Progress on Climate Change action plans in Local Government

Icons HazardStephen Cirell discusses the progress on climate change and renewable energy action plans within Local Government.


The Guardian ran an interesting piece on 27 January 2022 under the banner ‘One in five UK councils have no climate change action plan, campaigners say.' Journalist Anna Bawden quoted extensively from campaign group Climate Emergency UK, which has been running a research project on this subject.

As a specialist adviser to literally dozens of UK local authorities on the subject of climate change and climate emergencies, I feel qualified to comment on this. My first issue with the piece is that it has the tenor of blame and that is never a very good start.

The biblical quotes of throwing stones come to mind. There are many examples that could be quoted. The world community could do much more. At the recent COP 26 summit in Glasgow a pledge to ‘phase out’ coal was scuppered by countries who did not want to lose their extensive coal mining industries. The EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme was fatally undermined by too many permits being issued at the start and the problem not being resolved. The UK Government’s current policy framework will not be sufficient to deliver its legally binding targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 (as amended) according to its own independent adviser, the Committee on Climate Change. Need I go on?

The issue is how we all work together to deliver progress on climate change and each part of the hierarchy of world order, EU, national governments and local government have different powers and capabilities. Of course, Climate Emergency UK is a single purpose pressure group and so it would not be expected to fully understand the issues concerning delivery of public services at local level.

Local authority budgets have been decimated by the Government’s austerity programme over the last decade. Some authorities have had reductions of up to 50%. Managing services at local level during this period has been much more challenging than previously. The Covid 19 pandemic followed hard on its heels and put ever-increasing pressures on those same local services. The responsibility for this situation lies with Central Government and its inadequate funding for services delivered at local level.

I have worked with many local authorities on climate change and renewable energy and most are trying hard to do their best. Of course, the Government could have delegated down the legal duties on climate change under the 2008 Act to local authority level. It chose not to do so, rumoured to be for the reason that it did not want to provide the necessary funding. It is often forgotten that the legal duty to reach net zero by 2050 is on the Secretary of State, not local Councils. In England local authorities have no specific duties on climate change, save for individual functional areas, such as waste disposal. This means that every Climate Emergency Declaration (and action plan) is voluntary, provided with no legal necessity to do so.

It is also interesting that both the Committee on Climate Change and the UK 100 Group (which was formed to help local authorities with climate change and energy) have confirmed the view that climate change can only be properly managed at local level. This being the case, it is perhaps surprising that the Government has not properly funded an area as important as this. But then, it has not put in place a policy framework to deliver its targets either, canvassing widespread criticism. Theresa May’s Government itself declared a climate emergency in England in 2019, but has still not developed its own plans to reach its targets to a sufficiently detailed level.

The majority of local authorities that have declared climate emergencies have started on their action planning processes. This, however, is a moving feast. What is needed is long term plans with short, medium and longer-term progress. Climate change is a marathon, not a sprint.

So they started preparing targets for key areas such as buildings, heating and transport. As anyone who has worked in local government will know, it is more difficult to get Members to agree a policy of buildings rationalisation than might at first be apparent. Where buildings have a question mark over them (ie whether they will retained or disposed of in the future), that disrupts plans to improve energy efficiency.

Similarly with transport. Many authorities accept that they have to move their fleets to electric vehicles. But Council fleets are a complicated area. There are traditionally few cars (where there have been ready EV alternatives for some time); with more specialist vehicles (Street King cleaners, tractors etc) there are not. If a local authority has in the past few years procured a new fleet of diesel refuse collection vehicles, a decision cannot be taken on whether there is an affordable EV alternative for another 6 or 7 years. This is not poor performance; this is a Council managing its services properly.

More latterly, climate change is not the only disaster in the frame. There is now the triumvirate of climate change, biodiversity and air quality. Of the three, climate change has tended to enjoy the limelight (even if progress has been slow). But as Earth Day at COP 26 illustrated, the destruction of the living environment and the loss of plants and species is equally alarming. Added to that, air quality measures have been put in place across the UK due to the fact that it does not comply with World Health Organisation standards in most parts of the country. So the ground has changed yet again.

These three areas are, of course, fully interrelated. As Pippa Neill pointed out in an article in Air Quality News magazine, climate change and air quality are intrinsically linked. There is now a greater understanding that climate change mitigation can help to reduce air pollution and clean air measures can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is not always the case and it has been pointed out that some climate change measures might actually exacerbate air quality standards.

Ironically enough, a similar issue arises with biodiversity. Some authorities have declared a climate change and biodiversity emergency, with pledges on tree planting and nature networks. If this is the case their action plans cover this vital area; many do not. Equally, air quality needs to be added into these action plans to ensure one area’s actions do not damage another area’s position.

So what we now need is for climate emergency action to carefully weave together climate change, biodiversity and air quality policy into a holistic and comprehensive programme of action at local level. This is the only way that we can be sure that the full potential of local action can be achieved.

However, drawing together these three themes is a complicated matter and that takes time. There are many barriers of legal powers and duties, funding, capability and so on. This is the real issue that needs to be addressed here, not seeking to beat local authorities with a stick because they have not acted sufficiently quickly.

Stephen Cirell is an independent solicitor and consultant working with Sharpe Pritchard on energy and climate change issues. He is the author of ‘Local Authority Climate Emergency Declarations’ published by the Association for Public Sector Excellence.

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