You might know our WriteToThem service as an easy way to contact your representatives – which it definitely is! But did you realise that it’s also doing heavier lifting, helping proposed legislation gain support in Parliament?
We’ve already seen how Power for People have mobilised their supporters this way: and Zero Hour is also running a successful campaign around a draft Bill.
Zero Hour’s campaign centres around the Climate and Ecology Bill, in which they lay out a comprehensive and joined-up approach to the climate and nature emergency. A cornerstone of their strategy relies on getting their supporters to contact their representatives and ask them for their backing.
We asked Amy McDonnell, co-Director of Zero Hour to give us a bit more background and to explain the thinking behind the Bill.
Amy explained, “It’s the only current or proposed legislation that tackles the interconnected nature-climate emergency together.
“We formed the campaign to provide a pathway to getting cross-party support for a legislative solution that will ensure that the UK delivers a science-led, people-powered plan on biodiversity and climate.”
We were interested to know more about how rallying individuals can pave the way to change.
Amy told us, “We’ve always depended on our grassroots movement. MPs really care about what their constituents think, and writing to them is incredibly impactful. Moving forwards, we know that we can only win with people on the ground by turbocharging our activity in Parliament.”
So how did they make the decision to bring WriteToThem onto their website?
“We knew that we needed an integrated tool on our site. The WriteToThem tool was key, as we recognise that people’s priorities are stretched and time is precious. So we used WriteToThem to ensure that supporters could contact the MP where they live with the click of a button.
“This has been incredibly effective, with thousands of our supporters asking their MPs to support the Climate and Ecology Bill. Having the mechanism to write to MPs with ease has been crucial to the success of the campaign to date, providing insightful responses and opening opportunities for our team to have engaging conversations with members of all political parties on how we can all work together to create an integrated strategy to tackle nature-climate emergency together.”
WriteToThem doesn’t allow for mass, identical messages from users, and we were curious to know whether that had created any kind of challenge. Quite the reverse, as it turns out:
“We’ve found that fewer, personalised messages are a lot more impactful than thousands of standard emails, which can easily be blocked and ignored.
“Our approach has always been to maximise not just the action taken by our supporters, but critically the impact that our supporters can make. Through providing guidance on how to personalise messages, we can avoid emails being dismissed or reaching spam folders.”
And that has a knock-on effect on the way campaigners feel about taking action.
“The effectiveness is leading to visible progress, and that’s critical in ensuring that subsequent supporters see there’s a point in taking action on the campaign. So, we created the tool in a way that allows them to craft a personal messages about why the CE Bill can deliver a prosperous, nature-rich UK, that benefits nature, jobs and health for all, in their own words — and it will go directly to the right representative.
“We know this has proven fruitful, as we commonly get meaningful responses from MPs which move the campaign forward — they can create an opportunity for further conversation about meeting our shared objectives on climate and nature.”
And WriteToThem helps in other fundamental ways, too:
“It reduces the barrier of users having to search for their MP’s details and contact them in a more manual way. It saves supporters time.
“We knew mySociety was a very reputable and trustworthy organisation that could deliver the reliability we required in providing functional tools to best engage with the political system and felt the tool was a perfect match to get the engagement we were seeking from the campaign. The choice to use WriteToThem has been instrumental in the success of our campaign.”
So would they recommend it to other campaigns looking to follow a similar model?
“Absolutely. We would wholeheartedly recommend campaigns utilise WriteToThem as it’s a reliable and convenient tool for ensuring your campaign is not only seen by a maximum number of representatives but also vitally providing engaged responses.
“We can say without question that the tool increased the frequency of our supporters contacting MPs. This has provided invaluable leverage; opened doors and raising the profile of the CE Bill for us to build support which now stretches across all major parties.”
“Frequently when we call MPs’ offices about events, briefings and other matters, office staff mention they have received numerous emails on the Climate and Ecology Bill, and that is a testament to the power of the WriteToThem tool, as MP’s have a large number of competing campaigns and prioritises in their inboxes daily. So, if you are looking for a way to easily connect supporters with their MP to increase awareness and engagement on key campaigns, it’s very effective.”
Well, we couldn’t hope for much more than that! We’re very glad to have helped underpin such an essential campaign.
For those who would like to be kept up to date with all Zero Hour’s activities, the best way is to sign up as a supporter.
Image: Nuno Vasco Rodrigues / Climate Visuals Countdown (CC by-nc-nd 4.0)
A story in this week’s Financial Times [paywalled] has brought the EPC ratings of council-owned properties into the public conversation. This story was based on data obtained through FOI requests as part of the Council Climate Action Scorecards project, which we’ve been working on in partnership with Climate Emergency UK (CE UK).
What you can read in the FT is one story pulled from a wealth of data, but there’s more to come. Our WhatDoTheyKnow Projects tool allowed CE UK’s team of volunteers to conduct a nationwide survey of every council through well-placed FOI requests covering the use of renewable energy, plans for retrofitting, green skills training, road expansion and more.
