South East Climate Alliance                            MPZ0002

Written evidence from the South East Climate Alliance

 

Written evidence on the NAO report: Local Government and Net Zero

Submitted by Sally Barnard on behalf of the South East Climate Alliance

 

Introduction:

  1. The South East Climate Alliance (SECA) is a coalition of more than 100 environmental, community and faith groups across the South East of England uniting for urgent action on the climate emergency. See this list of member groups https://seclimatealliance.uk/about/
  2. SECA was set up in 2019 with the initial goal of getting every council in the South East to declare a climate emergency.  When that goal was largely achieved, it shifted focus to engaging with local councils over their climate action plans, sharing good practice, and monitoring progress.
  3. There are 56 local authorities in the SECA area (East and West Sussex, Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight). SECA has been tracking progress across all of these via the SECA Survey of council climate action. This is a regularly updated database and provides the most detailed snapshot of council climate action in our area currently available . 
  4. The SECA Survey demonstrates that there is great variability in local authority responses across the region, with some councils way ahead of others in taking effective action.  
  5. Many of our member groups have been trying to engage with their local councils to encourage them to speed up and scale up their climate action plans.  So we are witness to the huge challenges councils face and the many barriers to action.
  6. We are responding to this call for evidence because it is clear to us all in SECA that, without a national framework, supportive national policies and significant extra resources, local authorities have little chance of driving the level of change needed to meet this global emergency.
  7. There is a lot that local community groups can do to support and work alongside local authorities in driving this agenda.  But without joined-up action between different levels of government, we feel that all our efforts are being blunted. At present many of our members feel frustrated and demoralised because central and local government responses to the climate emergency seem so out of kilter with the scale of action needed.
  8. This submission combines inputs from multiple SECA members across the South East, some of whom will also be responding in their individual capacity. 

 

Executive summary:

Our key points are as follows:

 

  1. Variability of response: Our SECA survey shows some good examples of proactive councils but in general shows a variable and piecemeal response across the councils in our area. Of our 56 councils, 41 have declared a climate emergency and the other 15 have formally recognised the climate emergency since 2019. This appears encouraging, but despite this the pace of change is slow and significant examples of carbon reduction activity are slow to appear.
  2. Communications: there has been progress on coverage of climate issues on council websites but, with notable exceptions, it tends to lack depth and quality. Also councils are often having to reinvent the wheel with climate action due to lack of central communication, coordination and knowledge sharing.
  3. Feedback and monitoring: There is little evidence from council websites of reporting back to residents on progress with action plans. There is no national framework to report against and compare. Lack of information leaves those residents who are awake to the crisis feeling anxious and mistrustful .
  4. Community engagement: there is evidence that this is improving but it remains patchy and poorly resourced.
  5. Policy Framework: The lack of a coherent and joined-up national climate action policy framework covering issues such as green building standards, road building, oil and gas exploration, and airport expansion, is having a detrimental effect on local decision making, and holding councils back.
  6. Resources: Resources and skills available for local authority climate work are not proportional to the scale of the challenge
  7. Further details on each of these points, with evidence, good practice examples, and recommendations, are provided below.

 

VARIABILITY DUE TO THE LACK OF A NATIONAL FRAMEWORK AND TIMESCALES:

  1. Councils have widely varying action plans and targets (data from the latest SECA Survey at the end of June 2021):
  1. The pace of change is slow: In many cases it has taken 12-18 months for councils to produce action plans following their recognition of the climate emergency. For 4 councils no reference at all can be found to a climate action plan.
  2. Councils have competing statutory responsibilities which skew their attention from the climate crisis.
  3. Some quotes from SECA member groups:

“Why is there no road map, timescales, action plan from the Government ? ”

“No local village, town, district or county council in our area has a costed plan which forms part of any nationally coordinated plan”

“We have discovered worrying signs of inability to act satisfactorily on the climate emergency”

“Council climate action strategies highlight the councils limitations due to needs from central government, in effect producing a feedback loop of inaction”

“Some councils are only just starting to recognise their responsibilities”

“Local authorities should be acting in line with central governments plans on a local level”

“Central government needs to exert more authority to make local authorities act...but also more advice “

