The LGA convened four online workshops with local authority attendees. They aimed to support councils with their climate change action plans. The main purpose of the sessions was to provide local authorities with a safe space to share their views, challenges, and successes in relation to the development and implementation of their action plans.
In March 2022, the the LGA convened four online workshops with 39 local authority attendees. They aimed to support councils with their climate change action plans. The sessions were interactive and invited attendees to consider the following four questions:
- What has one key challenge been in developing/implementing your climate action plan? How have you started to overcome or mitigate it?
- What has your top climate change action plan achievement been to date? What is your top tip for making it a success for others as well?
- How can we ensure that collaboration with local partners is integral to the climate action plan in order to reach net zero and adaptation goals, together?
- How are you monitoring delivery against the objectives in your climate action plan?
The overarching objective was to provide the local authorities with a safe space to share their views, challenges and successes.
In the past two or three years, climate change and wider sustainability issues have risen in priority in local government. While all the roundtables reflected this priority, that does not necessarily mean that implementation of actions to meet stringent net zero targets or to effectively adapt to climate change is easy. So what were the common key findings and reflections from these workshops that particularly struck home?
Collaboration and partnership working
One of the greatest achievements and successes of the local authorities who attended the roundtables was their approach to working with others, both internally and externally. Collaboration across teams including housing, planning, economy, and regeneration is critical. It was widely recognised that councils cannot possibly tackle the climate emergency or achieve ambitious net zero targets in silos and, overall, the response to this via the convening of a range of working groups and partnerships was very strong. There was a wide variety of approaches to collaboration which suited each area’s geographical, political and demographic needs, and some good examples included:
- convening a partnership at a county-level that brings together public sector organisations to collaborate to accelerate the transition to net zero including local universities and the NHS
- taking advantage of COP26 to run local, post-COP events to bring together a range of companies and groups to generate interest and action on climate change
- citizens’ assemblies or residents’ forums to invite engagement from the community
- engage with existing local networks, such as NHS green groups or business panels.
The overarching observation here is that collaboration is key and, in fact, fundamental in achieving targets and commitments made in action plans. This is especially true for those local authorities, who have fewer resources. It was commented that ‘climate change impacts do not have any respect for our human-made geographical boundaries’.
Arguably seen as more challenging by attendees was engaging with other service areas within their own council. Many quoted a struggle to achieve buy-in to the climate change agenda from other departments. Key to this is ensuring that any action plan’s responsibilities are spread across departments with senior managers aware of the necessary requirements. Many attendees cited carbon literacy training as another effective way to bring about engagement, rolling this out to both staff and council members.
Elected members as champions
Whether a council has the resourcing and backing to develop and implement a climate action plan is often a consequence of how much support they have from council elected members, portfolio holders and Chief Executives. This support varies from council to council, depending on the priority given. Council members can act as incredibly useful allies and, indeed, can be fundamental to implementing a successful climate action plan and ensuring climate commitments are embedded across whole authority thinking.
We mentioned above that a diversity of councils were in attendance across the four sessions, from districts to counties, but also urban to rural, affluent to more deprived and so on. A big challenge was ensuring that any climate change action plan reflects the needs and aspirations of everyone in the community, rather than just the privileged few. Inviting the views of the public from all sections of the community via engagement sessions or citizens’ assemblies can help with this and was something that helped many of the councils who attended, albeit leading with the right messaging to ensure buy-in was a challenge in many cases. Of course, running such sessions can also be resource intensive and may require external support, which could act as a barrier in some areas.
Resourcing and financing
The LGA has been supporting local authorities on climate change for many years and the issue of having ample staff time, funding and support to help implement and embed actions, or even write an action plan, is one that has been raised continuously over a long period. Our attendees were at a range of stages in their development of a plan and subsequent project implementation, and often progress is down to how many staff are responsible for leading on the implementation of associated actions.
Many of the attendees, especially from the district and borough councils, only worked on climate change activity part time, with it being added to their existing portfolio of work. As a result, councils reported that having a person in post to deal with climate change still felt like a ‘tick box exercise’. Feedback suggested that with the prioritisation of areas such as social care and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change can be given lower priority. It was inspiring to see the success some of the councils had made, in spite of these challenges.
There was also a mixed story in terms of accessing appropriate funding and financing options. Some had quoted success from recent opportunities such as the Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery (LAD) scheme and Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs air quality improvement funding, but in equal measure we heard many attendees express concern about how they can finance their action plan projects.
Inconsistency of progress
Often directly linked to resourcing and funding gaps is an inconsistency in council progress. A wide range of people attended these workshops, many of whom were representing borough and district councils. Most were in awe at the scale of projects that are being implemented elsewhere, such as in large city/unitary or county councils, but the smaller councils cannot compete at the same scale due to obvious reasons.
Alongside resourcing, other inconsistencies lie in the tools and resources local authorities use to develop and report on their climate change action plans. There is no single climate change action plan template that exists that all local authorities can use, for example. This leads to a large gap in progress across the country; some local authorities who have ample resourcing leading by example and producing high quality action plans, to others that have not produced one because they do not even know where to start.
One attendee commented that climate adaptation remains the ‘poor cousin’ to net zero. The Environment Agency provided a presentation at the second workshop on 8 March 2022 which emphasised the need to integrate climate adaptation into any climate and sustainability-focused action plans given the latest evidence on future climate risk. However, comments made by attendees were around uncertainty on how to do this, with further support being required at all levels.
Monitoring and reporting
Many attendees stated that it can be difficult to define appropriate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in relation to climate change action plans, with scope 1 and 2 emissions being challenging but scope 3 being very difficult to define and measure. Government data can be useful but the most recent is two years old.
There are a range of tools that exist that help monitor the success of action planning, such as the LGA GHG Accounting Tool and the SCATTER approach. Many councils emphasised the importance of these, alongside the establishment of appropriate KPIs. But the usage of tools depends on the awareness of them, knowledge on how to use them effectively and, again, the capacity of an individual to spend the necessary time using them effectively.
Getting on with it
One thing that was apparent across the board was the understanding of councils to focus on implementation and delivery, given the backdrop of urgency against which we need to collectively act. A few attendees said that they are cracking on with the delivery of projects such as LED street lighting and active travel initiatives even if they don’t have an action plan, because they know development and sign off can take a long time. One could interpret this both positively and negatively, as while getting on with implementation is admired, a lack of coordination or monitoring could make quantifying impact more challenging.
Based on the discussions held at the roundtables, top tips to developing and successfully embedding a climate change action plan are:
- keep it simple and action orientated
- allocate roles and responsibilities to different council services
- work in partnership to ensure buy-in for area-wide action plans by convening collaborative groups; this will help support those less-resourced councils too
- embed climate adaptation-focused actions into the plan, avoiding just focusing on net zero
- encourage climate literacy training across the council, using freely available resources and training
- share your successes and learning; think of the best means to engage with your stakeholders
- do not duplicate effort; contact bodies such as the LGA for existing good practice examples which can be replicated
- embed climate change as a key theme into overarching council strategic plans
- attract buy-in to enable the above via engagement sessions (e.g. carbon literacy training) with senior council officers and members
- involve the community; councils exist to serve their residents and they should be put first in any forward-thinking action plan.