Blog : covid19

Putting the rural voice into climate action

Putting the rural voice into climate action

David Cope, UK100’s Countryside Climate Network Coordinator, spoke at the Rural Service Network’s annual conference Revitalising Rural on Thursday. In this adaption of David’s talk, he spells out why we need to include the rural voice in climate action and highlights some informative examples of councils engaging residents. 

UK100 is the only network for local authority leaders with a focus on net zero. But until recently, our network was predominantly urban. We recognised that we needed to be more inclusive, to support rural authorities that had distinctive challenges and opportunities around climate action, and to ensure that the rural voice was incorporated into our national advocacy campaigns.

That was why we created the Countryside Climate Network. We currently have 23 members from across England, together covering over 40% of the country and making up 20% of UK100’s membership. 

So far, more than 280 local authorities have declared climate emergencies. The ones that are generally finding it easier to act are those that have more devolved power or funding. But others, including many counties, unitarities and districts, are also acting positively. 

This second group is able to do so because they have the political will, public support and determination. We think that building consent and support among local residents is crucial for the success of climate action – it is a key aspect of building the power to act.

Climate concern is high

National polling tells us that concern about climate change is high. Before the pandemic, YouGov polling showed us that a quarter of the public felt that the environment was one of the most important topics facing the country – behind Brexit and health – with 74% concerned about climate change.

The pandemic hasn’t changed this. YouGov reported in July that ‘COVID-19 has not kicked environmental issues into the long grass’, with a quarter of Brits still viewing the environment as one of the most important issues facing the UK.

In spite of these general statements, it is evident that this doesn’t make the implementation of climate friendly policies smooth or simple. The introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods and pop up cycle lanes as a policy response to the need for travel adaptations to Covid-19 have demonstrated that even with a groundswell of enthusiasm for action, this doesn’t mean that everyone has provided their consent and support.

And even though the UK government is changing its position on support for onshore windfarms, there is still nervousness about whether communities will support their development locally.

That’s why we advocate for a high degree of engagement between local politicians and a broad cross-section of the residents and businesses in their areas. Last month we held a webinar on ‘mini publics’ – citizen assemblies and citizen juries – to discuss the pros and cons about their use in building consent and support in local communities around climate action. 

On 10 September, Climate Assembly UK – more than 100 ordinary people representing the diversity of the British public, commissioned by the UK Parliament – presented its report. The Assembly members supported the swift implementation of a variety of policies that the BBC referred to as ‘radical’, including banning gas boilers, frequent flier taxes, swift transition to electric vehicles and reductions in meat and dairy in diets.

But vitally, Assembly members also identified that the policy changes could only happen if there was better education for all on climate action. They highlighted that fairness needed to be an underpinning principle of the transition, and individuals and local areas needed to have freedom of choice. 

To me this highlights that the public are potentially very ready for radical changes, as long as they are part of those changes and they are not imposed on them. The importance of local choice and local solutions stood out for me too. 

The importance of engaging residents in action

Local authorities are well versed in engaging their residents in decision-making. As ambitions around climate action increase, it is ever-more important to involve residents in a discussion about what is acceptable and desirable to them. Here are a few examples from members of our Countryside Climate Network.

In Herne Bay, on the Kent coast, part of Canterbury City Council, planning permission has recently been given for the UK’s first green hydrogen plant. Powered by electricity generated by an offshore windfarm, this plant will produce hydrogen for use by buses, initially in London, but once production increases and new bus fleets are fitted out, it will be used by hydrogen-powered buses in Canterbury too. 

Some local residents had objected to the development on safety grounds – hydrogen being potentially explosive. The Councillor for the ward, Dan Watkins, one of our Countryside Climate Network members, had many conversations with local residents to discuss safety concerns, explain the risk profile and the project’s benefits. This type of engagement is crucial in achieving climate action.

