More than 130 candidates signed the ABCD Climate and Nature Pledge and woke up on 5 May to find themselves elected as local councillors. Two months on, now the election dust has settled, they may be wondering what they can do as an individual councillor to follow up on that commitment.
We all know that actions speak louder than words. But where do you start on such a massive and daunting agenda, given all the competing priorities that councils face? This blog, by Sally Barnard, gives some concrete ideas.
The ABCD Pledge
The 2023 SECA election pledge campaign gave candidates the opportunity to commit publicly to put their weight behind council efforts to take action on climate and nature. Signatories agreed, if elected, to press their council to:
A: Accelerate action
B: Boost partnerships for action
C: Communicate on climate and nature
D: Divest from fossil fuels.
Those who were successfully elected now face the question of how best to turn these commitments into concrete actions. This is not easy, and for councillors who are new to the role it is a particular challenge.
Here are some initial suggestions on where to make a start.
A. Accelerate action: learn what’s already happening
The range of actions that councils can take to address the climate and nature crisis is wide and varied. A good starting point is to learn about what’s already happening, and focus on where your council could be doing better.
There is currently no national framework or monitoring process in place for council climate action, so it is hard for councils to see where they stand. This is the gap that the non-profit organisation, Climate Emergency UK, is aiming to fill whilst we wait for central government to catch up. Two years ago they published a scorecard for Climate Action Plans, which analysed what councils were saying they were planning to do. Now they are turning their attention to councils’ concrete actions.
This autumn they will be publishing a Scorecard of Council Climate Action which will look at the action that has actually taken place in councils across the country. They are using a rigorous methodology to score councils against a checklist of over 80 potential actions, across seven broad areas:
While we await the results, this list of actions provides a very useful template of what experts in the sector regard as good practice, what to look out for, and what questions you might ask council colleagues to get a better picture of how your council is doing.
You’ll find the list of questions on their methodology page. Scroll down to the blue box titled ‘See the questions‘ and type in your council name. Then click on the headings to display the questions in detail.
When the Climate Action Scorecards are published, SECA will be contacting councillors to alert them, and encourage them to study the results and use them constructively to encourage further action in their council.
Another tip: if you are new these issues you may be able to sign up for ‘carbon literacy’ training. Many councils now provide this for both councillors and staff – if they don’t, that’s a useful thing to ask for! And there are a whole range of useful resources and link to browse through on the Resources for Councils section of this website.
B. Building Partnerships for Action: start with your local environment groups.
Councils cannot hope to address the climate and nature challenges on their own, so building partnerships will be critical – for example with local schools, businesses, the health sector, community groups and the arts. That means knocking on a lot of doors. However, probably the easiest doors to open are those of your local environment groups, as they are already working to reduce emissions and protect nature.
This means local Transition Town groups, Eco churches, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trust, repair cafés, Greening groups and others. If you are not already in touch the chances are that they will be very keen to hear from you, share their successes (and frustrations), and discuss how you can help each other in future. They could turn into important allies and also play a valuable role as ‘critical friends’, challenging you and the council to raise your game!
A good number of these groups are already members of the SECA network – you can find a list and contact details, broken down by county, on the About page of the SECA website.
C. Communicate on Climate & Nature: your council website and climate reporting
Imagine you are a concerned resident who wants to do something about the climate crisis. You decide to take a look at your council website. Does it look as though the council regards the climate and nature crisis as a major priority? Because if it doesn’t then that’s going to deflate you at the outset.
If your council website does not seem clear and the priority given does not appear high, it is reasonable to approach your communications department on behalf of your residents and let them know. Here are some things to look for:
- Is there a link to climate featured clearly on the home page?
- Does it take you readily to self-help links and suggestions ?
- Does your council produce a regular climate and nature newsletter ?
- Is it easy to find the climate action plan? Is it easy to read?
- Are there any reports on progress on the plan? Are they easy to find and read?
Climate communication from councils is improving over recent years, but is still quite patchy. Here are some examples of clear signposting from the home page and well-presented climate information: Maidstone Borough Council and Medway Council (a unitary authority).
D. Divest from fossil fuels: consider the guidance and gather support
Has your council passed a motion calling on your Local Government Pension Scheme to make a public commitment to fully divest from fossil fuels? The Pension Fund covers current and former Local Authority employees such as social workers, refuse collectors and council staff and is administered at county level.
A motion to this effect has been passed in ten councils in the South East so far: Hastings in 2016 (reaffirmed in 2022), Brighton & Hove in 2017 (reaffirmed in 2020 and 2022), Lewes Town and District Councils (in 2017 and 2020 respectively), Adur and Worthing in 2019, Peacehaven Town Council in 2020, Bexhill Town Council in 2021, and Robertsbridge and Rother Councils in 2023. If your council has done so and we don’t know about it, please let us know!
If your council has not yet passed a divestment motion, please have a good look at this guidance to councillors on how to pursue divestment from Divest UK. This gives a template motion which lays out clearly the overwhelming reasons for divestment.
Pursuing divestment is something that could be best done together with other councillors who have signed the SECA pledge in your council, and with the support of local campaign groups.
Above all else a divestment motion shows that the council is taking their Climate Emergency responsibilities extremely seriously – which is what we all need!
Sally Barnard is a SECA coordinator, involved in the SECA pledge campaign and communications with councils