economy and the housing crisis, to name just a few headaches.
The UK is facing some stark skills shortages, exacerbated by Brexit, and as a result of the pandemic, many of the foreign nationals we have relied upon over the past decades to fill important roles, that keep the economy moving, have returned home. We are struggling to replace them with homegrown labour that either doesn’t have the skills, or the interest, in some of the more mundane but very necessary jobs in a functioning society.
For local government this means that many of the services it provides are struggling to recruit and retain workers to provide care, feed people or ensure the cleanliness of facilities and areas. For these services they are in a real battle with supermarkets and retail distributors, who are prepared to pay more for often simpler job roles. This is an increasingly uphill struggle.
In construction and building maintenance it’s not only tradespeople where there are growing shortages but increasingly councils struggle to recruit architects, surveyors and planners. Local authorities are forced to pay hefty premiums to others to supply these services or to agencies.
From HGV drivers to social workers, we are facing up to the fact that there simply aren’t enough qualified people to go around. Combine this with some of the seismic challenges society faces in a covid recovery, particularly within the care economy and the need to crack on with climate change mitigation and adaptation, then it becomes clear that the only way forward as a nation is to once again ‘grow our own’, but this of course will require enormous investment through the right mechanisms.
David Attenborough’s brilliant book ‘A life on our planet’ is a striking ‘witness statement’ as he describes it, to the impact of climate change on the world, but what it also provides, is some answers. Many of which we could action at a local council level. The rewilding of land to reinstate the natural order of nature, between predatory species and food-chains, the necessity of diverse plant species and tree preservation, in mitigating soil erosion and supporting carbon capture. These steps are not just about the Amazon rainforests, as essential as they are, but how we manage and value our local public realm and urban green space.
Whilst many councils have declared a climate emergency a great many have also declared a climate and ecological emergency; reflecting that responses should not just be about EV charging points or solar panels, but about the preservation, and in many cases reinstatement of land.
From sorting out the bins to strategic oversite of high street renewals, from sunny green parks to pot-holed roads, an awful lot of business starts and ends with local councillors. Those putting themselves up for election this May are probably feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension with regard to not only the electoral process but wondering what they are letting themselves in for.
Of course, some will have been here before and know the restrictions of the existing system but for some newbies it will be a voyage of discovery where they may be about to find out that their bid to change the local ‘world’ for the better comes with limitations and frustrations despite the democratic mandate given to them by local people.
It should not however be unreasonable to expect that having won a local election, and having been entrusted with that local leadership role by the public, that Councillors would have, at the very least, oversight of all public funds spent within neighbourhoods and wider council areas. Rightly they should be regarded as place leaders, the voice of the public, there to allocate scarce resources in a fair and balanced way across all communities; not an easy task given current finances.
How do you build a new greener social, economic and environmental operating system at a local authority level? One small step at a time but with an unrelenting focus on the bigger picture of why these small steps matter.
That larger vision starts with the Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to being net zero by 2050. The trajectory of progress along the route map to that goal is monitored by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) through regular updates; the recent sixth carbon budget report being one of these. The majority of Council’s now have climate change declarations, which set out the scale of their ambitions, with many now having action plans in place to commence operationalising their drive towards carbon neutrality.
Most in local government are committed to the achievement of the aspirations behind tackling climate change but want to know what they need to do within their own service area. The five pillars outlined in the CCC report for action by local government buildings; transport; waste; land use; and electricity generation are a useful lens to look at this through.
For those of you dusting down your action plan responding to climate emergency declarations, following a pause to focus on all things Covid-19, you must have been heartened to hear the fanfare announcing the Prime Ministers ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, but when the noise died down what does it all mean for local government.
In APSE, we have always recognised that if Government wish to meet national targets around carbon neutrality and councils have declared challenging measures locally, then both will be mutually dependent on each other to make significant progress. From wider work we are engaged in this is not only a fact recognised by the Committee on Climate Change but also by the general public in the opinion polling we undertake through Survation.
It is understandable that the Prime Ministers plan has a major focus on job creation, giving a nod to many areas of the country who may benefit from green investment, as part of the levelling up agenda. One criticism would be the scale of the ambition shown, with many calling for much greater levels of spend. A wider package of £12B is welcome but even with the claim that this will stimulate three times as much again, as a contribution from the private sector, it still only takes this to half of the current spend on HS2.