Is localism delivering for climate change?

With council enthusiasm for tackling climate change waning and the commitment of local enterprise partnerships as yet unproven, central direction may become inevitable, says Faye Scott

Local authorities are central to action on climate change. They have a vital role in reducing emissions and contributing to national climate change targets. Their planning powers are also an important route to securing lower-carbon communities, transport and energy.

In the context of localism, councils are free to determine their priorities and no longer have any clear responsibility for acting on climate change. Budget cuts have also demanded some difficult decisions. But local action remains essential.

A recent Green Alliance survey of local authorities 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, and efforts to encourage action are hands-off.

The Nottingham Declaration, which commits local authority signatories to work towards reducing global warming emissions, will support councils in signing up to voluntary targets. The government’s Green Deal is a financial opportunity for motivated local authorities.

The government will also be sending out guidance on climate change to local authorities that will set out the benefits of taking action. These are useful support for committed and interested local authorities, but they will fail to reach those opting out.

The survey is the also first to examine local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) from an environmental point of view. It found that the majority of the 37 LEPs mention the low-carbon economy in their vision or priorities, and about one-third set out their plans for maximising low-carbon growth in detail. But realising their goals will need expert support.

The government’s low-carbon economy ambitions and efforts to catalyse local economic growth are mutually reinforcing. The right support should be put in place to make the most of these links. That said, not all LEPs will see low-carbon opportunities as a priority. To avoid detrimental impacts, all LEPs should be tasked with accounting for the climate change impacts of their work programmes.

Neighbourhood planning is another context that could be a new route to pursuing sustainability. A number of the neighbourhood plan frontrunners are integrating sustainability into their ambitions, for example, using it as an opportunity to examine community energy generation.

As with LEPs, there are significant resource questions about the expert support that would help communities do this effectively. It is also important that committed neighbourhoods can be more ambitious than their local plan, rather than the pursuit of energy efficiency in new buildings or sustainable transport in their neighbourhood being seen as a brake on development.

Localism has to come with continuing responsibility to act on shared problems like climate change. This does not have to involve centralised targets. It can and must allow for local freedom to act in different ways, at the same time as securing a contribution from all local

This is an urgent challenge. Without an approach that secures action from all local authorities, the government risks having to intervene from the centre a few years down the line in a manner wholly at odds with its localist ambitions.

Faye Scott is senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, an independent think-tank working to bring environmental priorities into the political mainstream.

The survey results can be found here.

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