How local authorities can empower community action for UK net zero

Zung Nguyen Vu, Partner at people-powered transformation specialist TPXimpact, explains how councils can create platforms to engage with voters and allow them to create environmental change on a local level. 

cars parked on side of the road during daytime

From the future of North Sea oil exploration, to the ongoing debate around ultra low emission zones and the UK’s sluggish transition to electric vehicles (EVs), the question of how Britain can realise its net zero ambitions is dominating political discourse and media headlines. 

With the next General Election edging closer, the country’s leading political parties are increasingly discussing their take on the UK’s green agenda. We are seeing them put forward a range of policies to protect the environment, while also guaranteeing energy security and driving economic growth.  

While scrutinising climate policies and goals on a national level is undoubtedly important, the question of how these policies and technologies are implemented can sometimes be neglected. This may be partially down to the fact that talking about the delivery of climate projects and complicated technologies on a local level is less glamorous than making big promises and announcements that pertain to the whole of the country.

Yet, focussing on local implementation is absolutely essential to advancing the UK’s journey towards net zero. In the UK, environmental projects are typically designed by central government agencies and then handed down to councils to put in place. But local authorities are having to implement these while facing their own challenges, such as strained and tightening budgets. A number of councils have even been forced to issue a section 114 notice over the last months, effectively declaring themselves bankrupt, including Croydon and Thurrock councils. 

Having exhausted their financial reserves, a growing number of local authorities are struggling to stay afloat and deliver basic services to residents. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that environmental goals and implementation can fall off the agenda of many councils. Locked in fierce competition for funding with other local authorities and lacking experience with technological implementation, local authorities will only be able to drive meaningful change on the ground if they receive targeted government support.

Targeting Government Support for Local Environmental Initiatives

There is a lot the government can do to help councils turn their environmental goals into actionable, scalable projects. First and foremost, the government must overhaul the way it designs environmental grants. Financial support for councils often takes the form of grants, many of which can be piecemeal and difficult for local authorities to access. 

Redesigning grants is both achievable and necessary and will require addressing every stage of the funding process. This includes clearly defining the objectives for each fund, simplifying language, requesting only information that is needed for the application, and standardising the application process so that councils don’t have to relearn how to respond each time a new fund appears.

peope sitting around table

In addition, more needs to be done to enhance collaboration between councils. Working independently from each other is not only highly inefficient, as it results in duplication of work, but also prevents councils from learning from each other’s successful projects. Rather than isolating councils, the government needs to bring them together to deliver environmental protection on a local level and standardise technologies such as EV charging points or solar grids.

Increasing engagement between councils, while also ensuring successful projects are scalable so they can be implemented in different areas, will allow for more seamless integration and collaboration both between local authorities and between councils and the government.

Mobilising Communities: Grassroots Mobilisation for Net Zero

The climate crisis cannot be solved by an individual actor alone. It will take a concerted effort from international governments, businesses and citizens to create a greener future for all. According to recent polling, 70% of Brits support the UK’s net zero target, showing how much momentum could be generated by empowering local communities to get actively involved in supporting the UK’s journey to net zero.

In the first instance, this will require educating people about the transformative potential of green technologies and policies. Grassroots campaigns often focus on reducing plastic waste or turning off lights in empty roots, which are important causes, but do not create the scale of impact the environment needs. In contrast, a shift to technologies such as heat pumps and community solar projects has the potential to really move the needle on carbon emissions.

With consumers continuing to struggle with high energy costs and politicians keen to reduce dependencies on energy imports, investing in efficient technologies and energy sources will not only be beneficial for the environment, but also for the country’s independence and people’s personal finances.

spider on green leaf plant during daytime

Beyond this, central and local authorities need to get better at supporting communities to take the lead on action. Tackling the climate crisis is a monumental task, and the scale of it can leave people thinking community or local action alone will have a minimal impact. To promote grassroots action, local authorities need to show communities that their voices matter and that their input will not only help the climate, but also improve their own local environments and quality of life.

TPXimpact has done exactly that by supporting Barnet Council to organise a Citizens’ Assembly. Having declared a climate emergency in 2022 and committed to becoming a net zero council by 2030, Barnet Council is dedicated to promoting environmental education on a local level and mobilising citizens from diverse backgrounds. Between February and June 2023, the council brought together 60 randomly selected residents, including 20 people under the age of 18, to discuss local issues and develop practical solutions for environmental protection. 

The assembly resulted in a comprehensive report with visions and recommendations for a more sustainable Barnet that were presented to elected representatives and then brought before the wider community to discuss how these recommendations can be translated into action. Instead of dictating to residents how to go about reducing carbon emissions and waste, the council gave locals the opportunity to co-develop environmental strategies, resulting in a greater sense of ownership and motivation among residents. Many participants have expressed a keen interest in continuing to contribute to the campaign’s upcoming activities. The impact of Barnet Council’s approach to people-driven climate action shows just how much is possible when communities are empowered to organise, shape policy and supported to take direct action. 

Pioneering a Path to Local Climate Leadership

It is time for a shift in the way local councils and communities are involved in environmental action. While convening experts and developing green technologies on a national level has been vital to developing the UK’s environmental agenda, it is now time to focus on implementation on a local level. This will require a redesign of the UK’s grant structure, a focus on scaling green technologies such as EV and energy, as well as people-driven climate action. Taken together, these actions will help the UK to become an international climate leader that can act as a role model in the global fight against climate change.

More features: 

It’s all in the genes: eDNA explained

Local authority assemblies are empowering community net-zero strategies

Environmental policy needs effective messaging: Here’s what that means

Images: Matt Seymour / Christina / Van Phat Phan


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