The data they gathered has allowed for the understanding of councils’ action on a nationwide scale. This level of oversight has not previously been possible: as with so much about the Scorecards project, it is allowing councils to take more informed action on climate, and individuals to clearly understand what is being done.
Why local action matters
In the UK, it is estimated that around one third of carbon emissions are in some way under the influence of local authorities. 80% of UK councils have declared a ‘climate emergency’ to indicate they recognise the scale of the problem of climate change, and are in a position to take practical steps to be part of the solution. To help local authorities achieve the goals they set themselves (and to push them to go further), we need to engage with the plans that local authorities are making, and the actions they are starting to take.
In 2021, CE UK and mySociety worked together to produce the first Council Climate Plan Scorecards. CE UK’s upcoming launch is the second iteration of the Scorecards. It is much bigger and more ambitious in scope than the last: it scores not the plans, but the climate actions of every local authority in the UK.
FOI requests were just one part of the process. As well as giving CE UK access to WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, we developed a crowdsourcing tool for volunteers to use while marking across the 90+ datapoints collected for each council.
How do you score action?
CE UK moved from scoring plans to scoring actions. That required new approaches to gathering the information.
The questions CEUK used in the new Scorecards are the result of a long and thorough process of research and refinement. Building on their own research and expertise, they conducted one-on-one consultations with approximately 80 organisations and sector-specific experts. An advisory group of environmental and local government experts provided further discussion and refinement, to help build a list of questions that would practically be possible to answer, and that would reveal important information about the climate actions of councils.
The aim was to identify areas where information was publicly accessible; but also where gaps existed, especially in operational matters that aren’t often made public. Additionally, CE UK wanted to investigate whether councils are truly implementing the actions outlined in their climate action plans, including aspects like lobbying for additional powers.
Making use of Freedom of Information
Freedom of Information laws means that a huge range of information held by public authorities (including local councils) can be requested by any person who asks. This provides a legal tool to create greater transparency where information is not being published proactively.
For CE UK, the potential of FOI for the Scorecards project was clear – but there were concerns. In consultations with council staff, there was pushback regarding the use of FOI requests due to the potential time and financial burden on council officers who work on climate – with some requests for a more informal survey approach to be used. But the drawback of that would be making good data dependent on goodwill everywhere. FOI requests provided a way to make sure the scorecards were not just effective for councils who engaged with the process and provide an approach that was fair across the country.
To balance a process where they want to encourage positive engagement from councils, with one that works without that, CE UK’s approach was to plan out the most efficient and least burdensome use of FOI requests.
Based on feedback from the advisory group, and trial runs to a small number of councils, they eliminated questions that were less important and useful, made more ‘yes/no’ or ‘single number’ responses, and learned where certain questions weren’t relevant to certain areas or groups of councils.
The subsequent FOI requests became more streamlined, and this resulted in quicker response times for the final requests than they had in the trial – as the information sought was more direct and concise.
In the end, CE UK submitted a total of over 4,000 FOI requests to councils across the UK. The questions were divided into 11 categories, with some being specific to certain types of councils, such as district councils or combined authorities. The next stage was taking these 4,000 requests and getting them into a form that can be used for the scorecards.
Crowdsourcing and review process
CE UK used WhatDoTheyKnow to manage their FOI request process. mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow acts as a public archive for requests – requests made through the site have the responses shown in public to bring more information into the open – making it more discoverable by other people interested in the information, and reducing the need for duplicate requests being made. As of 2023, a million requests for information have been made through the site, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of information being released.
A feature we are trialling with a range of organisations is WhatDoTheyKnow Projects, which integrates crowdsourcing tools into WhatDoTheyKnow, and allows the task of extracting information into a new dataset to be spread out. The goal is that this helps organisations be more ambitious in finding out information and helps people work together to create genuinely new and exciting datasets, that no single organisation has ever seen.
As CE UK’s approach already made heavy use of volunteers and crowdsourcing, this was a natural fit. Alongside a wider group of 200 volunteers working on getting answers to the other questions, 15 volunteers specifically worked on the FOI requests. These volunteers were a mixture of people with prior experience or professional interest in FOI requests, campaigners well-versed in FOI processes, and individuals new to the concept but eager to engage in activism.
After the crowdsourcing of FOI data was complete, it joined the rest of the data in the new tool mySociety had developed for helping volunteers crowdsource information for the Scorecards.
From here, councils were given access to the data collected about them and given a right of reply to correct any inaccuracies or point towards information not previously discovered or disclosed. The results of this process will then be reviewed to produce the final Scorecards data, which will be launched this month.
But the Scorecards data will not be the only useful thing that will come out of this process. Because of how WhatDoTheyKnow was used, to see evidence supporting the final Scorecards, people will be able to click through and see the original responses, for instance, to see what councils have lobbied on support for their climate work.
