Governance within countries occurs at national and regional (local) levels.
It has taken me a while to get my head around the structure of local governance within the UK; I am sure I am not alone. So, here is my attempt at making it clear (with the help of Rachel Coxcoon’s podcast conversation).
Town or parish councils are the first level of local government, closest to the electorate. There are about 12,000 in Great Britain, but only a third of the population lives within one. Their remit covers cemeteries, play parks, allotments, and road verges.
Aside from these smaller councils, there are 5 types of local authority councils.
County councils and district/borough councils
These represent a 2 tier system in England whereby county councils (24) are responsible for transport, waste, adult social care and education, and districts (181) covering housing, land use, benefits and economic development.
Unitary councils, metropolitan districts and London boroughs
In some areas of the UK, local governance is through a single tier, as is the case in all councils in Wales (22), Scotland (32) and a proportion in England (58 unitary/36 metropolitan/32 London boroughs).
One tier can more easily achieve a joined-up strategy than perhaps in two tier areas. For example, district councils can dictate houses are built to a climate-ready standard but need the county to facilitate connections houses with amenities through cycle lanes and public transport. However, unifying county and district councils could impact overall political power as larger areas become governed by one political party.
In an ideal scenario, there is frequent and effective communication between councils within the same geographical area, working together to provide excellent services for their constituents. Unfortunately, with a mix of political beliefs within each council, this I believe can be problematic.
Declaring a climate emergency
Each council has the power to declare a climate emergency. Bristol City is commonly cited as the first on 13 November 2018, although Rachel indicated Southampton was in fact first. Most of the 409 UK local authorities have made this declaration, state the Climate Emergency UK organisation, although one in five has yet to publish a plan.
Why is it important? According to the Committee on Climate Change, local authorities have powers or influence over about one-third of emissions in their areas. That seems pretty significant.
Each locality has a different carbon emissions profile, as viewed in the visually handy community carbon calculator tool from Impact. The most significant sources of emissions are often within transport, housing and industry – the first two of which the councils can have the most influence. Rachel stated the importance of knowing the source of emissions in the area to prioritise actions delivering maximum outcomes. She gave the example of actioning solar on a council building, which may be nicely visible to locals, but has nowhere near the effect of preventing the construction of inefficient, low-quality housing.
The local plan
The local plan is the formal document outlining exactly how the council moves forward on climate issues. Although it is an arduous task (as indicated by Rachel), it is worth investing time in, as it prevents business-as-usual policies from continuing in a time where radical change is needed. For example, energy-inefficient houses that will not withstand a changing climate are still being built today.
The plan usually sets a net-zero target, outlines what is required to achieve it and proposes engagement with the community. It needs to cover energy-efficient measures to reduce energy demands, technology use and behaviour change. It should address climate mitigation, adaptation strategies and ideally the ecological emergency.
Rachel raised the important point that each area is unique, so blanket policies are not sufficiently nuanced to be effective. Yes, the aims of climate-ready housing, a focus on active and public transport, and promoting a less meat/more plant-based diet, for example, are the same, but implementation will be different for each village, town, and city. This variation does not mean the wheel needs reinventing. There are ways and means of discovering ideas from already successful initiatives. The Climate Emergency UK organisation highlights many examples of best practices undertaken by local authorities. For instance, every aspect of Oxford City Council’s work is approached through the lens of the climate emergency. A 2019 article by Friends of the Earth suggests 33 actions councils can make, including supporting the development of car-sharing projects and enforcing minimum energy standards in privately rented accommodation. For ambitious local government leaders, the UK100 network is another place to share ideas on the common goal of transitioning communities to net-zero.
It is clear funding is tight within councils, as verified by Rachel. In the first instance, the UK compared to other European countries, is more centralised, meaning the government retains control of most money raised from public taxes. There has been a steady decline in funding from the government to local authorities in recent years. Lack of funds means the local plan requires evermore creative strategies to make progress. For example, Rachel highlighted Nottingham City’s Workplace Parking Levy scheme. Here, employers are charged for providing staff parking; generated income is invested in public transport, trams, the train station and the Link bus network, reducing city congestion, emissions and air pollution.
Party politics can also be tricky, especially in areas controlled by county and district councils of different parties. Similarly to the central government process, a change in political administration could lead to an excellent local plan being thrown in the bin and not implemented!
Towards positive change
Despite the messiness of it all, I feel there is a great deal of hope and progress to be made at the local level. Councils working collaboratively with their communities can make substantial change and put evermore required pressure on the central government to up their game.