15 Aug 2023
How is Action 2 tackling the climate crisis?
Delivering reductions in greenhouse gases isn’t currently a legal requirement for councils, so strong leadership on climate change within the council itself is essential.
When declaring a climate emergency in 2019, Cotswold District Council created a new councillor role: Cabinet Member for Climate Change and Forward Planning. Having this leadership role has boosted the authority’s efforts to meet its climate goals, which include an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, to be achieved without offsetting or use of carbon credits. This means a real cut in emissions in the local area, rather than paying into (potentially distant) schemes to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Before 2019, the local authority had no planning, defined strategy or specialists related to climate change. Giving a councillor the remit for climate action allowed the authority to immediately embark on updating its Local Plan with a new climate focus, ensuring that climate goals are interlinked with other priorities such as developing more affordable housing.
The council built on this appointment by first recruiting 2 staff members who would also act as climate champions, a Climate Action Lead and a Sustainable Transport Officer. In 2023, an additional officer with responsibility for engagement, communications and outreach will be hired. One of their tasks will be to establish a climate change panel of councillors, residents, young people and local stakeholders to help shape the delivery of and promote the council’s existing zero-carbon strategy.
The climate champions have a responsibility to ensure the council delivers on its commitments in the following areas:
- Lowering emissions where the council has direct control. Reducing carbon related to the council’s own buildings, operations and vehicles.
- Lowering emissions where the council has indirect control. This includes developing procurement and commissioning procedures, so goods and services from suppliers.
- Place shaping and transport. Ensuring policies in the authority’s Local Plan are in line with climate emergency commitments.
- Enabling. Catalysing partnerships between local stakeholders and promoting best practice.
- Engagement. Working with local communities on climate action.
Reporting against climate action strategies
The council’s climate champions are required to report on and evaluate progress towards targets in the climate change plans. This includes an annual report of council climate impacts, with data that measures the council’s success in implementing its climate strategy. They also report on activities that may not be in line with climate action, such as the level of fossil fuel investment carried out by the authority.
In addition to reporting council-wide emissions on an annual basis, Cotswold is also disclosing district-wide emissions through the Climate Disclosure Project. Reporting in this way is a requirement of all councils that have signed up to UK100’s climate pledge, which Cotswold District Council was a founding signatory of, after its Cabinet Member for Climate Change led the charge. It’s not a statutory requirement for councils to publicly document emissions reductions, so by reporting at both a council- and district-wide level, Cotswold is going above and beyond twice over.
What impact has the project had?
Introducing climate champions at councillor and officer level has created a distinct change of culture at the council, with climate change and ecological impacts now considered in every report, in a similar manner to impacts on equality and finances. Alongside this, smaller changes have been introduced to shift behaviour among council employees. For example, a salary sacrifice scheme is available to allow people to lease electric cars.
This strategic shift in focus is making sure decision-making across the authority takes climate issues into account, ensuring they're considered by everyone at the council. To truly embed this, Cotswold’s 2024 Local Plan will be “green to the core”. One outcome has been the cancellation of a planned £15 million multi-story car park, despite the council’s reliance on car park revenues as a source of income. This signals the council’s new vision to reduce individual car journeys and promote more sustainable transport options.
Another is the creation of a Net-Zero Carbon Toolkit for Building, using a grant from the Local Government Association Housing Advisers Programme. In response to queries from developers and householders, the council has worked with 2 neighbouring authorities to produce a practical toolkit advising how to create net-zero housing. The toolkit refers to both new build homes and upgrading existing properties. It offers clear guidance and aims to stimulate the decarbonisation of the area’s homes.
In 2020 the council also pledged to develop local climate bonds, a form of community municipal investment that allows local people to invest in local infrastructure. The bond, developed in partnership with the Green Finance Institute and sustainable investment enterprise Abundance, was launched in April 2022. By August 2022 it had raised the target £500,000 from 450 investors. The money will be used to support a variety of local projects, including the roll-out of electric vehicle charging points across the district and greening up the council’s offices in Cirencester through the installation of solar panels and insulation.
