UN SDG: Background

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Though the public health crisis is not over, we also face a period of economic uncertainty. COVID-19 has exposed the existing socio-economic inequalities in our society with shocking statistics emerging on the disproportionate loss of life for certain demographic groups, income levels or occupations. We now face the very real possibility that more people across the country will experience deep levels of financial insecurity or poverty, leading to further demand on limited public resources. At the same time, we must acknowledge the reality of a warming climate and other pressing environmental challenges, and the risk these pose to our future.

While this guide was created before the COVID-19 pandemic, we have updated some of it to reflect the current context. The challenges we now face further reinforce the need for coherent decision-making within all levels of government to ensure that efforts today lead to better outcomes tomorrow. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals can be used to future-proof and consolidate the plans developed in response to COVID-19, leading to greater economic and social resilience and a healthier and sustainable environment. 

"The challenges we now face further reinforce the need for coherent decision-making within all levels of government to ensure that efforts today lead to better outcomes tomorrow."
Getting to know the goals

The SDGs underpin UN Resolution 70/1, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 goals and their 169 accompanying targets, agreed by all UN member states in 2015, represent the world’s most broad, ambitious and comprehensive agreement on sustainable development to date. This means increasing and spreading prosperity around the globe, combined with ending social injustice and poverty, and improving health and wellbeing, all while protecting the environment – including the climate and biodiversity – for current and future generations.

If the SDGs are to be realised locally, nationally and around the world, then every level of society will need to act. Councils are on the frontline of many of the challenges the SDGs seek to resolve, but the wider national context will be crucial in doing so. To play their full part in implementing these goals, councils rely on partnership between local and national government, and the recognition that the SDGs are a shared responsibility.

Some of the goals and targets are more applicable to councils than others. For example, SDG 11: ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’, was negotiated and agreed largely as a result of sustained lobbying by international local government organisations. This SDG is seen as foremost among the 17 in focussing on the role of local and regional administrations in delivering sustainable development. Yet arguably, every one of the SDGs can be applied to the work and responsibilities of councils in England, from districts to counties. Because they are so wide-ranging and comprehensive, when integrated in decision-making processes, the SDGs can help councils break down silos and work in a more joined-up way.

The SDGs in the UK

The UK Government took part in negotiating the SDGs preceding their agreement at the UN General Assembly in New York on 15 September 2015, and like other UN member states, the UK is signed up to the goals. The Government went on to publish a Voluntary National Review (VNR) in July 2019, setting out over 235 pages how it has begun working towards the SDGs.

This first UK VNR referred extensively to the work of local government and recognised that ‘the UK’s cities, councils and local partners play a key role in supporting delivery of the Goals in the UK, while helping to ensure no-one, and no community, is left behind.’ It cites an estimate that two thirds of the 169 targets that accompany the SDGs need local stakeholders, like councils, to be engaged if they are to be achieved.

At the same time as the UK VNR was published, the Local Government Association (LGA) agreed a motion supporting the SDGs at its 2019 annual conference. This motion recognised the key role councils play in delivering progress towards the goals. It also made the case for Government funding to support councils’ engagement with them, against a background of continuing austerity.