Sustainable action in Bristol

By Jason Lowther and Paul Joyce and Philip Whiteman | 04 April 2023

Around 95% of Britain’s population lives in areas where the local authorities have declared a climate emergency, but many local authorities struggle to take this forward into effective action.

Having heard Bristol City Council had developed a lot of momentum in designing and implementing local action on the climate, we visited the council in February. We wanted to find out about its experiences to date and to see if it might offer insights into what is possible.

Bristol City Council declared a Climate Emergency in 2018, created a One City Climate Strategy in 2020, and formed a Climate Advisory Committee in 2021. In addition to its concern for the climate, it has a strong commitment to the global sustainability agenda. It has incorporated the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda into its long-term design for the city, the One City Plan. This was strengthened with the Plan’s 2021 update. It has also published a Local Voluntary Review of progress on sustainability in 2019, and another Local Voluntary Review in 2022.

What is happening in Bristol is what the United Nations (UN) had hoped. When the 2030 Agenda on sustainability was agreed by some 200 countries in 2015, one of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) approved was goal 11– relevant to the responsibilities of local government: ‘To make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Given this goal, and the need to reduce the negative impacts of cities on the climate system, the 2030 agenda envisaged that local authorities would ‘renew and plan our cities and human settlements’.

But does local government have the support and capacity it needs to deliver the 2030 sustainable development goals? The considered judgement of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) in 2022 was that regional and local government could only do what was required in relation to SDGs if they had four things: an enabling legal framework, ample and clear competencies, adequate capacities, and access to sufficient resources.

The UK situation

The 2022 report on the independent review of UK policy to deliver ‘net zero’ greenhouse gases emissions by 2050 found a majority of local authorities had set a net zero target or declared a climate emergency or had done both. However, it concluded that ‘local authorities have often struggled to act on their ambitions’.

What might be holding back local government action in the UK? The Committee on Climate Change, in its 2022 report to Parliament on progress in reducing emissions, and the National Audit Office, in its 2023 report on decarbonising the power sector, points to a need for central Government to do better on delivery. These reports call for more focus on delivery and delivery planning. From a local government perspective, it can feel as though they lack explicit and strongly developed delivery chains, creating uncertainty about who should be doing what in the multi-level governance of sustainability. Perhaps this situation can also explain the hesitancy in local government about how it should be acting.

The UK central Government’s inadequate focus on delivery could be seen as an opportunity for local government. The most pioneering and innovative local authorities could feel more free to test out viable local responses. They could test solutions to the big problem of accessing finance to fund actions to address the climate crisis and the 2030 agenda.

These solutions must include mobilising private finance, since it seems impossible that taxes and local government budgets will be sufficient, however much central Government increases the financial capacity of local government.

The need for more private finance has been argued in a global context. The UN recently expressed concern about the prospects of accessing sufficient finance and applying it to achieve the SDGs in a timely manner.

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recent report pointed to problems with addressing private financing: ‘The development community is struggling to mobilise private finance for the SDGs, especially in sectors and geographies where funding is most needed’.

In the absence of realistic options to access private finance, there might be a temptation for local government strategies and plans to be constructed as aspirational documents, without clear answers on how to meet the totality of the financial challenges of delivering on the climate crisis and sustainability goals.

The Bristol model

The Bristol City Council approach to the climate crisis and sustainability agenda has been emerging since 2016. Private sector and civil society organisations have been participating in creating the ideas that are to be put into action through the One City Plan over the period 2021-2050.

If successful, some of Bristol’s obvious problems of air pollution, transport congestion, and various types of inequalities might be turned around, while at the same time the city makes its contribution to the national and global effort within a renovated sense of a democratic culture of participation in local government.

Bristol City Council has created a governance structure for city leadership – not just city council leadership. One part of this consists of the City Leaders Group, comprising individuals drawn from the city’s biggest organisations. As chief executive officers of their organisations they have clout.

It meets every two weeks, convened by the Mayor, and is a forum for identifying issues and managing them. Allan Macleod, of Bristol City Office, reckons the city is better networked than in the past. It seems likely the increased strength of networking both explains the possibility of the formation of this group and in turn, the group fosters the city’s whole-of-city approach.