Some of the FOIs are being used to construct datasets that have a broader impact, and here we come back to that FT story on the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings of council-owned houses. Building these new public datasets will be useful for councils to understand their own situation, and as we see with the news story, more broadly to understand the challenges ahead for local governments to meet net zero emissions goals.
The original Scorecards project has already been influential on how local governments understand their own plans, and how organisations like the UK’s Climate Change Committee understand the role and progress of local government in the challenges ahead. When the next generation of Scorecards is released, we hope that they continue to be useful in shaping and improving local government action around climate change.
mySociety believes that digital technology can be used to help people participate more fully in democracy, make governments and societies more transparent, and bring communities together to address societal challenges.
The Scorecards project showcases how the combination of digital tools, people power, and the right to information produces powerful results. We hope that the impact of this project can inspire and make possible similar approaches for other problems, or in other countries.
Power for People would like to see a transformation in the way we provide energy in this country – by removing barriers to small-scale renewable energy schemes, owned and run by people in their local communities.
They’ve written draft legislation — the Local Electricity Bill — and are currently campaigning for it to be made law. Since our TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem services are an integral part of their campaign, we were keen to find out more.
Power For People’s Corinna Miller was happy to help, firstly by explaining what drives the campaign: “We’re in the midst of an energy price crisis. It’s never been more obvious that we need cheap, clean, home-produced energy.”
And their vision is one of a sweeping change to the UK’s energy provision. Right now, provision is limited to a few big monopolies with profits disappearing into shareholders’ pockets; Power for People advocate clearing the path for small sustainable energy projects, with profits that would stay local.
“There’s such huge potential in our cities, towns and villages, for growth in small-scale renewable energy generation – especially by local groups that would provide cheaper, greener power and distribute the benefits across their local communities.
“But at the moment, such schemes only generate 0.5% of the UK’s electricity – largely due to the prohibitive costs they face in accessing local markets.”
So how do mySociety’s services fit into their campaign? It’s down to Power For People’s belief that mass mobilisation can bring change — and that all links back to the experience of their Director Steve Shaw, says Corinna.
“In 15 years working both at environmental NGOs and as a freelancer, Steve worked on campaigns that were instrumental in getting new laws passed – like the Household Waste Recycling Act, bringing in the doorstep recycling collection that all our homes now have; and the Climate Change Act, setting a legally binding target for the government to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — which has resulted in almost all of the UK’s coal power stations closing and the building of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms.
“These were great successes, and one thing Steve learned from them was that grassroots focused campaigns, mobilising tens or hundreds of thousands of people to lobby their MPs at the constituency level, when done in a coordinated way over a long-term arc, are extremely effective.”
And of course, to help people contact those MPs, what better than free web services like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem?
Power for People’s website first sends you to TheyWorkForYou to find out who your MP is, then provides a list to check against and discover whether or not they already support the Local Electricity Bill.
Once you know what their stance is, you’re in a far better position to write a persuasive message to your MP, says Corinna, and WriteToThem is the final step on that path.
“We wanted to streamline the communication process so each supporter didn’t feel like they had to do too much extra work. Whether an individual has contacted their MP before or not, offering them a tool to help easily find and write to them, all in one place, felt like the best solution to get people to take action in support of the campaign.
“WriteToThem has a wonderfully streamlined system that people trust and we have found people take effective action with this tool.”
WriteToThem doesn’t allow for copy and pasted messages, and Corinna says she finds they’re often blocked by MPs’ servers in any case. “Instead, we direct people to helpful facts that they can share with their local leaders — and we give them bespoke advice when they receive a response.
“We highly encourage back-and-forth communication, so that the MP understands that the campaign is not going to go away until action is taken at a parliamentary level. People care about this issue, and we want MPs to know that.”
It sounds like everything’s working nicely for Power For People, who say that their Bill already has the support of 322 MPs from all parties — a figure which includes 128 Conservatives — along with 110 local authorities and county councils.
“Our main call to action continues to be for people to write to their MP, which is why WriteToThem is such a key tool for us. Helping streamline the communication process and helping people write to their local leaders has been vital to the success of the campaign so far.”
And so, what advice would they give to other organisations considering using WriteToThem for their own campaigns?
“Definitely help people curate their own message to their MP, by being specific to their constituency. This requires a bit more time speaking to your supporters but it’s worth it to get an MP interested in what you are calling for. Be specific. Try to keep each email short and polite, with a single request for the MP.”
Many thanks to Corinna for sharing such interesting background details to the campaign. If you’d like to learn more about Power for People and get involved, visit their website.
Meanwhile, if you’re running a campaign yourself and think it might benefit from WriteToThem’s free service, there’s lots of useful information here.
Alice Garvey was one of the numerous volunteers on Climate Emergency UK’s Scorecards project, helping to assess councils’ climate action plans to a rigorous marking schema.
