How can internal Scrutiny Committees help to drive climate action within councils? This was a question posed by West Sussex County Council recently when they invited Geoff Barnard to speak at an orientation day for scrutiny committee members. This blog explains how he approached it and sets out the four ‘tests’ he suggested: Could we go Further? Could we go Faster? Could we go Wider? Could we go Louder?
The role of Scrutiny Committees
Scrutiny Committees, I discovered, are like internal watchdogs within councils. They are made up of ‘back bench’ councillors from different parties, as opposed to Cabinet members, who set policy.
West Sussex County Council (WSCC) has five Scrutiny Committees, covering topic areas from finance to fire and rescue. According to the Local Government Association’s Councillor’s Workbook on Scrutiny:
“The principal power of a scrutiny committee is to influence the policies and decisions made by the council and other organisations involved in delivering public services. The scrutiny committee gathers evidence on issues affecting local people and makes recommendations based on its findings.”
“Scrutiny can investigate any issue which affects the local area or the area’s inhabitants. However, effective scrutiny work relies on scrutiny’s ‘soft’ influencing power, as it has no formal power to compel anyone to make changes.”
The scope and mandate of Scrutiny Committees varies somewhat between councils. But from a climate perspective they offer, at least potentially, an important leverage point in ensuring councils stick to their climate goals.
This was why I jumped at the chance to address an orientation day for Scrutiny Committee members in March this year. Here’s what I said.
The purpose of today’s session is to orient council members involved in scrutiny committees around work programme planning. You won’t be surprised that I’d like to get climate change into the front of your minds as you do this. The difficult bit is to try and keep it there.
I don’t know if you saw the latest report from the IPCC which came out 3 weeks ago – but immediately got buried in the dreadful news from Ukraine. The headline messages were that it’s worse than we thought, it’s happening faster than we thought, and that many of the changes will be irreversible. But I fear these grim sounding reports are losing their power to shock – since we are getting so used to them.
It’s that urgency I want to stress today. We have a window of only a few years to turn things around. Nowadays nearly everyone gets it about the need for climate action. But it’s very easy for climate to slip onto the back burner. We find this in Steyning, where I live and where our local climate action group, Greening Steyning, has been trying to get people motivated to upgrade their home insulation. They know it makes sense, but they’ve got other things on their minds that take precedence.
I’m sure it’s repeated at a larger scale with every local authority around the country – especially given the dozens of competing priorities you have to deal with and the serious resourcing challenges. You’ve got a heck of a lot on your plate.
I know that the West Sussex County Council has not been sitting on its hands over the last 2 years. Despite Covid you’ve made a good start towards your target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030, and have a whole range of plans in the pipeline. The recent £10m budget allocation sends a strong signal you’re taking this seriously.
But there is so much more to do.
The Four Tests
So I’ve been wondering how can you as councillors on scrutiny committees keep climate change in the front of your minds and that of council officers? I don’t just mean environment decision making, but decision making across the board, since climate challenges are going to affect almost everything the council does.
I’d like to suggest four tests to bear in mind. When you’re looking at plans or reports on what’s been delivered I’d like you to ask:
- Could we go Further?
- Could we go Faster?
- Could we go Wider?
- Could we go Louder?
Further & Faster
Further and faster are pretty obvious. That’s about the scale of your ambition and how bold and creative you can be in increasing these. This is about West Sussex being ahead of the pack, like you have been on solar farms – coming up with imaginative financing solutions to allow you to be much bolder and more transformative in what you do.
A good example of this is pension fund divestment. As you know this is a touchstone issue for green campaigners like me – and I know some movement has occurred. The question is why can’t it go further and faster so West Sussex can cut its ties entirely with fossil fuel investment and send a real signal to others that it’s taking climate seriously?
Transport is another area – could the West Sussex Transport Plan go further and faster, not in speeding up cars but in encouraging public transport and active travel?
This brings me to the third test. Going wider is about broadening the scope of what you’re doing and bringing more people with you. This is the ‘enabling’ and ‘influencing’ part of your strategy – and this is where the County Council could have its biggest influence if it really gets behind this.
As you know, your own carbon footprint as an organisation is only a few percent of the county’s total emissions. So even if you could flick a switch and make the council entirely carbon neutral it would hardly change anything countywide.
Going wider is about bringing other organisations with you on this journey – hospitals, schools, social services providers, train and bus companies, community groups, district and parish councils, and all the various businesses large and small.
This means getting into new territory and building new partnerships. It’s about the County Council becoming a convenor, a facilitator and a champion, rather than just keeping its head down and getting its own house in order. The Sussex Nature Partnership is one example – but what about a carbon reduction leadership group bringing together the 20 biggest emitters in the county?
This isn’t easy. Nobody wants more talk shops that never deliver anything. So it will require a lot of imagination and resources – and some subtle and consistent leadership.
The final test is could we go louder? What I mean by this is could we make more noise about what we are doing so nobody in the county can be in any doubt about how serious this issue is and how seriously the county council is taking it?
There’s been some progress in this area. But if you go to the council’s website you still find no mention of climate on the home page, and the resources you have on climate change are quite buried (this has since been changed – there is now a prominent link on the home page).
The model for this is what you’ve been doing recently on Covid information, and over a number of years on recycling and waste prevention. Again it’s about imagination, resources, and persistence. But that is what we’ll need to mobilise the transformation we need over the next 10 years.
So just to recap – I would like to leave you this these 4 tests: Can you go Further, Faster, Wider, and Louder? I hope that gives you a framework for keeping climate change front and central in your scrutiny work and decision making.
And thanks again for inviting me today!
Geoff Barnard is co-Chair of Greening Steyning, and a member of the SECA Steering Group. You can contact him at: email@example.com