“Never let a good crisis go to waste” was a saying attributed to Winston Churchill. As organisations and governments move from emergency response mode to thinking about the post-coronavirus recovery, a wave of new thinking is emerging on how we can ‘Build back better’, or perhaps more specifically – ‘better, fairer and greener’.  The conversation up to now has focused on what central governments can do. But it is just as relevant for local councils.

What have we learned from the Covid crisis?

We have learned a lot in a remarkably short space of time. It is worth reflecting on these lessons and what implications they have for how councils can tackle the climate emergency. Here’s some that stand out for me:

  • If we were ever in any doubt, we now understand what a global emergency looks like, something that affects everyone and in profound ways. Like with the climate emergency, we are all in this together.
  • We’ve learned that radical change can happen remarkably quickly when everyone gets the message. So crystal clear messaging is crucial.
  • Thanks to the efforts of local Covid self-help groups, community hubs, and many others public-spirited people, we are learning what local resilience and community cohesion mean in practice. It shows we can come together to do remarkable things when motivated.
  • With the clearer skies, cleaner air, and the rediscovery of birdsong, we are appreciating nature like never before. We will surely be keener to protect it in future and not go back to our polluting and damaging former ways.
  • When existential threats are looming, narrow financial thinking based on balancing budgets in the short term simply doesn’t work. Huge sums have been mobilised by central government to offset the impact of the health crisis.  This is because the long-term costs of inaction would be far higher. This is precisely the kind of thinking needed in tackling the climate crisis.
  • We’re recognising the inequalities in society more clearly and seeing that coronavirus, like the climate crisis, affects some groups more severely than others. So we have to factor that in to our response.
  • We’re realising that some sectors of the economy are not going to bounce back.  Air travel is one, and while this may be a cause for celebration for climate activists and those lobbying against airport expansion, it’s a real worry for all those – for example around Gatwick – whose livelihoods depend on it. Recovery strategies need to be targeted to help those most in need, not leave people on the scrap heap.  And they must be geared to the sustainable industries of the future, not the polluting ones of the past.

Building back better

These lessons have important implications for climate action, opening up new opportunities and changing the whole frame of reference.  It’s about creating a ‘new normal’, as some are calling it, or the ‘future we want.’

The future we want: a climate cartoon created by Adam Cort

The Covid 19 crisis is creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think differently about how we tackle the climate crisis. There have been a flurry of announcements recently picking up on the ‘build back better’ theme. According to a statement from Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, “With this restart, a window of hope and opportunity opens… an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter from the UK Committee on Climate Change that sets out key principles to rebuild the nation following the COVID-19 pandemic. Oxford University backed this up with economic evidence showing that “green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus.” And a new Build Back Better campaign has been started that embraces equity, health and international cooperation, alongside climate goals.

The Oxford study ranked policy responses based on their climate impact and economic multiplier effects.

Implications for councils

When the pandemic struck, many councils were busy drafting climate action plans, having passed climate emergency motions in the past year. Normal ways of working have since been turned upside down, with officers working from home, staff being redeployed on new priorities, and decision-making processes interrupted.

The response to this health crisis from many councils has been impressive. Catherine Cannon, Sustainability Team Leader at West Sussex County Council (WSCC) shared some insights on how they have been coping:

“We’ve shown how flexible we can be. We’ve been able to rapidly allocate officers to areas of critical business pressure, showing we can be responsive and adaptable, without services suffering…. We’ve also shown how District and County Councils can work effectively and quickly together, for example with the rapid agreement and creation of Community Hubs…. And we’ve seen an amazing response from communities and volunteer support networks across the county. Their ability to set up quickly, work with residents to understand what is needed and who is best placed to provide that,”

This shows what councils can do when they rise to a challenge, and sets an encouraging precedent for the kind of decisive and coordinated action needed to get on top of the climate emergency.

Despite the lockdown, work on climate plans is still going ahead in many councils. Surrey County Council, for example, published their climate change strategy just a few weeks ago. But now there is the added challenge for councils of creating post-Covid recovery plans for the local economy, and that at a time when budgets are being stretched as never before.

This is an ideal opportunity to combine these two tracks, so economic recovery strategies also embrace environmental and climate goals. And it’s surely the moment to be thinking big and considering radical solutions.

Now’s the time for councils to get behind green infrastructure investments.  The Westhampnett solar farm built by West Sussex County Council (photo: www.dcoolimages.com)

What would a climate-friendly recovery package look like?

Here are some initial suggestions, but we are keen to hear of more.

Fast forward on cycle paths

Pop up bike lane in Berlin

A good place to start is with cycle paths. With pressure mounting for more people to get back to work, but public transport looking much less attractive because of social distancing challenges, cycling is coming into its own. Towns and cities around the world have been responding by creating new temporary lanes to encourage cycle commuting. If Milan and Berlin can do it, why not Maidstone and Brighton? West Sussex County Council highways team is already looking into ‘pop up’ cycles paths.

Once new travel patterns have been established, this will help pave the way for longer-term investments in cycling and walking infrastructure, for which the Government has just announced a £2 billion funding package.  This surely makes more sense than going ahead with a £29 billion road expansion plans announced by the Government in the Budget, a decision which is now being challenged in the courts on climate grounds.


EV charging points near Chichester

Get rolling on EV charging points and electric scooters

New vehicle sales have shuddered to a halt during lockdown. Councils could speed up the switch to electric vehicles by bringing forward plans to roll out a comprehensive network of EV charging points, and go public in their commitment to back this transition so people feel confident they won’t run out of juice. Electric scooter hire schemes are another promising option; the Government has pressed the green light on trials of these on public roads from June.