Like many of those who volunteered, Alice has a particular interest in local authority climate commitments — in her case, because the information being gathered feeds directly into her work. The Scorecards data informed her doctoral research; but she also found that being part of the team that helped to assemble this data brought extra insights as well.
So what is she working on?
Alice told us: “My PhD considers how different regions of the UK can reduce their emissions in a way that is fair, and that recognises the spatially varied opportunities and opportunity costs of decarbonisation. This is informed by both the need for rapid climate change mitigation at scale, as well as the need to level the UK’s significant regional inequalities.
“As part of my PhD I have been evaluating the potential contribution of Local Authority commitments to the overall achievement of net zero in the UK. This involved calculating the possible emissions reductions in scenarios where councils met their operational and/or area-wide net zero targets.
“The project also involved quantifying the ‘capability’ of different councils to decarbonise, to recognise that some areas face systemic barriers to developing and delivering climate plans.
“I have also undertaken interviews with stakeholders active in climate governance from across regions, sectors and scales of government in the UK. This has allowed me to evaluate how fair current governance arrangements for net zero are perceived to be, particularly from the perspective of councils.”
This is interesting! We wondered what had started Alice on this path of enquiry.
“The UK has exceptional levels of regional inequality, and the changes that are required during the low carbon transition are only likely to exacerbate old, or introduce new, inequalities. I undertook this project to help highlight some of these tensions and trade-offs, to identify the areas that are likely to fall behind without further support, and the kind of support that they may need.
“To do this, I focused on the role of councils as local-regional institutions. It was increasingly evident that councils are ‘expected’ to have a plan to achieve net zero, despite there being no formal requirement for them to do so. Similarly, given longstanding budget cuts to local authorities in the UK, it is doubtful whether many councils have the financial capability to deliver programmes around net zero. I thought that the gap between the rhetoric of local climate action and the lack of formal responsibilities was interesting, and worthy of further exploration.
“For instance, what scale of emissions reductions would the voluntary net zero commitments of councils achieve? What kind of role could or should the local scale play in national decarbonisation? What kinds of policies would enable councils to decarbonise more effectively, and more fairly? What do councils think of these policies? These were all questions I aimed to address in undertaking the research.”
So, the relevance of the Scorecards data is self-evident here. How had Alice come across it?
“I was aware of the Climate Emergency Declarations mapping from CE UK, which provided really good (and novel) oversight of the landscape of local climate commitments. When the Scorecards were getting started I got involved as a climate action plan scoring volunteer.”
And, as it turned out, that was a great way of understanding the data from the inside out.
“The process of undertaking the training, scoring the plans and engaging with CE UK gave me key insight into the workings of local government, and the significant challenges it faces in terms of decarbonisation. It enabled and inspired my use of the Scorecards in my own academic research.
“Though I primarily used the Scorecards for the net zero target dates for councils, they also made me think more critically about the drivers of these commitments and declarations, and the spatial variables that meant some areas were more ambitious than others.”
And how was this understanding applied?
“In my analysis I used the target data to develop scenarios of emissions reductions for each local authority in England if they met their net zero targets (and a scenario if they didn’t). I also used the scores from the Scorecards as part of an indicator framework that suggested how ambitious different councils were being, and compared this to an indicator of ‘capability’. This allowed a comparison of whether more ‘capable’ councils were being more ambitious and vice versa, and identifying regional trends in this.
“The analysis showed that many regions were taking more responsibility for decarbonisation than they were necessarily capable of, whilst other more capable regions were not taking proportionate action. Notably, the picture was more complicated than a simple North-South divide. I published this analysis as an academic paper and as a key part of my PhD.”
These insights seem really valuable, adding to our understanding of the work ahead required for an effective and just transition. How does Alice envisage that they’ll be used?
“I hope that the paper highlights the spatial variation in how local government works, and how this challenges granting any uniform responsibility for delivering net zero. For example, any local statutory responsibility for net zero would need to consider the varied starting points of different councils on their decarbonisation journey. I would also hope that it draws attention to the need for greater direction, greater support for councils from central government, if they are expected to have a formal role in delivering net zero in the UK. Given that delivery of net zero relies on action at all scales, across all regions, this is something that appears increasingly inevitable.
“Though it is only my perspective from the academic side, I would say that many papers do not reach the eyes and ears of decision-makers without further work to translate them. The protocols and language of such publications can limit their consumption to an academic audience.
“This is the reason that the publication of a paper can sometimes be only the beginning of the research process. Translating papers into policy briefs, calls for evidence, presentations, and dissemination through social media, can be key steps in ensuring the research makes its mark in the world outside the university.”
We hope that this research will indeed find its way into such channels, and that the findings will help inform the UK’s vital transition period. You can see Alice’s research in the paper: Climate ambition and respective capabilities: are England’s local emissions targets spatially just? Thanks very much to her for telling us all about it.