“The leader of our council is an active climate denier who doesn’t even think they need to take action”

  1. Recommendations for action on variability:

 

COMMUNICATIONS

  1. Only 39% of councils in the SECA area have a mention of climate change on their home page. This has improved from 23% in November 2020
  2. 89% of councils have a dedicated climate page . This has improved from 70% in Nov 2020. However the information is often scanty and uninspiring
  3. Councils do not appear to receive good quality information, help and knowledge sharing from central sources.
  4. Quote from a SECA member:

“There is insufficient information from local councils aimed at residents, businesses and community groups on how each stakeholder can achieve net zero”

  1. Examples of good communication practice:
  1. Recommendations for action on communications:

 

LACK OF FEEDBACK /MONITORING

  1. We have found very few examples of councils feeding back progress on emissions. It is hard to find information on how councils are progressing with their action plans. This leaves residents anxious and distrustful that ‘nothing is happening’ in their area.
  2. There is no national framework to report against and compare
  3. Quotes from SECA members:

“There is no meaningful common baseline for all LAs and Government Departments and networks to follow”

“Our district council is not being transparent with action they are taking”

  1. Example of good practice:
  1. Recommendations for action on feedback and monitoring:

 

LACK OF ENGAGEMENT WITH COMMUNITIES

  1. There is a rich tapestry of climate focussed community action going on out here in our local communities (SECA has at least 110 active community groups in our alliance).
  2. We have a lot to offer to support our local authorities once we develop mutual trust. We also have a key role in holding our local authorities to account.
  3. However our SECA survey shows that council engagement with communities has generally been slow and again very variable.
  4. Some ways in which we can help:
  1. Some quotes from SECA members:

“Some of our councils have no plans to engage with the wider community”

“Our district council is not accepting the offer of help from community groups.

“Local community and special interest groups from a cross section of society should be advising and being consulted as they have a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience to share”

  1. Examples of good practice:
  1. Recommendations for action on community engagement:

 

CENTRAL PLANNING AND POLICIES CAN BE AT ODDS WITH ACHIEVING NET ZERO

  1. Despite strong headline targets, national government policy is incoherent and inconsistent, and fails to address the urgency of reaching net zero.  This can mean councils have to ‘swim upstream’ in creating their own policy responses.
  2. Some examples of this are:

The requirement for new homes to be zero carbon by 2016 was dropped, despite widespread industry buy in.  Councils are still waiting for clear guidance on future building standards, with Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans hamstrung by the lack of clarity and clear leadership from above.

  1. Quotes from SECA members:

“There is a reluctance to have strong local planning permissions, councils are waiting for central government to update building regulations”

“They are unable to demand higher building standards, even if they want to, due to developers appealing and cost going against councils”

  1. Recommendations for action in planning and policy:

 

FUNDING, RESOURCES AND SKILLS

  1. Through our engagement with local authorities it is clear that their finances are under extreme pressure. Budgets have to be focussed on their statutory duties.
  2. Some councils have been successful in bidding for funds, but this is a fragmented approach, and works only for some innovative councils. It does not help long term planning.
  3. Most of the central funding that has been made available has involved bidding for funds on extremely tight timeframes, and for very narrowly constrained projects.  This has often precluded effective planning and consultation, and ended up with projects which are unsustainable. 
  4. Many councils had previously built up a skill base in climate expertise, but this has been eroded in the last decade as funds have been cut.
  5. Quotes from SECA members:

“There is generally a lack of broad funding support for ambitious climate goals at local level”

“The number of officers engaged on climate issues is very limited in our area and they are not always given the right level of resources and support”

“There is a general recognition that targets are needed, but a lack of capability/knowledge of ‘how’”

  1. Examples of good practice:
  1. Recommendations for action:

 

CONCLUSION:

  1. There are three recent reports that make these issues and solutions clear  “Local Authorities and the 6th Carbon Budget” (Climate Change Commission), “Power Shift (UK 100) and “Local Government and Net Zero in England” from the NAO.
  2. SECA calls for the Government to follow the recommendations of these reports urgently and join up central and local government in a national framework of climate action. It is alarming that this is not already in place.

 

 

August 2021