The quality of the political leadership of Bristol has been fundamental to the possibility of a shift to a genuinely ‘collective city leadership’ focused on delivering a long-term strategic foresight.

A Local Government Association (LGA) Corporate Peer Challenge report from late 2018 credited Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees, with setting a new tone for leadership within the city, suggesting he was trusted by partners and council staff, and suggesting he had ‘won the hearts and minds of stakeholders as they are engaged in shaping Bristol’s future in terms of the ‘One City Approach and Plan’.

We heard Mayor Rees had been the original source of the commitment to sustainability. We were told it was his initiative. It will be interesting to see how leadership of the city evolves following the decision to abolish the mayoralty from May 2024.

From the LGA report we infer that collective leadership is a catalytic style of working: ‘The council has, often leading from behind, been the key driving force behind developing the “One City Approach”, through a route of “convene and ask” rather than “lead and tell”’.

In summary, the city council has mobilised the private sector and civil society to help deliver the Bristol One City Plan and to invest on a significant scale through a joint venture – the City Leap Partnership – that helps reduce the financing problem for local action on the climate and sustainability.

Paul Joyce is associate, Jason Lowther is head of department, and Philip Whiteman is lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham


The MJ Case Studies

Two types of partnership mechanism in Bristol

The production of the Bristol One City Plan (2021-2050) was managed by the City Office, which was resourced by the city council and the University of Bristol. The plan sets out a path to deliver the UN’s sustainable development goals and to co-ordinate local action on the climate crisis. Delivery of the plan involves at least two types of partnership activity.

Type 1: The thematic boards

The city council and its partners use six One City Boards to support networking and steer the evolution of the One City Plan. These boards are thematically based and have been assisted in addressing the sustainable development agenda by the work of the Bristol City Office. It can be argued that the boards are another manifestation of the commitment to collective leadership. This is partly demonstrated by the fact that each have two chairs, only one of which is a councillor.

The plan states Bristol will be carbon neutral and climate resilient in 2030.

Actions and goals to achieve this involve training, new jobs, investment, strategy and policy development, changes to health and social care systems, changes to supply chains, and retrofitting housing stock.

After 2029, the planned items in relation to the climate crisis are expressed largely as outcomes. In the years 2030 to 2039 the plan says: that publicly-funded institutions and corporate businesses will have ‘divested funds’ so financial activity ‘does not contribute to climate change’ and climate and other outcomes will be better in every city ward.

In the period 2040-2050 the social infrastructure will function ‘even during the worst impacts of climate change’ and ‘critical infrastructure and residential properties’ can cope with extreme effects of climate change.

Type 2: The joint venture

In February, Cllr Kye Dudd, cabinet member for climate, ecology, waste and energy, identified finance as the biggest barrier to the completion of the decarbonisation project in Bristol. He estimated £5bn was needed for the decarbonisation of the local energy system and another £5-10bn was needed to decarbonise the transport system.

In January, shortly before our visit, contracts were signed for the City Leap Energy Partnership. Cllr Dudd forecast that some £600m of investment would be delivered by it in the first five years. As a result, emissions will be cut and new jobs created. But this is a 20-year partnership that it is hoped will deliver at least £1bn of investment into decarbonisation of the city’s energy system over its lifetime.

The Bristol City Leap initiative is being delivered through a joint venture company in which the council has a 50% stake in terms of the shares. The council’s main strategic partner is a company called Ameresco, a North American renewable energy and energy-efficiency business. According to its website, Ameresco has conducted successful projects with US Government at federal, state, and local levels, as well as a range of other customers.

We were told Bristol City Council’s strategic partner was bringing a subcontractor, Vattenfall, which is the Swedish state energy company.

This is a creative partnership-based approach to addressing the finance problem of sustainable development. It will be interesting to see how well it delivers funding for Bristol’s local energy policy, given the examples of other UK local authority energy partnerships that have floundered.

Capacity is not just a matter of finance. It is also dependent on skills and organisational capabilities. Bristol City Council was better placed in terms of its internal technical, planning, legal, and financial expertise at the beginning of the work that led to the joint venture than it was in early 2023.

Having this capacity matters. It is something other local authorities would need to factor into their calculations when thinking about experimenting with something similar.

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