By Vikki Slade, Associate Director
During 2019, more than two-thirds of councils passed a Climate Emergency Motion. The majority pledged to make their local authority carbon neutral by 2030 and some went much further making commitments on behalf of their communities.
This might seem like over-reach, but local authorities are major employers and act as commissioner and purchaser of goods and services. Their influence far extends beyond the services that they directly deliver. Different layers of local government have different responsibilities but the one thing they all have in common is that people cannot opt out.
Their decisions affect the local community whether they like it or not. Take the decision to turn off streetlights overnight that my council, BCP, undertook nearly 10 years ago. Residents complained we were just trying to save money (which is true), but it was the first step in a journey to reduce financial waste, as well as reduce carbon, light pollution and improve the natural environment. It was quickly followed by a switch to LED lighting and, following our Climate Motion last year, is now powered by 100% renewable energy. What’s interesting is that I cannot remember the last person to complain about any of those policies now.
Decisions about what road maintenance to prioritise, switching spending away from cars and towards active travel or public transport are controversial but once embedded they reach way out into the community. This summer has seen a lot of noise about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – indeed, it was what led to me losing control of my council. But look around and see where roads were blocked decades ago and ask people whether they would want them unblocked now, with the inevitable increase in traffic. I have a good idea what the answer might be.
New developments are designed to stop rat-running, with cul-de-sacs and green spaces separating groups of homes. This is because Council planners recognise people would never choose to live on a road blighted by people purely trying to get somewhere else a minute or two quicker. Planning departments, alongside highways, have the capacity to design neighbourhoods that focus on people. And, with council communications teams reaching into every home through the annual council tax bill, residents’ newsletters and some of the most followed social media pages within communities (not to mention libraries, bus shelters and bin lorries), their advertising messages have an unrivalled power to influence behaviour.
At Cratus, we talk about our world being local, because it is. Fundamentally, people want their neighbourhood to have the facilities they need. And by restoring services to communities and away from shiny headquarters in the centre of towns and cities, councils can progress their own climate agenda. They are, however, supporting their community’s climate improvement, too.
There are some key things that councils can do to move the climate agenda on and enable every household to play their part. These include developing a corporate strategy that puts communities first, using this year’s interest in 15-minute neighbourhoods, remote working and active travel, leading by example through decarbonising the council’s vast estate, investing in renewable energy and building zero carbon homes.
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