We’re always keen to hear how our work is helping inform other projects, so if you’ve been using it for a campaign, research or other purposes, please do get in touch and let us know.
A broad range of organisations and individuals are active on climate — and our services can help them to be more effective, from grassroots movements right up to institutional authorities.
Here’s an example of the latter: the Council Climate Plan Scorecards site, for which mySociety provides technical support, was cited in oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament Committee by the Accounts Commission for Scotland.
Commission Member Andrew Burns used data from the site as evidence of inconsistencies across councils in the UK, supporting the Commission’s view that Scottish local councils need to work together more effectively – as reported in the committee transcript (page 9).
The Accounts Commission holds councils and other local government bodies in Scotland to account, and helps them improve, by reporting to the public on their performance.
As the need for cutting emissions becomes ever more pressing, it’s vital that the public can keep an eye on how resources are being allocated and whether authorities are fulfilling their pledges. In November 2021, the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament launched an inquiry into the role of local government and its partners in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland.
The inquiry aims to seek out the main barriers at a local level to Scotland reaching its target of being net zero in emissions by 2045. It will consider what practical steps councils are taking to break them down, in partnership with business, the voluntary sector, and local communities.
It is also considering what role the Scottish Government and its agencies can play in both supporting and, where necessary, challenging local government to work well with its partners to deliver net zero; and how local government can play its part in ensuring a ‘just transition’ to net zero, ie one that is economically and socially fair.
A source of climate data
And that’s how the Scorecards came in useful for the Accounts Commission. They first discovered the website when collating evidence for their publication Scotland’s councils’ approach to addressing climate change.
“The Scorecards Project gave us a specific comparison across many UK local authorities, including some councils in Scotland, as regards their approach to climate action and achieving Net Zero”, said Andrew. “The variation seen in the scorecards confirmed the need for Scotland’s councils’ targets and plans to be scrutinised further.
“Our interest in this area is ongoing, as is the work of the Scottish Parliamentary Committee”.
The Scorecards site and its sister site CAPE show at a glance that there are big differences in the targets that councils have set and their timescales for reaching net zero. With further scrutiny, the Accounts Commission arrived at the conclusion that increased collaboration across councils and with key partners and local communities is needed.
Across Scotland, the Accounts Commission found that 28 councils had declared a climate emergency at the time of the report, with 81% setting a target for the council’s own emissions and 53% a more ambitious target to cover emissions for the whole area. The Accounts Commission report also clearly sets out which years the different councils are aiming to reach net zero by.
And will the next version of the Scorecards, which aims to measure concrete action from councils, be useful as they progress?
Andrew has no doubt: “Absolutely yes, it will be”.
We thought so too! After all, this is an ongoing process for councils everywhere, and the bodies that keep them accountable. We’ll go on putting out the data and we hope to hear many more instances of its use like this.
Image: Mike Newbry
The climate and nature are more important than party politics — that’s the principle behind The Commitment. They are an impartial organisation working across the political spectrum to ensure that the health of the planet is prioritised, regardless of who is elected.
They invite you to make a pledge that, whatever the election, at whatever level of government, you’ll vote for the politicians who are promising to work for urgent action on the climate and nature.
When you sign up, there’s also the chance to add your reasons for doing so. These are shared with representatives as evidence that climate action is a vote winner.
Head of Political Engagement Carina Mundle-Garratt notes, “Our research shows that it only takes around 50 Commitments to get a politician’s attention — and in some cases as few as 20. Every pledge matters.”
Understanding what councils do around climate
When we heard that The Commitment uses the Climate Climate Plan Scorecards to support this work, we were eager to hear more. How did they first discover the service? Good old Googling, as it turned out.
“We came across the website on our mission to understand not only the remit and capacity of local councils”, said Carina, “but the specific action they could take to address climate change and biodiversity loss at a local level. This involved sifting through a lot of noise on the internet!”
Preparing for informed conversations
And how is the data helping with The Commitment’s mission?
“Within our Political Engagement team, they help us to engage with local councillors.
“We use them initially to help us assess the quality of a council’s climate action plan with regard to climate and nature. We then look at the individual components of the council’s score, cross-referencing it with other available information to develop relevant local requests to make of councillors. In relation to the Scorecards these may be to improve, update or execute parts of their climate action plans.
“For example, we have previously asked councillors to update their action plans to include provisions for agricultural land use, nature restoration and targets for improvements to housing stock efficiency.”
Carina continued, “Using Scorecards has really helped us to streamline our research, giving us a local starting point for assessing the performance of a council on issues of climate change and biodiversity loss and showing action plans for other comparable areas meaning that we can help join the dots and facilitate learnings between councils on good and bad practice. It really helps us to take an individualised approach to each council we work with, and by extension to each councillor we engage.”
