The role of local government in achieving national Net Zero targets is crucial. But they are often working with their hands tied behind their back due to lack of resources, lack of a clear mandate, and lack of a coherent policy framework to work within. The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons has recognised this. It commissioned the National Audit Office to prepare a report on Local Government and Net Zero, and is currently considering the role of local government as part of its broader Inquiry into Mapping a Path to Net Zero. A call for evidence was issued over the summer. SECA put together this joint response, drawing on the detailed information it has collected through the SECA Survey of Council Climate Action, and also on inputs from a number of SECA member groups from across the South East. SECA has since been invited to give evidence to the Committee, and appeared at their session on 8 September 2021.
In this blog, SECA Coordinator Sally Barnard, summarises the key messages in our submission. You can link to the Parliament TV recording of the Environmental Audit Committee session where SECA was questioned by MPs. Our segment starts at 15:55 – but the whole session makes for interesting watching, as a series of very well qualified witnesses made much the same point on the vital role Local Authorities have in achieving net zero.
SECA’s Evidence to the Committee
- The South East Climate Alliance (SECA) is a coalition of more than 100 environmental, community and faith groups across the South East of England uniting for urgent action on the climate emergency. See this list of member groups.
- SECA was set up in 2019 with the initial goal of getting every council in the South East to declare a climate emergency. When that goal was largely achieved, it shifted focus to engaging with local councils over their climate action plans, sharing good practice, and monitoring progress.
- There are 56 local authorities in the SECA area (East and West Sussex, Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight). SECA has been tracking progress across all of these via the SECA Survey of Council Climate Action. This is a regularly updated database and provides the most detailed snapshot of council climate action in our area currently available .
- The SECA Survey demonstrates that there is great variability in local authority responses across the region, with some councils way ahead of others in taking effective action.
- Many of our member groups have been trying to engage with their local councils to encourage them to speed up and scale up their climate action plans. So we are witness to the huge challenges councils face and the many barriers to action.
- We are responding to this call for evidence because it is clear to us all in SECA that, without a national framework, supportive national policies and significant extra resources, local authorities have little chance of driving the level of change needed to meet this global emergency.
- There is a lot that local community groups can do to support and work alongside local authorities in driving this agenda. But without joined-up action between different levels of government, we feel that all our efforts are being blunted. At present many of our members feel frustrated and demoralised because central and local government responses to the climate emergency seem so out of kilter with the scale of action needed.
- This submission combines inputs from multiple SECA members across the South East, some of whom will also be responding in their individual capacity.
Our key points are as follows:
- Variability of response: Our SECA survey shows some good examples of proactive councils but in general shows a variable and piecemeal response across the councils in our area. Of our 56 councils, 41 have declared a climate emergency and the other 15 have formally recognised the climate emergency since 2019. This appears encouraging, but despite this the pace of change is slow and significant examples of carbon reduction activity are slow to appear.
- Communications: there has been progress on coverage of climate issues on council websites but, with notable exceptions, it tends to lack depth and quality. Also councils are often having to reinvent the wheel with climate action due to lack of central communication, coordination and knowledge sharing.
- Feedback and monitoring: There is little evidence from council websites of reporting back to residents on progress with action plans. There is no national framework to report against and compare. Lack of information leaves those residents who are awake to the crisis feeling anxious and mistrustful .
- Community engagement: there is evidence that this is improving but it remains patchy and poorly resourced.
- Policy Framework: The lack of a coherent and joined-up national climate action policy framework covering issues such as green building standards, road building, oil and gas exploration, and airport expansion, is having a detrimental effect on local decision making, and holding councils back.
- Resources: Resources and skills available for local authority climate work are not proportional to the scale of the challenge.
- Further details on each of these points, with evidence, good practice examples, and recommendations, are provided in this full written response.
Sally Barnard is the SECA Coordinator, and has taken a lead role in producing and updating the SECA Survey of Climate Action and preparing this written submission. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Geoff & Sally Barnard answering questions at the Environmental Audit Committee Session on 8 September 2021.