In Cornwall, another one of our members, they recognise that some climate actions could be detrimental to some residents. So they have committed to ensuring no Cornish resident is worse off as a result of climate action. They developed a decision-making ‘wheel’ that balances environmental ambitions with social needs. 

With use of this framework, they have decided to not install fossil fuel heating in any new council-developed housing, have invested in a bike and walking network of trails to link together housing and economic growth areas, and are using central government funding to reduce bus fares across Cornwall. 

And in Cambridgeshire, the county council is working on a project that will replace oil fired central heating with ground and air sourced heating in the entire village of Swaffham Prior. The scheme is being offered to the village, but whether or not residents buy into it is up to them. The project was inspired from community members and this local ownership has been instrumental in building the support for adoption. 

Upcoming research to better understand local views on climate action

For all these reasons, we are about to commission some research into the views of rural residents on specific climate actions – including around transport, heating, energy generation and land management to name a few. This research will dig into what it is about these specific actions that make them easy to commit to, or contentious.

By understanding these issues better, we will be better able to explore ways to engage a broad section of rural society. This will allow local politicians to frame discussions about specific climate actions, equipping them to build consent and support locally. Ultimately, by building this consent and support, their power to act will grow. 

David Cope, Countryside Climate Network Coordinator

If you’d like to join UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, please do get in touch with Coordinator David Cope.

Launching UK100’s Resilient Recovery Taskforce, by Jason Torrance, UK100 Policy Director

Launching UK100’s Resilient Recovery Taskforce, by Jason Torrance, UK100 Policy Director

Early in July, a cross-party coalition of Mayors and council leaders came together as a Resilient Recovery Taskforce, with secretariat provided by UK100, to call on the Chancellor to commit to a ‘New Deal for Green Skills and Growth’ in his forthcoming Spending Review, expected in the Autumn. The opportunity for an economic recovery package that creates resilience in our communities and reduces carbon emissions is more possible now than it has ever been. However, success lies in a renewed partnership between UK Government and Local Governments that looks to the future and commits to large scale investment that reduces our climate emissions and builds back better.    

 

The social distancing and resulting lockdowns put in place to tackle COVID-19 is likely to cause the biggest drop in climate emissions ever recorded. Analysts estimate worldwide carbon pollution will plunge by more this year than the combined reductions seen during the global financial crisis, World War II and the Spanish flu. However, it is the actions that are taken as social distancing restrictions ease that will define our ability to tackle wider global challenges such as climate change and the need to build socially-just economic prosperity. Put simply, the opportunity to accelerate our efforts into developing a low carbon economy is now.

 

The COVID-19 crisis may of course only temporarily cut emissions. As shuttered factories begin to reopen, commuters get back into their cars and flights once again take to the air, little may have changed in the structure of the global economy – and progress towards net-zero will likely be as slow as ever and air pollution may return to city streets. Unless there are concerted efforts by governments, nationally and locally, to ensure this does not happen, our current global tragedy could sow the seeds for the next one. 

 

As we have seen with the global spread of COVID-19, no problem exists in isolation. While the UK was brought to a near standstill at the height of the lockdown, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, activity is now returning to near pre COVID-19 levels with car use now at 79% compared with before the COVID-19 outbreak, with vans and lorries at 92% and 97% respectively. 

 

With a COVID-19 vaccine seemingly some way off in the distance, it’s likely that there will continue to be a sharp rise in car travel over time at the expense of public transport so as to maintain social distancing. Now, more than ever, the need for UK Government increased investment in public transport is vital to keep services running.

 

For our wider economy, the post-pandemic outlook remains extremely uncertain, due to the unknown duration and severity of COVID-19 measures and doubts over the shape of the recovery. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund has resulted in them slashing their forecasts for global growth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and warning of a slump in output this year unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

 

Towns and cities around the world are taking the lead in post-coronavirus planning, with a raft of environmental initiatives being rolled out in places from Bristol to Bogotá to ensure public safety and bolster the actions to tackle the climate emergency. Launching the newly formed Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, as part of the C40 group of cities, the mayor of Milan, said: “Our immediate priority is to protect the health of our residents and overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we must also look towards how we will keep our people safe in the future. How we structure our recovery efforts will define our cities for decades to come.”

