Decision making

A key focus of our Climate Action network is working with councils to adopt ambitious Climate Action Plans. We've written this guide to help you understand how we think decision-making on climate breakdown should happen in councils, the recommendations in our Climate Action Plan for councils and what we think the government needs to do.

14 Dec 2021

Background information

Councils make lots of decisions that have an impact on climate emissions and nature. They have a significant amount of freedom in how they make these decisions and who they involve. For example, whether to make the decisions behind closed door with very little public engagement or in more participatory approaches that make sure the voices of the most disadvantaged communities are heard.

Delivering reductions in greenhouse gases isn’t currently a legal requirement for councils, so essentially they can make decisions that worsen climate breakdown. But we believe the government should make it so. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has also recommended that the government consider introducing a duty on councils to deliver climate action plans so that they can positively contribute towards the government’s net zero emissions target. The CCC says that such a duty must be backed by granting additional powers and funding to support councils.

But even though councils don’t have a legal duty to make sure their decisions are in line with necessary carbon reductions. they should still do so, and make sure all the decisions they make are informed by an analysis of the likely climate and nature impact.

But until that happens, councillors can still require all recommendations made to them to identify potential impacts on climate change and nature and to identify where they have the powers and resources to act now.

Reducing carbon emissions will also mean making decisions that aren’t always popular with everyone, such as traffic restrictions. To prevent a vocal minority blocking progress, the council should use innovative decision-making processes to ensure all voices are properly heard.

The goal

Councils should ensure that climate and nature restoration goals are front and centre in all decision making and investments, and that inclusive engagement with citizens ensures that the changes made are sustainable.

Making the climate and nature emergency a deal breaker means checking whether any council decision would help or hinder meeting national and local net zero carbon targets, improve air pollution, and protect and restore nature, as well as deliver on COVID-19 recovery.

What councils should do

Councils should take steps to improve democracy and decision making on climate change and nature restoration. There are some obvious first steps in improving decision making on climate change and nature.

Points 1 to 6 in our Climate Action Plan for councils suggest councils should:

1) Ensure all decisions are informed by an analysis of whether they would help or hinder meeting climate, air pollution or nature plans.

For example, proposals for new housing developments should identify the potential impact the new homes would have on climate and nature, but also whether the proposed location would force people to use cars to get to work or access services. With this information councillors can make better informed decisions. This approach is in line with national planning policy and should be reflected in Local Plan policies (see below).

Example: Cornwall County Council is using a decision-making wheel as a tool to help make decisions that combat climate breakdown and do not disadvantage the people of Cornwall. The wheel helps to show how projects and decisions will affect the environment and people. The Council is using the wheel for all cabinet decisions and will soon be using it for other Council decisions in order to place people and the climate at the heart of everything they do.

2) Identify both a councillor at cabinet level and a lead officer as Climate and Nature Champions who are required to publish a bi-annual independent and audited report to the public on progress in meeting climate change and nature targets.

The lead officer’s responsibility would be to ensure that all decisions across the council departments take account of the nature and climate emergency. This will prevent departments like transport from ignoring impacts on climate in their decision making. The councillor’s job is to ensure that this is working well, and that the council is taking the necessary action on nature and climate.

3) Use additional decision-making approaches for complicated or contentious choices (such as representative citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, participatory mapping and budgeting, etc).

Citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries are a representative sample of a population that deliberate over an issue, taking evidence from expert witnesses. They’re a good way of involving the community in decision-making and are particularly useful for contentious issues. They also ensure that the voices of those directly affected are heard (eg younger people). Setting up and organising citizens’ assemblies and juries can be expensive, so they’re not suitable for all decision-making (see point 6 below).

4) Set interim and measurable targets for the council to develop a green economy and achieve net zero greenhouse reductions and meet nature restoration goals.

Setting targets is key to achieving goals. However if the goals are long term, you run the risk of delaying urgent action until a later date. The CCC’s sixth carbon budget is very clear that action over the next ten years at all levels, including local authorities, is vital to meeting the net zero target by 2050. Creating smaller steps along the journey, for example yearly interim targets, ensures progress is made. Researchers at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester University have suggested annual reduction targets for every council across the country.

