Are councils enviro-mental?

Ready or not, here it comes

We noticed that our good friends over at the Guardian Local Government Network are today running another in their series of excellent live web chats, this time on making councils greener. If you haven’t taken a look already, we suggest you head on over there.

This debate was brought to the fore in part thanks to a really good article by Faye Scott, which examined some of the threats and opportunities localism is presenting to the green agenda, we recommend you check it out.

This issue is one which has been troubling some of the WLLG crew recently. Before reading Faye’s article, we had been having similar conversations with coleagues about the way that the funding challenges facing local government are restricting the things we spend our money on, moving away from what we should be doing towards what we had to do.

To quote a couple of stats from the article:

• 37% of councils deprioritising climate change or state that it was never a priority

• 35% remain firm in their commitment to climate change and believe that action could even increase in the context of localism

• 28% are narrowing their ambitions to focus on reducing emissions from their estate and ceasing work on wider environmental issues.

The first of these stats is particularly shocking. Over a third of local authorities, having considered all of the implications, have decided doing their bit for the environment simply isn’t worth it.

Whilst it is understandable that councils are struggling to balance the books, the simple fact is that the environmental crisis slowly but surely edging towards us will potentially be bigger than any economic crisis could ever be. No amount of money will help when sea levels are rising and extreme weather is an everyday occurance, unless of course we are planning to build sea defences and bulwarks out of piles of old bank notes.

Okay, this is all in the future, and at the end of the day there are other economies across the world who are doing more to destroy the environment than any town hall could ever do, but there is a principle at stake. As a nation we should be leading the way with regards to tackling climate change, acting as a small example of how a nation can do things big and small to help create a more sustainable future for everyone.

And whilst a major push for this comes from central government, it is through local government that many of these changes will be enacted. As the spector of localism descends it will fall increasingly to town halls up and down the country to put environmentally friendly policies in place to encourage, cajoule and shove residents into living greener lives. This will not be an easy task at any stage, but the more we kick the can down the road (a phrase appearing more and more often recently) the harder it will be to deal with it in the end.

Think of it like a strongman (or woman) pulling a 747 plane. If they try to start off at a sprint they will simply rebound and end up on their backsides. If, however, they start slowly and build up speed over time, eventually they will be rolling along nicely and excerting far less energy to maintain momentum than they did to start things off.

The same can be said of environmental issues. If we turn around in ten years time and tell all our residents that within a month they will be required to recycle all of their waste and compost all of their food waste, as well as insulating all of their homes and switching to electric cars then we will have revolts on our hands.

But if we spend the intervening years (for want of a better phrase) nudging people in the right direction we may just get there. Things like decreasing the size of general waste bins and increasing the size of recycling bins every few years, introducing community composting schemes and providing parking permit discounts for environmentally friendly vehicles will all play a part in moving people towards a greener future.

And closer to home, some investment in the short term in council buildings and equipment will pay off big time in the long term. Investing in renewable energy sources, replacing diesel engined fleet vehicles with hybrid versions and even doing simple things such as ensuring all equipment is turned off overnight will make baby steps towards cutting CO2 emissions and cutting costs which can then be better spent elsewhere.

Funds are tight, we all know this. But to entirely ignore an area of work because it is not politically sexy to keep chipping away at the climate mountain is short sightedness of the highest degree. Let’s hope localism encourages councils to sompete to be at the top of the heap rather than sinking to the lowest common denominator.

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One Comment on “Are councils enviro-mental?”

  1. Ed Hammond Says:

    I think for a lot of councils the impetus will be financial rather than environmental. On waste, the cost of landfill will drive the moves towards composting and more recycling.

    As the market begins to recognise the financial costs of environmental damage – increased insurance premiums, costs of adaptation – it will drive authorities to seek the cheapest option. Which will hopefully therefore be the greenest option.

    Sounds cynical I know.

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