 

As the UK Government now begins to plot a course out of lockdown and towards a post COVID-19 new normal, the opportunity must be seized to protect jobs and safeguard the future while paying off debts created by emergency spending on the NHS and household incomes. This means re-evaluating infrastructure investments, such as the planned £28bn UK Government roads programme to ensure the country benefits from a jobs boom from initiatives such as: broadband, batteries, electric cars, home upgrades and infrastructure that enables walking and cycling.

 

Local leaders have played an essential role in tackling the COVID-19 crisis and they have an essential role in shaping what comes next. In fact, resilient recovery cannot be achieved without local leaders and the communities that they represent. Building back better requires a new dynamic partnership between the Government UK and local governments, a partnership that must be seized if we are to deliver Net Zero and renew our economy for the benefit of our environment, everyone and generations to come.  

 

Jason Torrance, Policy Director, UK100

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Local Government: a breath of fresh air for public health and wealth, by Geraint Davies MP

Coronavirus has made people stop and think about public health like they have never done before, which has galvanised the campaign for Clean Air.

People have enjoyed cleaner air during lockdown. They have recognised the flourishing of nature, appreciated the reduced noise pollution and they have, in part, enjoyed the flexibility that remote working has brought to their lives.

These things should be safe-guarded and encouraged in a new normal and local authorities, with the right support, can use this time to deliver these changes as part of a localised response to coronavirus.

Evidence from universities around the world link air pollution with increased infection and deaths, which means it affects prevalence and should therefore be read alongside R value for avoiding a second peak.

A report published by a cross-party group of MPs that I chair, sets out a series of cross-department and multi-governmental proposals, supported by 90 parliamentarians, to keep air pollution low.

The proposals, based on evidence from scientists, businesses and local authorities include the continuation of home working, the phasing out of wood and coal burning in homes, a scrappage scheme for dirty vehicles, and changes to the Environment Bill which include Air Pollution targets and incorporates indoor air quality so harmful domestic chemicals are banned and planning regulation improved.

Most significantly for local authorities it calls for the roll-out of clean air zones, increased cycle lanes and more frequent public transport services – which will of course need the right central government support.

Having been the Leader of Croydon I oversaw the introduction of the UK’s busiest tram system – a public-private £200m 26km electrified orbital link between Wimbledon, Croydon and Beckenham. I believe similar schemes should be supported across the UK.

Greener planning and building regulations can bring in-built power generation, insulation and ventilation, less need to travel and more public transport with local government procurement boosting demand for electric vehicles on an upgraded charging grid.

These changes will revolutionise public spaces and give a much-needed boost to local economies by increasing footfall.

Further, it will encourage the UK to develop a greener and cleaner infrastructure, which can create jobs and establish a new industry and expertise that can boost our exports.

Polls shows that public support for cleaner air is at an all-time high and people are prepared and willing to change their lifestyles to achieve it. Some businesses, too, have been early to adopt flexible working and encourage public transport usage ahead of the coronavirus hitting, and many more have been forced to follow.

Likewise, local authorities have been proactive responding to air quality and have an opportunity to be more ambitious than ever before, if given the correct support.

Through a local approach people will be empowered to make the changes that will allow them to lead healthier lifestyles, during the next year or so where the threat of Coronavirus lingers and beyond.

Now, the government must embrace the opportunities of the next few months to ensure a green recovery that build Britain back cleaner and greener than ever before.

As ever, local approaches will be different and should be flexible– but they must be unified in their desire to improve air quality, and with-it public health.

 

Geraint Davies, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution

 

To feed into the APPG’s work, join the mailing list or to have the council become an associate member email Geraint.Davies.mp@parliament.uk