Supporting a more localised food system

Veg boxes are replacing supermarket trolleys

Lockdown has forced many of us to rethink how we source our food and essential supplies. Shopping patterns are changing. We’re getting back to shopping locally, ordering veg boxes, taking advantage of delivery services from local butchers, bakers and fish merchant, and getting creative about where to find flour.

Sticking with these practices once the lockdown eases would be a great way of boosting the local economy, and councils could play an important role in promoting this. They could tie this in with efforts to reduce packaging and food waste to create a joined-up campaign that ticks all three boxes.


Championing new ways of working

Councils have had to adapt to the lockdown and social distancing rules, and many have done so remarkably quickly. Every department has had to come up with workarounds in order to maintain essential services. Many staff are working from home, libraries are stepping up their online services, face-to-face meetings are being replaced by video calls, and decision-making procedures have been streamlined and speeded up. Catherine Cannon, Sustainability Team Leader at WSCC, reports that :

“Some staff report the benefits of working at different times, a reduced commute, and more time with the family, and time to notice nature… There have been environmental pay-offs too: a reduction in staff mileage, printing (down 75%), and energy use to heat and power their buildings.”

This revolution in working practice would have taken years under normal circumstances but has happened in a few weeks. Having been at the forefront of it, councils are in a perfect position to champion these new ways of working once lockdown rules are eased, explain the benefits, and encourage others to follow suit.

Creating green jobs

Sustainable job creation is going to be the name of the game over the next few years, and there is plenty that councils can do to support this. There are a whole range of new jobs that need to emerge in the retrofit and renewables sectors if we are to make a dent in the emissions from our badly-insulated homes, offices and public buildings. But this needs to be done right: we want to see the retrofit cavalry coming over the hill, not the cowboys.

Councils could support this by working with trade bodies, local firms and other partners to support skills training, apprenticeships and quality standards. This can start with distance learning modules during lockdown, and be targeted where it has maximum social impact, and where the job losses are most acute – for example around Gatwick.

Bringing forward plans to upgrade council-owned schools, social housing and office buildings is another route. This is a top priority for councils that have pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030, but will require major investment. This would be ideal candidate for directing any infrastructure funding that emerges from central government – far better than road building schemes that lock us in to old, polluting behaviours.

And councils can support the local green economy more generally by setting tougher sustainability standards for suppliers and amending their procurement rules so local firms are favoured, as Preston City Council has successfully done.

Planning for a green future

Local and national planning guidelines have a major impact on the how and where new building happens, and the environmental impact of these developments for years to come. The tide is turning on green building standards with the Committee on Climate Change and others calling for tougher planning regulations and the Government showing signs of responding.

For councils (like Horsham District Council) that are in the middle of rewriting their district plans, and Parishes busy with neighbourhood plans, now it the time to grasp this opportunity to rethink their planning guidelines so they are as proactive as possible on climate and environment issues. This means, for example, making ‘biodiversity net gain’ and Passivhaus standards mandatory in new builds, and ensuring that transport and infrastructure requirements are thought through with any major new developments.

Unlocking new funding sources

With council budgets under acute stress because of the Covid crisis, creative approaches are going to be needed to find the resources needed to get moving on green investments. Central government will be one important source of financing, along with Local Enterprise Partnership (LEPs), which have a mandate to promote low carbon economic development in their regions. But there is a real need for innovation in this area.

Council backed investment bonds for green infrastructure projects are one idea that has been floated. This approach is being investigated by West Berkshire Council.

Community energy schemes are another promising way forward. Community energy groups have emerged all across the country, and are well represented in the South East, thanks to the pioneering work of groups like Brighton Energy Coop, OVESCO and REPOWER Balcombe, and the efforts of Community Energy South which acts as a regional umbrella organisation, mentor and all-round champion for the sector. These groups have shown remarkable ingenuity and persistence in getting locally-owned renewable energy projects off the ground over the last decade. They now have a track record to build on and an impressive membership network of local investors who have been prepared to invest in the kind of green future they want to see. There is huge scope for scaling this up, and community energy groups could be idea partners for councils to team up with, for example in installing community-owned PV panels on social housing and schools, or providing energy saving advice to families in fuel poverty.

Energy Coops have shown how community funding can be mobilised – these PV panels were installed on Crawley Down School by REPOWER Balcombe

Spreading the message

Councils have been rightly focusing their recent communication efforts on sharing clear information on the health crisis and what householders and businesses can do about it. As we move towards a relaxation of lockdown rules, this would be a smart time for them to start blending in the ‘Build Back Better’ message.

It’s a positive story – and we all need those right now. But it will set the scene for the much more broad-based and ambitious communication campaigns that will be needed later on to publicise councils’ new climate strategies, and get the public and local businesses behind them. Councils have been slow to move on this so far.  Look at most council websites and you’ll struggle to find a mention of climate change anywhere near the home page.  It’s time for that to change.

What you can do

These are some initial suggestions. If you have experience or ideas to contribute on how local councils can get behind a green post-Covid recovery, do let us know by emailing us at: southeastclimatealliance@gmail.com

And don’t forget to make your local Councillors aware of them too. As one council officer put it to us, We desperately need councillors to hear direct from their residents as to what’s important to them, because this way, Councillors can bring questions to officers, into council meetings and into our decision making processes. If Councillors don’t hear direct from residents, they don’t know it’s important.”


This article was written by Geoff Barnard, Co-Chair of Greening Steyning, and a member of the SECA Steering Group. A special thanks to Catherine Cannon, at West Sussex County Council, Franceca Illiffe, Strategic Sustainability Manager, at Adur & Worthing Councils, and to SECA colleagues, for their suggestions and feedback.

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