Councils are key to our climate goals

By Paul O'Brien | 02 February 2021
  • Paul O'Brien

It may be hard to imagine any major conferences taking place in the foreseeable future but there is now more than a glimmer of hope that the UK will go ahead and host the 26th UN Climate Change ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP26) in Glasgow in November this year, accelerating the pace of change in meeting climate goals as part of a global effort.

For the UK, the importance of COP26 has been highlighted by the report of the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The sixth carbon budget set out a series of hard-hitting but arguably optimistic reports on actions that could be taken to help the UK meet its own climate goals, with one such report focused on local authorities; with notable differences in structures between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland it makes for a complex conundrum. Where do responsibilities lie? What actions can be taken? And if you want to take action do you actually have the powers to effect change?

While many councils have adopted climate emergency declarations, even this seemingly homogenous approach is in fact heterogeneous when you explore the detail, with differences in timelines, ambitions, geographies and demographics. There is no ‘one plan’ but there is universal agreement that climate change targets can’t be achieved if councils are excluded from the approach. So, what are we calling for?

Firstly, weaknesses in planning systems create a glaring hole in which councils’ ambitions can rapidly sink. Within England the woefully inadequate Planning Policy Framework allows too many delays between consent and building, meaning even now new developments are erected with fossil-fuel boilers, which councils are unable to prevent. There are also difficulties in aligning new developments to green outcomes including transport, heat-networks and public buildings, not to mention more obvious environmental developments on waste management and public realm, which could be seized as opportunities to promote biodiversity, green growth and opportunities for climate change adaptations through public design.

Similarly assets like leisure centres, housing stock and public buildings have huge carbon footprints.

The CCC suggests we would need to scale up the pace of change, from gas boilers to heat-pumps, from the current 20,000 a year to a million heat-pump installations by 2030. This represents a challenge and an opportunity, in social and private housing.

Let’s just imagine what a scaled up retrofit programme would achieve in a relatively short period. With UK homes accounting for 14% of total UK emissions, removing gas boilers, and improving insulation, will make home-heating cheaper and more carbon-efficient for local residents, placing a sizeable dent in the local carbon footprint.

With knowledge of local areas and stock-conditions there is no organisation best placed to drive this forward than local councils.

Transport is a third area for action. Many councils have already announced pedestrianisation schemes alongside clean air zones, driving down the patterns of behaviour reliant upon private vehicle use.

However, we really need to go up a gear. By 2032 the CCC is suggesting a third of all cars will be electric with an EV market share of 90% by 2040. Councils will have a clear role in ensuring delivery of the charging infrastructure but it is vital they are able to coordinate the measures needed to align this with improving distribution networks. Councils will also be mindful of accusations of ‘do as I say not as I do’ if alongside the shift in public EV use they do not address their own fleet.

Aberdeen City Council has developed a cluster of hydrogen activity including two publicly accessible hydrogen refuelling stations and a council fleet including hydrogen buses, cars, vans and waste vehicles.

Of course, public transport has to be part of the solution; we may now need to see a clear turning point in the decades of de-regulation of buses and trains, giving powers back to councils.

The suite of ‘environmental services’ which many councils will recognise as part of their core frontline services role in areas like waste and recycling, land-use, including our public realm, parks and forestry are also a core tool.

The CCC suggests we ramp up recycling rates to reach 70% by 2030 requiring innovative new approaches, to deliver waste minimisation, underground bin systems, alongside big investments in waste technologies. To achieve the aim of phasing out landfill by 2040 (sooner in different parts of the UK) we have to create seismic change. The same has to be said for land-use. Our green public realm can be part of climate change adaptation as well as mitigation, with opportunities to enhance biodiversity and capture carbon as well as following European neighbours with floodable public realm and better management of flood risk.

We also know that renewable energy is now a core part of tackling climate change at a local level. It provides income opportunities for councils as well as local sourcing of green energy. Holistic plans which capture the authority’s own activities to support climate endeavours can be found in a plethora of existing and successful energy schemes; from solar farms to hosting PV schemes on public assets, in many cases councils have been at the fore of these innovative solutions.

What we need now is the trust and resources of central governments to deliver. If the UK is to play the grand host at COP26 we need councils to be at the heart of delivering climate goals. Give us the money and we will do the job.

Paul O’ Brien is chief executive of the Association of Public Service Excellence


comments powered by Disqus
Planning Waste management Transport APSE climate emergency

Coronavirus Update


In light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, some of you may not be able to receive your copy of TheMJ magazine. If you’d like to change your delivery address, please contact our subscriptions department at
Read The MJ for free

Keep up to date by subscribing to our daily newsletter

theMJ products