A resource for informing followers
It’s great to see our work helping to ensure that conversations with representatives are informed and productive. And the Scorecards are useful as a resource for The Commitment’s followers, too:
“Our Commitment Gathering team use them as an impartial resource to signpost Committers to when they want to learn more about their local council”.
Unsurprisingly, then, they’re excited to see Climate Emergency UK’s recently-published methodology which has moved forward from scoring councils’ climate action plans, onto their actual action — and The Commitment plans to incorporate the new Scorecards into their work too, once they’re complete. “As we grow, we’ll seek to track and monitor more and more politicians, so Scorecards will be an invaluable resource for us in helping us to determine the progress that councils are making for more action on the climate and nature.”
If you’re interested in the work that The Commitment are facilitating, you might want to explore further. We asked Carina where to start.
“The most important thing we would ask you to do is to make your Commitment. This means that you promise to vote only for politicians who work for urgent action on the climate and nature and then you tell us (and them) why you are doing this. Your story is important.
“After that, the second thing that we would ask you to do is to spread the word and get others to make The Commitment too.
“We know many people are voting with the future of the planet at the heart of their decision, but we want to make that decision count more often than just once every five years, by regularly reminding politicians how important these issues are to their voters.”
Thanks very much to Carina for talking to us — we love to hear about this type of informed activism based on our climate data and services, and especially when they’re underpinning such a well co-ordinated campaign.
Local authorities across the UK have committed to net zero carbon emissions by a set date, and drafted the plans that show how they intend to get there – and now the really hard work has begun. With their roadmap in place, councils are beginning to translate those plans into action.
Our partners at Climate Emergency UK are starting the process of assessing the action that councils are taking toward their carbon reduction goals – see how they’ll be doing it here.
When you read any climate action plan, it becomes clear that the green transition touches practically every part of what councils do: from the vehicles they drive, to the policies they draft; the buildings they operate within; the food they source or the means by which they dispose of refuse.
New ways of doing things
A key part of a council’s transition involves reskilling both their workers and their residents, as they bring on board new, low carbon ways to tackle a multitude of daily operations. And, as every council in the country is going through much the same process, it makes sense for them to learn from one another as they do so.
That’s where our CAPE and Climate Emergency UK’s Scorecards project can come in useful, helping councils to identify others who can share their experience or embark on a new learning process together. This means that authorities need not be entirely in the dark when implementing new ideas, and the risk of spending time, money and resources on unproven solutions is minimised.
Reskilling a county
Luke McCarthy, Senior Green Skills Specialist at Surrey County Council, is one person who knows this very well. As his title implies, it’s his job to oversee green job growth across Surrey, ensuring that there are ample opportunities for all in the low-carbon services sector. Employers, training providers and residents will all need to gain new skills to bring the ambitions of Surrey’s climate action plan to fruition.
Luke explains, “A lot of my work is in ensuring we have the right green skills provision in place to meet employers’ needs, and that local residents know about these.”
His role is relatively new, so his first task has been to develop a green skills strategy for Surrey, prioritising which sectors have particular needs and what the role of a council might be in meeting this.
Finding best practice
Luke told us how CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer, and the first iteration of the Council Climate Scorecards site, which assessed councils on their plans rather than actions, have been useful in helping with these aims:
“The sites helped me find other councils doing good stuff on skills training for residents, and I discovered some example initiatives which we can either bring to Surrey or at least learn from.”
The Browse by Feature page on CAPE groups councils’ action plans by the areas that they are strongest in, including Green Jobs, Skills and Training, giving an overview from which it’s possible to dig in more deeply.
CAPE links to its sister site, Council Climate Scorecards, where each plan is given detailed marks on over 70 different requirements that go to make up a good climate action plan.
“The question I was really interested in was Does the plan identify the training and upskilling of the workforce that is necessary to transform the local economy at the scale and pace needed?”
A tool for making connections
When we built CAPE, we hoped it might lead to council staff opening discussions with their counterparts in other authorities — and that’s just what Luke went on to do.
“I’ve contacted two of the three councils I identified as doing interesting things on green skills training for residents. I’ve had a call with someone from one council who was very generous with his time and sharing of information. And another contact has shared some research reports — we’re hoping to speak soon.
“These conversations reassured me that our current thinking on key sectors and issues aligned with their focus and areas of work! I was also able to gain insights into how they’d approached understanding the green skills requirements across different sectors.”
Additionally, Luke says he picked up new ideas on how to promote roles in the low carbon/green economy to residents who might not be aware of them: “We are already planning to take steps to improve the provision of careers education, advice and guidance around the green economy, working with local partners including schools and careers advisors. The insights from other councils certainly speed up how quickly we will be able to develop solutions, or that we can do something of higher quality.”
Many thanks to Luke for letting us know of the small part we’ve played in helping forge links between councils.
Both we at mySociety, and our partners Climate Emergency UK were delighted to hear of this type of usage of our services. We hope many more councils will use our services to share ideas and consolidate their plans as we move to a greener future.