The idea of a climate bond was first seeded by the Cabinet Member for Climate Change, and then championed internally by the Climate Action Lead officer. The latter’s background experience in investments in renewable technologies was a valuable source of insider knowledge. The officer was able to make the case across council departments and worked in tandem with teams from finance to communications to bring the bond to life. Elected members found the bond an appealing way to demonstrate the council’s positive climate action to residents, while at the same time enabling local residents to become part of the solution themselves. After the success of the first bond, the council will consider repeat bonds in future to help embed the idea of regular, dependable, community-level finance.
What made this work?
Linking climate change with forward planning
A key to the council’s success so far has been linking climate change and forward planning into the same councillor’s portfolio. Forward planning sets the council’s direction, policy and framework for decision-making, so linking this directly to the climate agenda allows climate plans to be fully integrated at an early stage.
Hiring a senior climate champion with expertise
Hiring a senior and well-qualified climate lead officer, who can work strategically to integrate climate action within council policies, has been crucial. It allows the officer to work directly with other senior decision-makers, including senior finance officers who influence council investment planning. This was key in the commitment to climate bonds investment.
Recognising levers of influence, what you control and what you can affect
For local authorities with smaller budgets and perhaps less direct ability to effect change, working in collaboration is essential. Cotswold District Council is doing this in a range of ways.
For example, after establishing that transport is the largest source of carbon emissions in the Cotswolds, the council prioritised creating a climate champion position focusing on transport. As in many rural areas, reshaping local transport requires buy-in from the county council, and the recruitment of a sustainable transport officer allowed for a more collaborative approach to orchestrating policies that relied on county council action.
What resources were needed?
£240,000 of funding was secured from the council’s budget to create 3 climate champion positions at a councillor, senior manager and officer level, and to commission initial climate studies. A substantial proportion of the funding came directly from resources saved from management costs of the cancelled £15 million car park construction project.
From a resourcing perspective, the initial investment in skilled staff members has already paid dividends, with the new staff securing £1.2 million in funding for sustainable housing plans via the Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund. This wouldn't have been possible without this initial council investment into climate-focused staff. It takes dedicated staff time to bid for UK government funding.
Lessons from the Cotswolds
Monitoring and reporting requires capacity
The council has committed to reporting its climate impact every year. Other councils should note that reporting impact beyond the council’s directly controlled activity can be particularly time-consuming.
Update Local Plans, even if this takes time
Updating a Local Plan to incorporate climate and ecological emergency measures is a critical starting point for any local authority. Although this can be slow, it can lead to greater impact in the long term, with land allocations and all future planning decisions following commitments and targets set out in climate emergency declarations.
The importance of shifting focus internally
In addition, this approach clearly communicates the council’s focus internally, allowing staff to get behind it and preventing potential issues further down the line. Before declaring a climate emergency and updating the Local Plan, the authority’s environmental action was limited to statutory services such as noise pollution and tackling fly-tipping, with very limited opportunities for more strategic or impactful measures.
Think regionally for more impact
As a second-tier authority, Cotswold District Council is able to amplify its impact through Climate Leadership Gloucestershire, a group that brings together leaders within public sector bodies across the county. Although this isn’t a magic solution for a lack of resources and capacity, it does enable the council to participate in county-wide initiatives to achieve things that would be difficult to do alone. For example, it’s allowed greater co-ordination on retrofitting homes with Cotswold’s neighbouring authority, Stroud, which has acted as a retrofit pioneer for Gloucestershire county.
Friends of the Earth's view
A number of councils have highlighted the importance of political leadership to making climate action happen.
Cotswold District Council’s commitment to creating a new councillor post, recruiting dedicated staff, and putting reporting systems in place is already helping to give impetus to delivering on its environmental action, including checking that climate targets are reflected in other council activities. Some councils are wary about new ways to raise money, so it’s good to see the council using climate bonds (Action 8 of the Climate Action Plan) as an innovative way to engage with its community and fund climate action. It also shows the potential for raising more funds this way in the future
All councils should check whether decisions across all council operations will help to meet climate targets (Action 1 of the Climate Action Plan).
Friends of the Earth is showcasing specific examples of good practice in tackling climate change, but that doesn’t mean we endorse everything that a council is doing.
This case study was produced by Ashden and Friends of the Earth. It was originally published in March 2022 and was last updated in August 2023.