The case for council engagement with the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Many councils across the UK are already actively engaged in and progressing their plans to implement the SDGs. There are compelling arguments for them to do so:

1. Councils are essential for the success of the SDGs

If the SDGs are to be attained, then local action will play a key role - as recognised by both the UK Government, the LGA and the UN. If the SDGs are “the right thing to do” through the coming decade, as recognised by all UN member states, then councils have a moral, not statutory, duty to engage with them. Councils are important drivers of sustainable development in communities, given their local mandate and understanding of the local context, so they are well placed to implement the SDGs in their own locality. Their engagement may also serve to raise wider public awareness of the goals.

2. The SDGs can help focus efforts on the health and wellbeing of people that are the furthest behind

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the extent of social deprivation in our society which councils have been working to address for a long time. The SDGs focus on persistent forms of poverty and deprivation, not just through the statistical insights the SDG indicators communicate but through a cross-cutting principle known as ‘Leave No One Behind’. In agreeing to Agenda 2030, governments committed ‘to endeavour to reach the furthest behind first’, directing efforts towards those that are the most deprived or discriminated against within countries. Though leaving no one behind might seem like an obvious priority for many councils, the renewed focus the SDGs provide gives councils additional legitimacy in calling on other sectors and levels of government to work with them towards this outcome.

3. Engagement supports the declaration of a climate emergency

Most UK councils – almost 300 at the time of writing – have declared a climate emergency, as have the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the UK’s House of Commons. The LGA also declared a climate emergency at the same time as it agreed its motion supporting the SDGs.

Addressing climate change merits very high priority, but the issue is too large and complex, and the stakes too high, for it to be tackled in isolation. It must be dealt with alongside other pressing environmental issues, such as air pollution and biodiversity loss, and action should be taken in ways that complement – and give equal weight to - the pursuit of inclusive growth and social justice. Committing to the SDGs signals overall support for sustainable development, social justice and attacking all the major environmental problems, while taking positive local action to tackle the threat of climate change. One of the SDGs, Goal 13, is ‘to take urgent action to tackle climate change and its impacts’ and links directly to the Paris Climate Agreement.

4. The SDGs can provide a framework for strategic planning, policy review and action

Because they are wide-ranging, comprehensive and framed in terms of targets and indicators, they can help councils set priorities, spot gaps and ensure nothing important is left out. They can help councils to break down silos and work in a joined-up way. They can also help councils review their progress. Addressing climate change at the local level provides opportunities to make progress in other areas – reducing air pollution, combatting fuel poverty, improving public health and fostering businesses of the future, for example.

5. The SDGs can help local authorities foster strategic partnerships

This can be done if they frame joint actions and shared priorities. While public awareness of the SDGs may be low, the kind of organisations councils need to work with to achieve their own aims – in business, the public sector and civil society – are likely to be aware of the SDGs and support them. Businesses in the UK are arguably much further ahead in their engagement with the goals, but if councils’ partners are not yet aware of the them, they may want to back the goals once they learn about the thinking and level of global support behind them.

6. The resource burden for councils to start engaging with the goals is low

Councils are not expected to undertake major new spending commitments or make radical changes in policy as a result of the SDGs. For some of the goals, their influence is limited, while for others, they may already be doing plenty to meet the targets. Councils can, however, ensure their officers and politicians are aware of the them, map them onto existing plans, policies and priorities, and use them to consider whether more action might be needed.