Delivering reductions in greenhouse gases isn’t currently a legal requirement for councils, so strong leadership on climate change within the council itself is essential.
When declaring a climate emergency in 2019, Cotswold District Council created a new councillor role – Cabinet Member for Climate Change and Forward Planning. Having this leadership role has boosted the authority’s efforts to meet its climate goals – which include an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, to be achieved without offsetting or use of carbon credits. This means a real cut in emissions in the local area rather than paying into schemes – that may be distant – to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Before 2019, the local authority had no planning, defined strategy or specialists related to climate change. Giving a councillor the remit for climate action allowed the authority to immediately embark on updating its Local Plan with a new climate focus, ensuring that climate goals are interlinked with other priorities such as developing more affordable housing.
The council built on this appointment by recruiting two staff members who would also act as climate champions – a Climate Action Lead and a Sustainable Transport Officer. The climate champions have a responsibility to ensure the council delivers on its commitments in the following areas:
Reporting against climate action strategies
The council’s climate champions are required to report and evaluate progress towards targets in the climate change plans. This includes an annual report of council climate impacts, with data that measures the council’s success in implementing its climate strategy.
They also report on activities that may not be in line with climate action such as the level of fossil fuel investment carried out by the authority.
Introducing climate champions at councillor and officer level has created a distinct change of culture at the council, with climate change and ecological impacts now considered in every report, in a similar manner to impacts on equality and finances. This shift in focus is making sure decision-making across the authority takes climate issues into account, ensuring they are considered by everyone at the council.
One outcome has been the cancellation of a planned £15 million multistory car park, despite the council’s reliance on car park revenues as a source of income. This signals the council’s new vision to reduce individual car journeys and promote more sustainable transport options.
Another is the creation of a Net-Zero Carbon Toolkit for Building, using a grant from the Local Government Association Housing Advisers Programme. In response to queries from developers and householders, the council has worked with two neighbouring authorities to produce a practical toolkit advising how to create net-zero housing. The toolkit refers to both new build homes and upgrading existing properties. It offers clear guidance and aims to stimulate the decarbonisation of the area’s homes.
The council has also pledged to develop local climate bonds, a form of community municipal investment which allows local people to invest in local infrastructure. The investment will be used to drive the development of renewable energy in the area. This action, developed in partnership with the Green Finance Institute and sustainable investment enterprise Abundance, will also boost community engagement with the climate emergency and create local jobs such as installing solar panels.
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Linking climate change with forward planning
A key to the council’s success so far here has been linking climate change and forward planning into the same councillor’s portfolio. Forward planning sets the council’s direction, policy and framework for decision-making, so linking this directly to the climate agenda allows climate plans to be fully integrated at an early stage
Hire a senior climate champion with expertise
Hiring a senior and well-qualified climate lead officer, who can work strategically to integrate climate action within council policies, has been crucial. It allows the officer to work directly with other senior decision makers, including senior finance officers who influence council investment planning. This was key in the commitment to climate bonds investment.
Collaboration – recognising levers of influence, what you control and what you can affect
For local authorities with smaller budgets and perhaps less direct ability to affect change, working in collaboration is essential. Cotswold District Council is doing this in a range of ways, for example:
£240,000 of funding was secured from the council’s budget to create three climate champion positions at a councillor, senior manager and officer level, and to commission initial climate studies. A substantial proportion of the funding came directly from resource saved from management costs of the cancelled £15 million car park construction project.
From a resourcing perspective, the initial investment in skilled staff members has already paid dividends, with the new staff securing £1.2 million in funding for sustainable housing plans via the Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund. This would not have been possible without this initial council investment into climate-focused staff. It takes dedicated staff time to bid for UK government funding.
Monitoring and reporting requires capacity
The council has committed to reporting its climate impact every year. Other councils should note that reporting impact beyond the council’s directly-controlled activity can be particularly time consuming.
Update local plans – even if this takes time
Updating a Local Plan to incorporate climate and ecological emergency measures is a critical starting point for any local authority. Although this can be slow, it can lead to greater impact in the long-term with land allocations and all future planning decisions following commitments and targets set out in climate emergency declarations.
The importance of shifting focus internally
In addition, this approach clearly communicates the council’s focus internally, allowing staff to get behind it and preventing potential issues further down the line. Before declaring a climate emergency and updating the Local Plan, the authority’s environmental action was limited to statutory services such as noise pollution and tackling fly-tipping, with very limited opportunities for more strategic or impactful measures.
Explore the council’s net zero carbon toolkit.
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