Achieving net zero sometimes feels like a task akin to touching the sky.
Yet local authorities across the UK are rising up to meet that challenge, with over 95% of councils – 570 in total – having now declared a climate emergency and taking steps to reduce their emissions. My own council, Staffordshire, has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 across all aspects of our service provision and estate.
Accomplishing ambitious carbon targets will only be possible with strong local leadership. Yet, as with so many of the big issues we face, this is clearly not something councils can achieve alone. Whilst greater funding and strategic planning powers for councils are needed to achieve the Government’s targets, neither councils nor Whitehall can hope to reach net zero without strong private sector input and collaboration. What this looks like in practice – how we can foster closer and more productive relationships between local authorities and the private sector – was the subject of a fascinating Solace and Amey roundtable I recently chaired, which brought together council chief executives and other senior officers to share experience, expertise and best practice.
Even taking an optimistic view, the severe strain on council budgets shows no signs of abating, and finding ways to balance net zero goals with other key priorities, such as housing, is a challenge for local leaders across the country. Creating consensus across communities for the green agenda, and what that means in practical terms, will be crucial to progress, and is something that local authorities have a key role in which to play. Whether thinking about sustainable transport solutions such as electrical vehicle (EV) charging points or on-demand buses, adapting our high streets to meet the post-retail reality, or re-purposing older, inefficient buildings, how our villages, town and cities move towards a more sustainable future must be a discussion that takes place with the communities that live in them. Part of our role as councils is to make the case for climate action, and communicate effectively with our residents what we are trying to achieve.
Another part of the equation we need to consider is that of workforce capability and capacity. We are acutely aware that the journey to net zero needs the right people to lead it. Chris Skidmore MP’s review highlighted that the transition to net zero offers excellent opportunities to create highly skilled green jobs, yet both within local government and the private sector many organisations are currently facing significant workforce recruitment and retention challenges. We all have a role to play in addressing this issue, and schemes such as our Open Door Staffordshire work placement programme, which offers job seekers the chance to develop their skills and employability, or Amey’s Early Careers programme, are a good place to start, recruiting workers from diverse communities and at all stages in their career development.
However, even with such a workforce, no one expects council employees to be experts in every field, and with technology rapidly changing, it’s more important than ever that we utilise the skills and knowledge in the private sector to reach our ambitious carbon targets. This is something we’re keenly aware of in Staffordshire, and as part of our Climate Change Action Plan we’re working with Amey to phase in EVs to our highways fleet where appropriate vehicles are available, and to implement hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) fuelling to suitable highways vehicles, machinery and equipment.
The skills on offer within the private sector to manage the kind of complex projects that will be required to reach net zero were clearly on show following our discussion, when we were taken on a tour of the Severn Bridge. Built to a very advanced design in the 1960s to replace the ferry service connecting England and Wales, this iconic structure is supported by 29,000km of cabling, with each cable consisting of around 8,500 individual wire strands, every part of which is expertly inspected and maintained by Amey – no small task given 60 years in the sea spray and westerly winds. A vital economic link between two countries, the Severn Bridge is a true wonder of modern engineering; we were all very grateful to have seen it up close.
It is a paradox that councils themselves are relatively small CO2 emitters – in Staffordshire, we account for 0.6% of the county’s emissions – but in our role as local leaders, we clearly have a significant role to play; the Government’s 2021 Net Zero Strategy suggests that 82% of all emissions can be influenced by local authorities. This juxtaposition suggests strongly that it is only by working with the private sector, building strong organisational bridges, that we can hope to achieve our targets.
John Henderson is chief executive, Staffordshire CC