It is inarguable that the last decade in local government was tough financially. Every public policy initiative, every council budget was seemingly dominated by relentless austerity. That has not gone away. However, with climate emergency declarations by local councils now standing at 65% coverage across the UK it would appear that this, not austerity, is our zeitgeist for the next decade.
Declaring an emergency is only a statement of intent; a recognition that urgent action is needed. Some have found that their passionate pledges in the council chamber can give birth to a much starker reality. Action on climate change is devoid of quick fixes. As a first step councils need to establish what is within the scope of their declaration. Is this just about decarbonising councils’ services or is it broader? Looking at supply chains or sub-regional economies? And what pledges can be made about those areas where the council is not simply the sole-trader such as municipal airports or transport infrastructure which invokes national agencies? When we start to peel back the covers issues may seem insurmountable. But this is not the case if action is properly planned.
As a first step we need to continue to deliver local services; we risk alienating support for climate action if services the public rely upon start to crumble around them. APSE analysis with NPI suggests a 12% minimum increase in funding would only bring neighbourhood services funding back up to 2013 levels. However, that minimum injection would provide breathing space at a revenue level to enable frontline services to better meet local needs. It goes without saying that this alone, without injecting some serious cash into both adults and children's services, will simply leave local councils fire-fighting over priorities; risking climate action being put into the 'too hard to do' pile. We also need to see capital schemes that are properly thought through, ending the woefully inefficient bidding rounds that accompany scraps of capital, leading to poor planning, and failing to attract the revenue support to make projects financially sustainable in the long-term.
Secondly, with incidents like the Whaley Bridge dam collapse, which followed half a month’s rain falling in one day, the public view climate change as both real and local. Therefore, we need to consider what councils can realistically do with more immediate adaptation planning. Blue-green infrastructure is one area where councils are able to exert influence, using our public realm as a long-term investment to absorb the impact of extreme weather. Technologies and engineered solutions already exist to develop floodable public spaces, preserve water for reuse and ameliorate the impact of extreme events on our communities. Similarly, if we are to use tree-planting for both carbon capture and heat absorption we cannot simply plant trees and hope for the best; alongside the capital we will need ongoing maintenance plans and to follow proper advisory guidance of how these are maintained in the longer-term. Again, this raises the critical importance of both capital and revenue resources.
Finally, we need to embrace new technologies in both services and the built environment. Councils have notable successes in renewable energy schemes, EV infrastructure, and greening fleet and assets. But councils are still hindered by weaknesses in planning regulations. It is preposterous that councils are frustrated by new developments which rely upon fossil fuel energy systems. Furthermore, whilst many councils are making good progress in moving towards Passivhaus standards for new builds, we have a really pressing issue on retrofitting existing homes and buildings. Estimates suggest it could cost around £17,000 to retrofit a standard home but with domestic housing accounting for around a fifth of UK emissions it’s not an area we can afford to ignore. Equally however, this is a worthwhile investment in the local economy; providing opportunities for green jobs and skills whilst addressing fuel poverty and poor housing.
Anything, as they say is of course possible, but if we are to deliver on the current zeitgeist in local government we will need the money and the powers to take the urgent actions needed. Time is of the essence.