If you’re from a council, or perhaps have a wider interest in climate, don’t forget to check out Climate Emergency UK’s methodology for the next phase of the Scorecards project.
As it turns out, our projects have a lot in common. Both aim to make it easier for everyone to understand and assess the progress a council is making towards cutting carbon emissions, a field where the picture can be complicated and difficult for the average person to follow. That starts with data.
Rebecca explained, “Identifying the path to carbon neutrality is not straightforward, and the data that would enable organisations to know where they currently are on this path is very weak.”
To address this, ReForest Brighton is developing an interactive website to show in real time the progress that each local authority has made in relation to its individual carbon neutral targets.
Naturally, the project began by looking at the organisation’s hometown of Brighton, which has a target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030. That’s just the start, though; the model is replicable for any other local authority in the UK, allowing their own carbon neutral targets and the actions determined by their climate action plans to be slotted in.
“The aim,” says Rebecca, “is to provide real time quality data that will enable decision making around policy and practice.
“So for example, if it’s clear that maintaining the current level of action won’t bring a city to carbon neutrality by their set date, the council can refocus their efforts to reduce emissions and sequestrate more carbon.”
The ultimate target? “To make local authority councils more ambitious.”
Carbon neutral dates
So where do CAPE and the Scorecards site come in? As Rebecca explained, CAPE was useful mainly for a single datapoint amongst the many that it provides.
“The main way we’ve been using it is to retrieve the carbon neutral dates of all the individual local authorities in the UK.
“Without this data being easily accessible it would’ve taken us a long time and lot of resources to go through more than 300 local authorities and dig out their target dates.”
And as for the Scorecards site, this has been more of a sanity-check tool: “We used it once we’d completed our calculations, to check our ratings of each local authority against the Scorecards rating.
“For example, if our calculations rated a local authority with high climate action but the Scorecards had it as low, then we’d analyse and reassess our ratings.”
As well as the interactive map, their project will produce predictive data to show how much progress the council will have made by their target zero emissions date.
For those who like the technical details, Rebecca is keen to oblige: “Our categorisation is based on a calculation of emission trends from 2016-2020. The trends allow us to predict where each local authority will be by the carbon neutral target date we downloaded from CAPE, using the ‘forecast’ formula (=FORECAST (x, known_ys, known_xs)).
“There is actually 15 years’ worth of emissions data available, but we chose this five-year period because climate action has only started becoming a consideration for local authorities in the last few years.
“Basically, we look at the predicted emissions on the authority’s carbon neutral date and categorise them accordingly — and if a local authority had no carbon neutral target or plans, it is automatically rated zero.”
A knock-on effect
ReForest Brighton wants to make it easier for the public to understand how their local authority is doing in achieving its carbon reduction targets — and they have another aim, too:
“We would like the public to push local governments to take faster, more effective action, and we’re planning to help them do this by giving them the means to write to their elected representatives, and to share the website with their friends and contacts.
“But even while hoping that councils will be making as much progress as possible, we’re also pushing for transparency. We’d even encourage an authority to push their carbon neutral target date further back if it gave a more honest picture of where they are at.”
Brighton Peace and Environment Centre are a registered charity and they welcome volunteers: get in touch if you would like to know more.
You can also make a donation to them, using this link.
Image: Aaron Burden
Climate change threatens to have huge impacts on human health and wellbeing. At the same time, the measures local authorities are putting in place through their climate action plans have great potential to bring positive impacts to health and well-being.
As we clean up the air we’ll see less respiratory disease; fewer toxins will mean lower cancer rates; better insulated houses will result in less damp in our homes; and better access to nature will bring benefits to mental health.
Yet it’s not a clearcut case of climate action bringing benefits to all. Councils who suffered more from austerity cuts may be less able to implement the changes needed to face the climate emergency, and as we’re already well aware, we’re not starting on a level playing field: levels of deprivation and life expectancy vary across the country.
We’ve been hearing from Heather Brown, Professor of Health Inequalities at Lancaster University, on how data from our Climate programme has been feeding into a current research project that interrogates all of these points and more, with the help of the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Scorecards site.
Funded by the National Institute of Health and Care, the research will:
- identify the actions and policies which local authorities can take to limit climate change; and
- identify actions and adaptations which can mitigate the health (both physical and mental) and health inequality impacts of climate change.
Climate change and human health are interlinked
The effects that climate change may inflict upon human health and wellbeing are huge and multifarious: from the physical health risks of extremes in temperature; shortages in food and medical supplies; water shortages and contaminated water supplies; to the mental health impacts that include anxiety, grief and loss.
It’s well recognised that these effects will, without intervention, be distributed across our population unfairly, with those already in the most deprived regions likely to be hit hardest and soonest.
Well-implemented and properly funded climate action provides an opportunity for turning these issues into positives for public health. In many cases, interventions fall within the provision of local authorities, and the action they take around climate change will have beneficial effects on health, whether intended or not.