5) Align all council statutory and non-statutory plans, policies and guidance with respective carbon reduction pathways and nature restoration plans, including areas such as procurement and infrastructure development.

Councils produce numerous strategies and plans, some of which are legally required (eg a Local Plan that maps out how the local area can develop over time, eg where houses or renewable energy can be built) and some that aren’t legally required (for example, a tree strategy). Councils also have procurement strategies and guidelines. All of these plans and strategies should be developed with the climate and nature emergency in mind, but they aren’t. The council needs to make sure they are all aligned.

Staff training across the council will help to ensure that climate is considered in all decision making and some councils are already making progress, by ensuring all staff partake in carbon literacy training.

6) Review and improve how the council involves citizens in their existing decision-making processes.

There are plenty of ways councils can involve citizens in decision-making processes. One example is Devon County Council, which initiated a Youth Parliament as part of their process of developing a carbon plan. Climate commissions are another way to bring in a range of partners and citizens. The first climate commission was established in 2017 by a team at the University of Leeds working with Leeds City Council. More than 20 partner organisations were brought in from across the three sectors. The Big Leeds Climate Conversation consultation – held in partnership with the Leeds Climate Commission – combined focus groups, questionnaires, face-to-face event engagement and a Citizens’ Jury to gather a diverse range of views on how the city should respond to climate change.

Improving local democracy doesn’t just mean opening up the decision-making process for issues the council wants to work on, but also allowing others to introduce their own issues for debate and decision. Local campaign groups must have the power to ensure a council doesn’t ignore important issues.

Importantly, in reviewing decision-making processes the council should ensure that the voices of those most impacted by climate change – often the most disadvantaged – are heard, and the most contentious issues use additional decision-making approaches (see 3 above).

Government action

The government should make action on climate a legal requirement for councils and set local carbon budgets. Not only will this help councils understand how much they need to cut greenhouse gases, but also when they’re challenged by developers or others who want climate breakdown to be downplayed.

However, this will only work if it’s properly enforced and if councils are adequately resourced and empowered to deliver it. A duty is meaningless if national policy fails to support or even contradicts what councils are trying to do. The existing biodiversity duty has failed to stop the decline of nature for this very reason.

Councils have been warning for some time that they won’t be able to deliver action at the scale and pace commensurate to the climate and ecological emergencies without additional powers and resources. Friends of the Earth has joined local government organisations, academics and other NGOs in setting out a blueprint of what’s needed from national government to support councils in key policy areas such as transport, planning and waste.

The government must also align all national funding and policy to deliver its statutory net zero target. It’s harder for councils to achieve local net zero goals if these are not supported by regional and national strategies.

In England, for example, national planning policy steers local plan making and planning decisions. Although reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is a key objective, the national policy lacks the specific requirements to ensure this aspiration is effectively implemented and it contains contradictions. That means practice from council to council varies hugely. National planning policy needs to be radically revised to enable all councils to secure high quality low carbon development.

National planning policy should require development proposals to be in line with achieving local carbon budgets, renewable technologies to be integrated within all new developments, and nature’s restoration and recovery to be at the heart of decisions on land use and new developments, instead of being sidelined through dubious offsetting arrangements.

The government must also reform Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) to be solely advisory bodies. Local Economic Partnerships are official, undemocratic, business-led groupings of businesses and councils which the government has given powers to make spending-decisions in areas such as transport. This needs to be reformed to ensure all spending decisions are made through local and regional democratic decision-making forums.

Training session

More detailed information

Climate Change Committee report on local authorities and the sixth carbon budget.

Blueprint setting out how national government needs to support local authorities.

Report on the experience of local decision makers on climate action.

Advice for councils and activists on developing a robust climate action plan.

Electoral Reform: citizens’ juries could become the core of a revived local democracy.

The Tyndall Carbon Budget Tool.

Case studies of councils tackling climate chaos.

Concerns about proposed planning reforms from Friends of the Earth.