Much climate governance work has been undertaken at large-city scale but there is a world of local governance and policymaking beyond major urban centres. This blog by Erica Russell and Ian Christie introduces their new report for the Place-based Climate Action Network, which considers how climate policy is governed in this complex set of local environments

In 2020 in England, just over 30 million people lived in predominantly rural places, or urban authorities with significant rural areas, and small towns and cities. In these rural and semi-urban areas climate governance is being led and developed by multiple elected councils, community groups, Universities, NGOs, businesses and complex partnerships. And all of them must operate across a rich variety of geographies, as well as across multiple scales of policy and governance. A new report for the Place-based Climate Action Network considers this under-considered issue by focusing on one UK county and local governance area: Surrey.

Insights from Surrey’s climate community

In 2020-22 we carried out over 40 interviews with policymakers at all levels of governance in the county, from parishes to regional bodies, climate community leaders, the Climate Commission, with other local stakeholders, and with some climate policy experts at national level; and we mapped the climate policy structures and networks in the county. Our findings reinforce the widespread perception of a serious disconnection between climate strategy and place-based governance. As many others have reported – most recently Chris Skidmore MP in his Mission Zero reports – a reluctance by central government to set out a framework of roles and responsibilities for local authorities has meant that councils and local partners are operating in conditions of uncertainty and lack of clear direction. We also found evidence of these problems at the “micro-local” governance levels too, in parish and town council networks. Just as sub-regional local authorities can struggle to obtain funds, strategic direction and information from government, actors at borough and parish levels feel they are not getting the support they need from county and other sub-regional bodies.

What kind of a local “climate mandate” for action do we need? Four major strands of debate and advocacy emerge from our fieldwork in Surrey. Interviewees offered variations on all the following positions concerning the “mandate” for climate action at local level:

  • Sub-national bodies need statutory net zero powers to underpin and boost local mandate and capacity to pursue net zero.
  • Statutory powers are needed to fill gaps not covered by voluntary or existing powers.
  • Local mandates for action have been established already through climate emergency declarations by councils and through other local responses to the national net zero strategy and the rise of climate concern among citizens; what is missing is the capacity for effective action.
  • Sub-national bodies already have the powers and legitimacy needed to pursue policies for net zero emissions, but lack the resources and strategic direction from the national level to make the most of these.

Our respondents felt that multi-level climate governance in the UK is broken, or at best only partial and incoherent. The view also came through that central government is focused on national-scale policy on climate, and with a technologically driven view of what changes are needed. National policy has so far neglected the need for civic engagement and lifestyle change, and above all has failed to recognise the vital role to be played by local government and its partners. Outside central government, the consensus on the dysfunction in UK climate policy is rock-solid.

Schools Strike for Climate, Guildford, Sept 2019 Photo: Ian Christie

How have local actors responded to this state of affairs? We found a new form of local governance, that of “Improvisatory and Compensatory governance”, emerging. This opportunistic and piecemeal approach is “compensating” for the lack of coherent multi-level guidance and division of labour on climate action, and inevitably is sub-optimal. Many place-based approaches were being tested in this spirit of improvisation and compensation in the absence of a clear national-local framework. This has given rise at a local level to governance that is “really wavy and sort of moving” , as one interviewee said. For some actors, this offers the potential for truly local interventions, allowing a more holistic place-based approach, but for others there is a sense of wasted time and lack of direction.

For many working at local and micro-local level their work was:

  • “invisible” to those at higher governance positions;
  • knowledge of county or even district level action was rarely understood without the intervention of “boundary-spanning” individuals or projects;
  • linking national to local scales, successful action was frequently identified as the work of “wilful actors” or passionate individuals rather than a direct result of embedded governance structures.

All of which gives rise to risks of transience of impact and lack of continuity, as roles change and initiatives lapse.

Making multi-level governance work for net zero

Through our research we found no clear vision for effective governance of climate policy across multiple scales. However, several drivers for action emerged in our recommendations:

  • Local government needs clarity from the centre about the climate policy division of labour, the resources to implement net zero policies and report on progress. This includes reform in the planning system to ensure that new developments help deliver emission reductions and other gains for climate policy and local wellbeing.
  • Local government needs a duty to pursue net zero across policy areas and to report on progress – and it needs the resources and revenue-raising powers to be able to deliver results.
  • Regardless of national action we recommend that the County Council support the development of a “mesh” (Mulgan, 2020) of vertical and horizontal relationships and governance arrangements for the county, with an aim to develop a local “climate constitution”, a map of roles, responsibilities, reporting and resources.
  • Orchestration of public communication, capacity- and confidence-building at community level via parish and town councils, and debating and reporting of challenges and progress. To that end we recommend that the County Council and its partners hold an annual local climate assembly.
  • We would suggest that in delivering climate action, actors within the county must consider the effectiveness of scale, perhaps as part of boundary-spanning projects.
  • If we want successful climate action, we must build in flexibility of delivery into a county-wide climate framework and harness the strengths of the county’s rural base.

Read the authors’ new report On multi-level climate governance in an urban/rural county: A case study of Surrey published by the Place-based Climate Action Network on 25 October 2023.

Short policy briefings have also been produced on:
The importance of People Based Climate Networks in sub-national net zero action
The unacknowledged role of micro-level governance in net zero action
Multi-levels of information, tools, data and other resources

PCAN can be contacted at 

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