Let me start by saying that I do want local authorities to reduce their carbon footprint and lead their communities as they tackle climate change. My comments on this proposal are quite negative but I have endeavoured to point the way to a different approach rather than just criticise.
Firstly, the context in which the consultation is set is quite misleading. Yes we have had a recession and a change of government since the declaration was first launched but surely of more significance is the fact that we have had a Climate Change Act, a Floods and Water Management Act, the introduction of FITs, RHI and the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme in which most upper tier authorities participate. We have also seen big shifts in the wider world with the Carbon Disclosure Project, the 10:10 campaign, EU Framework Directives, the EU ETS and government estate targets.
This context matters because the most important test of a new Nottingham Declaration should be its additional contribution to reducing emissions and building resilience. If it makes no difference or actually deflects time and energy then don’t bother.
Secondly, is the question of the participants and their roles. Much is made of the MoU between DECC and the Local Government Group, and although this was a step forward it puts burdens on local government without requiring central government to do anything, let alone find additional resources (not to mention the fact that councils themselves are not bound by the MoU). Then there are the missing participants: the communities (businesses, NGOs and householders) and other parts of the public sector. There has to be a question about the usefulness of a local government only process.
Thirdly, is the political reality and lessons of the past. The simple fact is that there has been action on climate change in the UK because of national political leadership, centrally and scientifically led targets, legislation, innovative financing, government grants and wider public acceptability of the issue. It is the fate of all voluntary declarations that they lack ambition and are not taken seriously, especially if signed by a previous administration. Even if a council was minded to sign up it would be foolish to set ambitious goals in the absence of funds to support progress, overwhelming demand from their communities or recognition of some sort.
The Nottingham Declaration was signed and forgotten by many councils. In political terms the Nottingham Declaration is unfortunately associated with failure and therefore should not be revived but the whole thought process started again.
I do welcome the attempt to refresh the declaration and agree with the assertion that it must be sector led, but there should be more emphasis on partnership as well. However, as far as I can see the proposal is that councils have the ‘prospect’ of collaboratively setting targets and using a knowledge hub all under the oversight of a Board. There are no proposals for adaptation simply an acknowledgement that councils are pivotal and nearly all of the suggested indicators are legal obligations.
The challenge for local authorities regarding climate change, is not to commit to ambitious new targets, it is to achieve the ones they already have in the most cost effective way. The whole framework should be much more inclusive and not isolate local government in an old fashioned idea of leadership. This proposal should not be presented as a reheating of an old discredited idea. Dropping the pompous ‘declaration’ language, avoiding new unachievable targets and working in partnership with communities is the way forward.
There are lessons here from the health sector. Rather than advocate a declaration type approach the effort by the centre was spent on developing a roadmap which helped hospitals to understand the big picture and what they could do. It is of course as vulnerable to abuse as any other voluntary approach but my point is that its emphasis is on delivery. The NHS roadmap is not perfect it can be improved, its deadlines are not tight and it lacks detail on legal obligations, potential partnerships and sources of help (financial or expertise).
Organisations are able to sign up to contribute to achieving the goals of the roadmap and publicise their contribution. Government in turn will agree that the roadmap is credible and commit to supporting its delivery.
The contribution by each local authority will be agreed locally and in all probability will be little more than a restating of existing legal obligations. The incentive to report is that data will already be required by the legislation and that the council is informing its community of what it has done rather than following the abstract tyranny of a newly minted target. There is an expectation that many stakeholders will recognise how they can contribute to achieving the goals of the roadmap and the council will help them when it can.
The final advantage of a roadmap is that it can be seen as story or a journey and not feel like a policy instrument. This means that it can embrace mitigation and adaptation in one narrative – we don’t need to do a bit of adaptation here and a bit of mitigation there, we need to do both at the same time with the same community.