National progress to net zero is threatened by under-investment and stop-start policies.

From London to Leeds, local authorities drive climate action


Posted By:

Cara Jenkinson

Cities manager

BrookERS volunteers clearing rubbish from Pymmes Brook in Edmonton, Enfield. Working with local residents, the collaboration between Thames 21 and Enfield Council has restored rivers and created new ponds, woods and wetlands to build climate resilience in north London. Winner of the 2023 Ashden Award for Local Nature Recoverers, celebrating inclusive, community-focused adaptation initiatives. Credit: Josh Caius/Ashden

First published in Unlock Net Zero.

National progress to net zero is threatened by under-investment and stop-start policies. So it’s welcome news that, in many cases, cities and communities are driving forward the green transition in their area.

Local authorities, in particular, have recognised that climate action can improve people’s lives through lower energy bills, better air quality and the growth of good green jobs. Their projects are drawing on a wide range of benefits to win funding, spark collaboration and ensure resident support.

Most UK cities have declared climate emergencies, have climate action plans in place and are now delivering across a wide range of issues including buildings, transport, waste and nature recovery. A place-based approach allows them to tailor their work to local needs and priorities.

Ashden, a climate solutions charity, is working with authorities to develop projects and share insights from pioneering work. It’s clear that scaling up or replicating innovation will be a defining challenge in the country’s journey to net zero. Many councils lack the resources and connections to do this themselves.

We’ve picked out four exciting projects, and the factors that make them a success.

Enfield – community digs in for flood defence

Today’s climate emergency is worsened by threats to the natural world. So action to restore and protect nature can dramatically improve the resilience of our cities. In North London, Enfield Council and environmental charity Thames21 have protected communities from extreme weather by bringing new life to neglected waterways.

Local volunteers are at the heart of the action. 5,500 of them have been hard at work restoring local brooks that had been hemmed in by concrete, and creating new woods and wetlands. Work to restore the brooks has included removing artificial materials and bringing them back to surface level. This allows these waterways to wind to across the land, and creates floodplains that can be safely submerged after heavy rain. This has created benefits for plants and animals too.

13 new wetlands have arrived too, introduced by digging ditches and boosting vegetation in local parks. And planting more than 130,000 trees has created 80 hectares of publicly accessible native woodland, bringing further protection from extreme weather.

More info and video


Leicester – boosting bus use and cycling

Transport is a major contributor to carbon emissions in most cities, and car dominance has led to high pollution and congestion. This has been a particular challenge in Leicester, which is one of the UK’s top five fastest growing cities.

Its drawing on investment from the government’s Transforming Cities Fund to dramatically boost bus use and cycling. Projects include an electric express bus network linking transport, retail, employment, educational and health hubs. The city has also installed 8km of bus lanes and 26km of new cycle and walking routes, and committed to make 80% of Leicester’s streets 20mph zones.

Leeds – warming homes with an area-based approach

Buildings also make up a large proportion of cities’ carbon emissions. This is related to the construction of new homes and offices, but also the effect of older, leaky housing stock. With energy prices still double their pre-pandemic levels, poor energy efficiency is leading to high levels of fuel poverty with devastating consequences on physical and mental health.

Leeds City Council has shown the benefit of area-based retrofit, targeting support to a particular neighbourhood. This stands against the more common approach of upgrading houses of a particular type or tenancy in different locations. This second approach if often complex, inefficient for councils and contractors, and misses chances to tackle wider community issues.

The city’s Holbeck neighbourhood ranked in the top 1% of the UK’s most deprived areas. Here the council dedicated £10m to upgrading 300 homes, first making them weathertight and then improving energy efficiency with news windows and doors, loft insulation and external wall insulation. Average home temperatures rose from 12°C to 18°C, leaving improved physical and mental health, hundreds of green jobs created, and lifetime savings of 85 tonnes of CO2 per property.


Bristol – an appetite to tackle food waste

Waste management is also a top priority for many cities. Waste charity WRAP estimate that food waste costs a four-person household around £1000 per year, and results in emissions equivalent to 3% of the UK’s carbon footprint. In Bristol, 20,000 tonnes of food are thrown away every year.

Bristol City Council has a developed a menu of solutions to the problem, including requirements within its good food and catering procurement policy. There are also awards for local schools and businesses that cut food and packaging waste, while publicity campaigns have educated residents on how to throw less produce away, and make use the council’s food waste collection service.

Biomethane produced from thrown-away food powers local homes, schools and businesses – as well as the Bio-Bus, a great public transport option for residents.


Key insights: what makes local climate action work? 

Maximise social impact:

Well-targeted climate action boosts local health, economies, resilience and community cohesion. Maximising these benefits creates a stronger business case and brings decision-makers and communities on board. The area-based retrofit project in Leeds included debt advice and action on anti-social behaviour as well as upgrading properties. This drew in residents to take part – 95% agreed to have work done.

Build partnerships:

Councils across the UK are strapped for cash, and most successful initiatives involve partnerships which can unlock additional funding and boost delivery capacity. Enfield’s partnership with Thames 21 allowed the council to bid for additional funding and to carry out extensive community engagement. Bristol’s Food Waste Action Group brings together the council, waste collection company Bristol Waste, FareShare and the city’s universities and has allowed a holistic approach to food waste reduction.

Involve communities at every stage:

Good community engagement is vital. This takes resource and time, but if done badly or not at all, the backlash to climate initiatives can set progress back by years. In all of the examples above, councils prioritised community engagement. In Leeds, the council invested the time to knock on all of the doors in the neighbourhood, and set up a community drop-in hub.

Leicester worked with Sustrans, British Cycling and Living Streets to create a broader cycling culture in the city. It also runs regular Open Streets events. These bring the community together for walks, guided tours and bike try-outs around the city’s streets.


Ashden runs a local authority learning networks focused on key themes such as retrofit, community engagement and adaptation. Learn more here.

Read More

News, resources and events for local authorities

Our towns and cities bulletin helps you deliver high-impact climate action. Discover useful tools and opportunities, whatever your council’s size and budget.

This site uses cookies to provide you with the best user experience. By using the Ashden website, you accept our use of cookies.

Stay up to date

Be the first to know about our latest projects and news