Despite climate emergency declarations, cash strapped councils are finding it difficult to go green, says report

Three quarters of English local authorities have declared climate emergencies and want to follow through with ambitious action. But skills and funding shortages, combined with a lack of wider support from central government, are holding them back, according to a new report from Green Alliance.

The report recommends that central government does more to harness councils’ enthusiasm and commitment to help meet national climate targets. In fact, unless the government works collaboratively with local authorities on this agenda, it will find it hard to meet its 2050 net zero carbon goal. This is because local authorities have jurisdiction over elements of housing and transport, two highly emitting sectors. More trusted than central government, they can also tailor their approach to local circumstances and are better placed than the government to co-ordinate action and encourage lifestyle changes.

Last week’s spending review provided some relief for local authorities but will not reverse years of funding cuts that have left the environment functions in local authorities severely depleted. Due to their lower capacity and knowledge of the system, less well resourced local authorities also struggle to win funding bids relevant to climate action.

Much of the existing effort to cut national carbon emissions, which has been focused on the power sector, has not significantly intruded on people’s lives. But the next stage of cuts needed to get the UK on track to net zero carbon emissions will involve major changes to transport and housing which will affect everyone.

The report highlights that even very basic support that central government could be providing to local authorities is absent, including assistance with mapping the emissions within local authorities’ control, providing points of contact with central government and a national strategy to improve local capacity and skills relevant to the low carbon agenda.

Green Alliance interviewed 12 local authorities, who spoke anonymously about the difficulties they are facing in meeting their climate commitments. “Around £1.5 billion is what’s needed, which is all of our discretionary spend between now and 2030. If we spent only on this and we did nothing else, then we’d be able to fund it,” stated a representative of a council which had fully costed the action needed. Another discussed the “parent-child relationship” of national and local government: “we need to move away from a transactional relationship, waiting for central government to give us permission or to give us a pot of money,” they said.

Our ambition was to be green but, in practice, it was getting more and more difficult because we were having to cut all the non-statutory services. One of the first challenges was as simple as convincing my colleagues that we would protect our very, very, very small sustainability team of two officers and that, if we cut that team, it would be very, very difficult then to bring them back.
An interviewee

The report calls for a joint approach between central government and local authorities, and for this to be linked to the forthcoming devolution white paper. This climate action framework should include sufficient funding, a strategic approach to skills development and more policy support from central government. The report also argues for more flexibility for local authorities to use their powers within the planning system to accelerate decarbonisation.

The government is missing a trick when it comes to working with local authorities on climate-related issues. Councils are close to the people, businesses and environments which they serve and our interviews have revealed just how passionate they are to address the climate emergency and do the best for their communities. They will be pivotal in supporting the roll-out of low carbon housing and transport policies and ensuring they work for everyone, in every community.
Philippa Borrowman, policy adviser, Green Alliance