As an example, a switch to more people using sustainable transport modes such as cycling and walking will not only cut carbon emissions, but will have both physical and mental health benefits for the population.
Informed by climate action plan data
Professor Brown explains that the first task in the project is to see what research is already out there on the health impacts of climate change: “We will be undertaking a systematic review of the existing literature to synthesise the findings on the impacts of climate change on individuals, communities and the health system’s lived experiences in relation to physical and mental health and health inequalities in a UK context.”
Part of this will involve using our CAPE database to identify local authorities to speak to. Professor Brown says:
“Based on what we find, we want to talk to people working in local authorities, and identify the perceived barriers and facilitators towards collaborating or co-constructing action plans with local communities, in relation to mitigating physical and mental health impacts and health inequalities.
“We also want to identify how local authority leads are using evidence to support the development of their climate action plans. And finally we’ll explore factors which may impact the implementation of the climate action plans and identify areas which could support them.”
At this point, data from our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Plan Scorecards site will be brought into play, interestingly with other datasets as well:
“We’ll use the Scorecards site to explore how the ratings of climate plans correlate with funding cuts associated with austerity at the local authority level; as well as population health (life expectancy), and area level deprivation.
“Then, given our findings, we will speak with people working in local authorities to understand what factors related to health were seen as priorities or not when developing climate plans.”
An increase in our understanding
This research will go back to the National Institute of Health and Care to inform their future funding; it will also feed into academic publications, and on a practical level, it should help local authorities with their decision making.
We were really glad to know that our services are playing a part in research that will increase our understanding of these issues. If this case study has suggested synergies with your own work, Professor Brown says that her team is happy to consider potential collaborations or further ideas for future research. Her contact details can be found here.
Image: Fritz Bielmeier
When we and our partners at Climate Emergency UK began work on CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer, it was with a strong sense that gathering together local councils’ plans would be useful to many types of user. We could see how such a dataset would help councils themselves, as well as informing campaigners, researchers and members of the public.
But of course, when you put data out into the open, you discover the specific ways in which these sectors will put it to use. We’re really enjoying hearing from the varied organisations who’ve been telling us how they have used CAPE and the Scorecards: some we were already quite familiar with, some we’d never heard of, and others in sectors where, while the application becomes obvious as soon as it is mentioned, we just hadn’t foreseen usage.
The reason for such variety is clear when you think about it: transition to carbon zero will touch every area of our lives, and so this data will be relevant everywhere.
That includes those working towards moving society towards more sustainable choices in what we eat. We blogged about Sustain’s work around food and farming not long ago; and now we hear from ProVeg UK, who are also working on making sustainable food choices a part of the nation’s landscape.
ProVeg UK are one of ten country teams that make up ProVeg International, a global non-profit food awareness organisation with the mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040.
They began operating five years ago, and focus solely on making school food healthier and more sustainable by increasing the quality and quantity of plant-based food in schools through their School Plates programme.
The organisation supports local authorities, multi-academy trusts and individual schools throughout the UK to help school menus become healthier, more sustainable and save money through menu reviews, plant-based recipe development, and both online and in-person plant-based cooking in schools workshops with catering staff.
The team have so far helped to swap over 6.4 million meals from meat-based to meat-free or plant-based, and are currently supporting 35 major catering partners (including 29 local authorities), responsible for over 3,500 schools, and over 580,000 children.
Underpinning action with data
With more and more local authorities declaring a climate emergency, ProVeg UK quickly realised that the Climate Actions Plans site was the perfect resource to help them prioritise their outreach to those councils who were actively looking to reduce their emissions. The team’s job is to show councils the significant role food plays in cutting emissions and to offer their free support to make it happen.
It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.
Colette Fox, Programme Manager at ProVeg UK, told us that even just being able to quote the overall number of local authorities who have declared a climate emergency was useful in showing how much work is left to be done.
She said, “The Climate Action Plans Explorer is our go-to resource to check any new declarations and to reference when we quote the current percentages for the UK and by individual nations.
“Without the site we would have had to check every council’s website and search for their climate action plans. It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.”
Recipes and advice
You can find out more about the School Plates programme on the ProVeg UK website, and if you scroll down you can download The Recipes – 35 plant-based recipes designed for primary schools. Each recipe has been created to comply with the School Food Standards, and includes the cost per portion (the average is less than 44p), the carbon footprint, key nutrients and allergens.
Although these recipes are designed for schools, they can of course be made by anyone looking to try more plant-based dishes.
And if you are involved in school food for a local authority or multi academy trust, ProVeg UK provides free menu review, plant-based recipe development, and in person training for your caterers – all free of charge.
ProVeg UK also offers free monthly online cooking workshops to individual schools, to help show why it is so important to eat more plant-based foods. If you’d like to learn more, they’d be very happy to hear from you at email@example.com.