The climate emergency is the most pressing issue of our generation. Our planet is already in crisis, and without urgent action, things will only get worse. But the politics of Westminster feels distant to many. While MPs are accessible, steering the ship of state is a vast challenge for anyone.
Climate action at a local level
In comparison, local councillors are responsible for smaller wards, and can be contacted more easily. What’s more, they are not subject to the same strict party whipping, and are freer to make common-sense decisions. Indeed, if you wanted to make a difference in your local area, it would be a lot easier to get elected to your council, than to go through the rigorous process of becoming an MP.
I spoke with two councillors trying to make a difference at the local level, to look at what local authorities can do to combat the climate emergency.
Andy Brown (Craven District Council)
Andy Brown is a Green Party councillor in opposition on Craven District Council. First elected in 2017, Andy is keen to point out that, at the local level, his Conservative colleagues (who hold a slim majority on the council) are much more amenable than their parliamentary counterparts:
“When you look at a room of, say, 25 Conservatives, you assume they are going to be a block who think identically. Well, of course, they’re not, you start talking to them, several of them are actually quite passionate about their local environment. And several have got quite reasonable ideas, bad ideas in other things, but you find where you agree, you find the people who will get behind the motion that you’re going to propose, and you get to consensus.”
What’s more, the repeated success of Greens in the district has had a clear impact on the council’s policy. Andy notes that the Conservatives’ majority was put at risk by the election of two more Green councillors in 2018. He was then able to persuade them to unanimously vote to declare a climate emergency, putting aside some money for environmental measures.
Ensuring environmentally friendly housing
For Andy, the key issue for local government is housing. Councils can approve neighbourhood plans, and too often local councillors aren’t using their powers to ensure sustainable houses.
“We are building new houses in my locality, we’ve already built something like 1,800. Almost none of them have solar panels, almost none of them have electric vehicle charging points. I think I’m correct in saying absolutely none of them have a heat pump.
“Not a single major planning application has come in with anything meaningful, until probably the last two months when I’ve gradually persuaded the committee that we need to start turning down things that come with that sort of approach, and changing hearts and minds. Now, if we had been doing things like that for 20 years, we could have insulated every occupied home in the country.”
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He approves of government plans to set aside money for heat pumps, but noted that far more could, and should be done, to help insulate homes in areas like Bradford, which have a high density of former council housing. Moreover, Andy is critical of the lack of power given to local government to decide its own strategy.
“Very little actually genuinely gets decided locally. But the overwhelming thrust of the law is set nationally. There is a presumption in favour of development, and you must go with it. And there’s a little word ‘sustainable’ stuck in-between. And we can be taken to court and prosecuted if we, as a planning committee, say we want to do something better than that.”
Even with these limited powers, local councillors can achieve a lot. Andy points to action by one of his colleagues, David Noland, in advocating for more cycle routes in the area, and of his own work engaging with Conservatives on the council. Just by being in the room, they are able to put the climate emergency higher on the agenda.
Alison Teal (Sheffield City Council)
I also had the pleasure of speaking with Alison Teal. Since their success in the 2021 local elections, Alison and her fellow Greens are now in administration with Labour. Alison believes their success in May was in part due to Sheffield’s previous Labour administration not listening to residents on environmental issues:
“I think in areas where you’ve got the idea of a safe seat, very little happens. Because they don’t need to do anything for you. And I think that that’s what the disconnect is.”
Now that the Greens are in administration with Labour, the pressure is on Alison and her colleagues to get things done. In October, the council voted to be one of the first in England to introduce a clean air zone. It has applied for grants to retrofit homes, and has received funding to improve green travel.
However, too much power still lies with Westminster. England’s planning inspectorate, for example, can overturn any decisions by the council about where homes are built. Alison told me, “If we could have more local powers in terms of planning, that would be a huge difference to what local authorities can achieve.”
An over-centralised system
With so many green projects such as transport, insulation, or energy, reliant on government grants, it is also the case that the money to decarbonise local government often lies with Whitehall.
Alison highlighted an example where central government’s overwhelming power led to local calamity. One of the key issues at the May elections in Sheffield was the felling of thousands of trees by a private contractor hired by the council. Alison stresses that it was central government that had insisted on undergoing this process:
“The trees contract as I understand it came about because the government stipulated that it’s this or nothing. If you don’t sign up to this PFI and allow us to launder public money and put it into private hands, you’ll get no money for your roads.”
Councillors still have influence at the local level, particularly when providing leadership as community champions. Alison was clearly proud of being able to support grassroots food-growing initiatives and sustainable environment groups, for example.
“I’m really keen on projects about urban food-growing. These might be tiny in the big scheme of things, but they can all add up. And so I’m really keen that we get more of that going and encouraging more peri-urban farming to reduce the supply chains to make us more self-sufficient.”
Importance of environmentally conscious councillors
Alison points out that retrofitting and insulation are examples of key areas where community leaders and local authorities can meet the needs of the community and create spaces for learning and development:
“I know lots of people will insulate their own lofts, for example. But, because it’s going to take quite a while to produce enough people with the skills, you will probably be seeing a lot of DIY.
“Something local authorities could do would be to have a house set up with lots of educational information about how people can make a difference to their own homes. So I think that local authorities can play a big role in terms of that educational aspect, making things as easy as possible, and making that information accessible.”
Ultimately, Britain is still the most centralised country in Western Europe, and there is only so much local authorities can do by themselves. But having more environmentally conscious councillors can result in better leadership at the community level, and a greater focus on the climate emergency in the delivery of services.