Step 1. Plan and prioritise

UN Sustainable Development Goals: A Guide for Councils

To begin, councils need to understand the SDGs and think through how they might be applied in the local area. They then need to map their own high-level plans, policies and strategies against the 17 goals and accompanying targets, making choices about which are more relevant to them. Councils can then choose to adopt SDGs and the targets, or their own local versions of them, and consider amending or redrawing their plans to close any identified gaps.

They may have taken several years to negotiate within the UN, but each SDG amounts to only around a dozen words, so it doesn’t take long for an individual to gain an understanding of the them; that is one reason why they are such a powerful idea. Every SDG also has a small number of accompanying targets, plus one or more indicators for each of these targets, intended to measure progress towards it.

"To begin, councils need to understand the SDGs and think through how they might be applied in the local area."


Learn about the SDGs

The first step for any council on its SDG journey need not be a large one. It requires someone in a leadership position, at political or officer level, spending a short time learning about the SDGs and exploring their relevance to the local authority. This may involve some research and awareness-raising to understand what the SDGs are, why local action and administration are so critical to their achievement, and why the council might want to make use of them. It could also consider how other local authorities, in the UK and internationally, are engaging with the SDGs.

The SDGs were intended to encourage integration, cross-cutting action and ‘de-siloeing’ in pursuit of sustainable development. Therefore, when it comes to a decision on moving to the next phase of engagement, it should be taken at senior level with buy-in across the senior leadership team. If only one department or officer is engaging with the SDGs, they are unlikely to have much impact on the council’s contribution to sustainable development.

At this early stage, a council does not have to make any final decisions or commitments about where it is going with the SDGs. It could investigate whether any of its strategic partners, local stakeholders and neighbouring councils are already or are interested in making use of the SDGs, before going further forward. It could even defer a decision and decide to keep a watching brief on the SDGs – but it needs to be aware that the goals are set for the year 2030 and the clock is ticking.

Map the council's priorities to the SDGs

Having decided to engage, a next step is to map the council’s high-level, strategic policies and plans against the 17 SDGs and their accompanying targets. That means identifying which of the council’s own existing goals, targets, plans and policies contribute to each of the SDGs, either broadly supporting the entire goal or one or more of the targets within it. Several councils in England have taken this step, see for example the case studies on Bristol or York. Indeed, this can even work at the neighbourhood level, like Knightsbridge in London, where the SDGs have been integrated within the Neighbourhood Plan.

If the council has a single high-level, strategic, medium-to-long-term plan (such as a ‘One City’ plan) covering all of its key priorities and ambitions for its area, then the mapping exercise could instead be based on that.

This mapping exercise will, inevitably, reveal that several of the 169 SDG targets have no corresponding council policies because councils are not involved in everything connected to sustainable development.

Identify your priority goals and targets

The mapping exercise will lead the council into making choices about which SDGs and targets align most to its own locality and communities. These will likely turn out to be a subset of the 169 targets. The council could then decide to adopt and declare these SDG targets. It might also choose to amend its own stated goals, or supplement them, to align with the SDG targets. This exercise should raise awareness and understanding of the SDGs within the council.

The mapping exercise is also likely to reveal gaps. There will be some compelling SDG targets which the council wants to aim for or see partners achieve, but where it feels it is doing too little, or lacks policies, strategies or partnerships. That may be because it has insufficient resources, or because the issue in question is outside its remit.

Once a gap has been identified, the council can then prioritise it and decide to intervene. It could adopt the target, provide resources and draw up a plan to attain it. Alternatively, the council could identify and understand which other organisations in its area have responsibility for, or an interest in the issue. These organisations could be other public sector bodies, civil society actors and local businesses (or their representative organisations). The council may already have a partnership with the identified organisation, or it may seek to create a new partnership. The council can then adopt the SDG target and attain it through working in partnership.

Case studies

City of York Council