The IPCC report published on 9 August made for gloomy reading on the true scale of the climate crisis now facing humanity. But the report made clear that the worst of the climate crisis can still be averted if radical action is taken now.

The UK government’s net zero strategy, expected imminently, will set out the country’s path to a low carbon future. For this strategy to be effective – not just in lowering emissions, but ensuring a fair transition that reduces inequality and brings benefits for all – local authorities must play a central role.

Councils are well placed to drive down emissions, particularly when they work in partnership with others. There is huge potential for local climate action to address residents’ needs, where local authorities can leverage their deep connection with their communities.

Tackling fuel poverty is one area where local authorities can lead on climate action, working with innovating community organisations like Manchester’s Carbon Co-op.
Tackling fuel poverty is one area where local authorities can lead on climate action, working with innovating community organisations like Manchester’s Carbon Co-op. Credit: Carbon Co-op

This last point is crucial. Climate action co-created with communities – rather than imposed upon them – will lead to the whole-of-society transformation needed to achieve net zero. As host of November’s COP26 climate summit, it’s vital the UK shows how other nations can support an inclusive and ‘bottom up’ approach to reducing emissions.

Here are three key reasons why government should back local authorities to get the job done.

Local authority spending is a big lever for change

In 2019/20, local authorities spent at least £63 billion with third-party contractors, and 70 to 80% of their carbon footprint related to procured goods and services. Greening this spending creates significant carbon savings, both through direct reductions in emissions and wider change as suppliers adapt their products and services to prioritise sustainability.

One great example of innovation in this area comes from Durham County Council. Through a new framework for assessing the social value of its procurement, the council favours contractors who work with local community businesses in the projects they deliver for the Council. This means shorter supply chains and reduced emissions. The approach meant that when Esh Construction secured the chance to build a new school for the authority – Bowburn Primary – the firm completed the scheme spending 92% in North East England, and 47% in County Durham itself.

Local authorities can maximise the full benefits of climate action

All councils aim to create high-quality jobs, improved wellbeing, reduced inequality and other positive outcomes for their residents. These ambitions fit perfectly with the many benefits unlocked by effective climate action, meaning councils can unite their departments behind low-carbon initiatives, and secure funding from a range of sources.

A leading example is the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s pioneering walking and cycling scheme, Enjoy Waltham Forest. This has created 29km of segregated cycle-way and taught more than 5,000 children to cycle safely. Active travel has risen in the borough, lowering emissions but also creating big improvements in air quality and health. And the pedestrianised areas have created a more pleasant environment for shoppers, boosting local businesses.

Local authorities engage communities

A February 2021 survey by the Local Government Association found that 70% percent of residents trusted local authorities most to make decisions about services in their area, compared to under 20% saying the same of central government. Building on this trust, councils can work with communities to make sure projects meet local needs and create a wider enthusiasm for climate action.

Their impact is even greater when they partner with local community groups. In London, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has teamed up with Repowering, a community benefit society, to launch the North Kensington Community Energy Project. This has led to solar panels being installed on schools, a community centre and sports facility. The scheme generates clean energy, training opportunities for local young people, and profits that feed into a community fund supporting other local causes.

Grassroots action needs government support

These reasons highlight the huge potential for councils to drive progress to net zero. The examples above showcase what can be done, but to really scale up this work quickly, local authorities must have serious backing from central government. That’s why Ashden is an active partner in The Blueprint Coalition – a network of organisations calling on government to give councils greater support. The coalition’s recent report, Recognising Local Authorities as Key Partners in the Net Zero Strategy, sets out four recommendations for Government:

  • Clear commitment to a mutually agreed central framework to embed local authorities as delivery partners in de-carbonisation policies.
  • A clear message that a place-based solution is the best approach for several sectors.
  • A cross-departmental approach to working with local authorities
  • Acknowledgement of the wider co-benefits of delivering on de-carbonisation policies.

There are signs that our message is cutting through. At London Climate Action Week, Parliamentary Under-Secretary Eddie Hughes MP spoke of the “vital work of councils to mobilise their efforts to combat climate change and meet our ambitious net zero targets”.

But warm words and distant targets are not enough. Action needs to be happening now, and top-down policy alone will not deliver the rapid transition needed. That’s why, in partnership with the coalition, we will continue lobbying government to accelerate progress, and make sure powers and resources flow to councils and the communities they serve. A UK government Net Zero Strategy that unleashes the potential of local action will show genuine leadership ahead of COP26 in November.

For more information on what cities and Local Authorities are doing to tackle the climate crisis, sign up to Ashden’s Sustainable Towns and Cities newsletter here.


Simon Brammer

Simon heads up the Cities programme at Ashden, which aims to create liveable, sustainable cities.


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