mySociety’s climate programme is focused around reducing the carbon emissions that are within the power and influence of local authorities in the UK.
A big area of ignorance for us was the public understanding of local government and its role in combating climate change. We anticipated that in general there might be low public understanding, but we wanted to know more about the shape of that understanding, and how that might affect how we approach our work.
The report has seven key messages:
Net zero is a national mission on a huge scale. It will mean changes to our landscapes and lifestyles, our physical infrastructure and energy systems, our homes, our diets, the way we travel. As well as being necessary, it should be a positive transition (think cleaner, healthier, more productive communities). But it will require some big investments, which need to be paid for fairly, and changes in people’s lives. Broad support will be critical.
To be successful, net zero will require strong local direction. This is the message from a growing chorus of voices (and not just diehard devolution advocates). Central government will have to take some decisions and set direction. It overwhelmingly controls funding. But the path to net zero will be different across the UK: rural areas face very different issues to dense urban ones. Councils are well placed to understand local concerns, needs and capabilities – and build support for local transition pathways. They can act as conveners, working with local citizens, businesses and community groups.
Local climate action is gearing up, but councils face constraints. Councils hold key levers in housing, transport and planning; in all, they exercise powers or influence over around a third of all UK emissions. Almost all have a net zero target and four fifths have published a climate action plan. But these vary in scope and detail, and many councils are still getting to grips with how to cut (or just measure) emissions. Some have started engaging citizens. But in general councils lack funding and capabilities, which is holding back action.
The public supports stronger climate action. In the last three years public concern about climate change has climbed from mid-ranking to be the third most important issue facing the country – and this change appears pretty robust. Cost of living pressures present challenges, but recent polling shows the public still overwhelmingly supports the UK’s net zero target. Most people think stronger action is needed to meet it.
The public supports more local involvement in net zero. Trust and satisfaction with government has been in decline, but attitudes towards local councils have held up much better (44% trust their local councillor vs 19% for government ministers). In particular, people much prefer councillors when asked who should make decisions about their local areas. They think local areas have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and believe central government should provide more funding to enable local action.
Public understanding of local government is relatively low. The public makes little distinction between different tiers of government. While people know councils are responsible for some highly visible services like waste collection, their understanding of the range of actions local authorities could take to tackle climate change is limited.
Climate action will need to be framed around local concerns. The public are particularly keen on certain net zero policies including frequent flier levies, carbon taxes, improved public transport, and support for replacing gas boilers and installing energy efficiency. But there has been less polling on preferences around local action. People have some concerns about how costs and impacts will fall, and when asked about priorities for their local area, they tend to raise wider issues like vibrant high streets or youth employment.
The report concludes by offering recommendations on four areas where mySociety could make a difference: supporting efforts to address information gaps and raise awareness, which could help provide a stronger foundation for local climate action; supporting wider use of public engagement, and helping councils to achieve wider reach via digital tools; helping to address knowledge gaps around public opinion and preferences for local net zero action; and supporting more effective ways of monitoring and tracking progress in local climate action.
Reflections on the report:
While we anticipated (and the report confirms) low public awareness around some aspects of local authorities, the process of writing the report helped expose some questions we’ve been dancing around the edges of, about how local authorities relate to their communities. For instance, our work is focused on the potential of local authorities to reduce emissions, but there are different opinions on exactly the proportion of emissions local authorities could have influence over. Depending who you ask, it can be anywhere between almost no emissions, and almost all emissions. This report helps navigate that area, in particular distinguishing between where local authorities are genuinely best placed to take action (and how this capacity could be improved), versus where central government may want to shift responsibility without properly enabling action.
This report has been helpful in encouraging clearer thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘local action’. Some sources slide between talk of local action (from communities) and local action (from local authorities). Accepting a framing that local authorities are not only better placed than central government to work with local communities (certainly true) but are the same thing as their local communities (definitely not true) hides a large problem area where local authorities’ ability to work in and with their community can be substantially improved. Being clear-eyed about the current situation, as well as the potential for change, is essential for the success of our programme of work.
Photo credit: Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash