The prevailing issue that has exercised the minds of those in local government for the last decade has been dealing with the impact of austerity. Whilst rumours of its demise may be somewhat premature it is likely to be overtaken by something that may have an even more fundamentally profound impact on councils, dominating almost every decision they make over the next decade – that of climate change.
Whilst many councils are alert to this agenda, with dozens declaring climate change emergencies, particularly in response to high profile public protests by young people, it is easy to move the date you expect to be carbon neutral forwards by ten years or so, but unless you focus on deliverables then achieving such aspirations could prove to be difficult in practice. The clock is ticking. There is an urgent need to move beyond strategising and rhetoric to making significant progress.
Planning will play a key role in redesigning fabric and infrastructure in the short, mid and long-term but significantly changing our everyday actions, in the way we deliver services, will prove to be the true test of advancement on this agenda.
Services like housing; highways and transport; waste management; parks and even school meals are likely to be changed forever. Once action on climate change is not seen as ‘someone else’s job’ but is recognised as everyone’s responsibility and is embedded in practice, then rapid progress can be achieved.
Government proposals contained in the waste and resources strategy, is just one example of huge changes afoot that will have seismic consequences for local authorities. With separate weekly food waste and free green waste collections being suggested, alongside a deposit return scheme for glass, plastics and aluminium, the investments that have already been made in existing assets, to collect waste-streams from the kerbside could quickly become obsolete. Expensive disposal facilities built with huge sums of capital funding risk being left redundant. These changes could also have huge implications for the local government workforce.
Faced with potential legal action Government is also pushing councils to take action on improving air quality through the introduction of clean air zones. Some councils are pushing forward with attempts to move their own fleets to electric vehicles or even hydrogen but in these cash-starved times charging point investment is lagging behind.
This is a public policy agenda that the volume is going to continuously increase on. With the right vision and leadership local government could and should lead the way. The time to act is now.