All of our local communities look different. Some of us live in more rural areas, others more urban. Communities have varied levels of economic and social deprivation, greater or lesser access to nature, older or younger populations, and a differing spread of cultures represented. Different communities will need to respond differently as we transition away from fossil fuels – there is no set answer to what a ‘just transition’ means.
That’s why campaigning for change at the local level is important. And here’s some really good news: local councils have significant powers to influence progress towards net zero.
Research from the Local Government Association (LGA) suggests that local authorities have influence over roughly a third of emissions in their local areas. This is mainly due to their responsibilities in four key areas, shown in the table below.
|Transport||Councils oversee local transport plans and can prioritise decarbonisation efforts. They also play a key role in supporting the transition to electric vehicle use, and developing walking and cycling infrastructure.||Nottingham City Council has installed more than 130 public electric vehicle charging points, and has one of the UK’s largest fleets of electric buses.|
|Buildings||Councils play a key role in ensuring new buildings are energy efficient and old buildings can be retrofitted with better insulation and heating systems. This applies both to council-owned buildings (including council buildings, social housing, commercial units, schools, leisure centres etc.) and privately-owned buildings. They oversee planning and regulation (although they operate within standards set by national government) and can map the housing stock of the area.||Somerset West and Taunton District Council has pledged to manage its buildings and land in a biodiversity-friendly manner and is building zero-carbon council houses, as well as retrofitting existing homes across the district.|
|Energy||Every council can encourage the development of clean energy infrastructure. They can bring relevant local partners together to develop the future of local energy, influence clean energy infrastructure implementation with planning policy, and offer support for local people and community energy organisations to undertake energy projects.||Telford and Wrekin Council has built a publicly-owned solar farm, which has saved more than 13,000 tonnes of CO2 and generated £1.3m for the council.|
|Waste||Councils are responsible for the collection and disposal of household and commercial waste. They can take steps to increase recycling, implement food and garden waste collections, and improve communications about appropriate waste disposal.||Stroud District Council has created a local waste-management company in partnership with neighbouring authorities, and now sends the least waste per capita to landfill.|
Councils are well-placed to deliver on net zero as they are the master planners of places, convenors of civil society and business, and have detailed knowledge of place and people. With their understanding of the specific needs of their locality, they can help ensure the transition to net zero is just and appropriate to place.
Polling shows that councillors are much more trusted than MPs on service delivery (56% to 9%) and telling the truth (44% to 19%), making them by far the most trusted level of government at a time when faith in our public leaders – particularly on climate issues – is low.
Even more good news: anyone can make a difference locally by engaging with their councillors on climate. Generally speaking, councillors want to be contacted by members of the community they represent. They are usually hardworking people, committed to improving their local area, and they are keen to hear how their policies are being received by residents. Many are likely to have been or may still be involved with local community groups, including churches.
As they represent relatively small areas, councillors can be more accessible than MPs. Often, their inboxes are not as full as those of an MP, so they will notice when new people reach out to them. Given most people only write to their councils to complain about something, many will really welcome positive engagement that looks to build a relationship.
It is also important to acknowledge that councils are limited in what they can achieve by the responsibilities and resources devolved to them by central government. The Local Government Association has asked for government to work in closer partnership with local authorities on the net zero agenda, calling for longer-term funding and unambiguous policy positions that allow councils to plan strategically over a number of years. We need to acknowledge this reality in our local engagement, while calling for empowerment of local communities and councils in our national campaigning.
It is worth noting that there are different types of council, which have control over different areas of local infrastructure. These include:
|Unitary authorities (57)||In unitary authorities, the council provides all services and facilities in the area. All councils in Scotland and Wales, and some in England, are unitary authorities. This is generally large towns, cities or small counties.|
|Metropolitan district councils (36)||Metropolitan district councils are responsible for the same areas as unitary authorities – all local services and facilities. They cover the six largest urban areas in England outside of London.|
|County councils (25)||The higher level in a two-tier system, county councils are responsible for strategic decisions and the provision of most services and facilities across a larger area such as schools and learning, libraries, roads and social services.|
|District councils (188)||The lower tier in a two-tier system, district councils are responsible for more localised services such as rubbish collection, recycling, housing and planning applications.|
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