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The case for a new wave of localism

This guest post is by Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis, and coincides with the publication of our new pamphlet Unlocking local leadership on climate change: perspectives from coalition MPs.

Humberside has a proud industrial heritage. The factories and ports of the Humber estuary have contributed to the UK’s prosperity, and provided jobs for local people for decades.

With the decline of traditional industry the area has a new found source of jobs in renewable energy. The Humber Renewable Energy Super Cluster is a comprehensive plan, drawn up by local businesses and government to transform the economy of the area with low carbon industries.

Climate change is, of course, a global issue, which needs to be tackled at the international level, and by national government. But solutions won’t be found unless local areas like the Humber see the potential in low carbon solutions, and are given support to cut carbon locally.

Green Alliance’s collection of articles by three coalition MPs explores how the government can link the two crucial aims of tackling climate change and empowering local areas. Martin Vickers, the MP for Cleethorpes on the south bank of the Humber, and his fellow MPs, Julian Huppert and Damian Hinds, understand that the interplay between local and national is vital in achieving our climate goals.

While Martin Vickers concentrates on the economic opportunities of renewable energy, Damian Hinds explores the capacity of local communities to respond to climate change with a story about the village of East Meon in his East Hampshire constituency. Julian Huppert focuses on the role of local authorities like Cambridge City Council, which can drive local action by working with businesses and communities.

National ambition and local action
There are some themes common to all the pieces. First, all three perspectives make it clear that it’s not a simple choice between top-down diktat on the one hand and local control on the other. Instead, tackling climate change requires a carefully crafted combination of national ambition and local action.

Damian Hinds points out the crucial role of national policy in establishing markets and setting policies that allow local areas to act. Getting prices right is important to this: “however great the devolution of operational responsibility”, he writes, “the power of the purse strings should not be underestimated; whether through the tax system for households and companies, or grants and fines for local authorities”.

So national government should be setting the expectations, with the right policies, powers and financial incentives in place, leaving local areas free to act in ways that best suit local circumstances.

The need for this approach has been underlined by the Committee on Climate Change, whose recent report recommended a combination of funding to support local authorities in taking climate action, and a requirement to develop a local carbon plan, to ensure that action is comprehensive.

A second wave of localism
How do the coalition’s efforts at localism so far measure up against this ambition? The first wave of localism, embodied in the Localism Act and planning reforms, has focused on dismantling the target-based regime of the previous administration, and giving local authorities a general ‘power of competence’.

Julian Huppert argues that this isn’t enough: “The resources are too minimal, the commitment to devolve powers too weak and the resulting policies are nowhere near radical enough. Only through an acceleration of devolution, on a scale not yet considered by any British government, will we engage with citizens and begin to meaningfully tackle climate change at a national, global and local level.” He says we need a second wave of localism, giving local areas the power as well as the responsibility.

Huppert’s views are borne out by Green Alliance’s 2011 research, which showed that the first wave of localism damaged the ability of local areas to act on climate change. The combination of funding cuts and removal of centrally imposed targets actually resulted in over a third of local authorities deprioritising work on climate change. To quote the stark words of one officer in Green Alliance’s survey, “the sustainability function within my local authority has been deleted and the climate change function has been discontinued”.

It is possible
In contrast, experience from elsewhere in Europe, in political systems with a stronger commitment to local autonomy, shows how local areas can lead the way. In both Sweden and Germany, municipalities play a central role in energy supply and demand, often owning energy generation assets such as heat networks. Swedish municipalities are required to draw up an Energy Plan, to promote efficient use of energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Crucially, the plans tend to take a wide view of energy, influencing patterns of transport, industry and housing development, for example. Municipalities are given a high degree of autonomy in implementing the plan, including the power to raise taxes.

All the contributors to this collection make clear, too, that localism is not just about transferring power from the national to the local. It is about supporting local communities and businesses, and creating powerful new partnerships to drive action.

Moving to a second wave of localism
So how do we move from the first wave of localism to a second wave, in which local areas are able to take the lead? All three MPs point to some big opportunities ahead. These include:

  • The Green Investment Bank. As mentioned, it is striking how municipalities in other European countries lead in investing in low carbon infrastructure. Allowing local partnerships to access capital funding backed by the Green Investment Bank will be critical to unleashing more local action, as supported by Martin Vickers in the Humber.
  • Low carbon transport. The government’s own research shows that the most efficient and effective transport interventions are local. Locally, transport strategy can be considered in the round, with links to land use planning, demand management and behavioural change. The success of the Sustainable Travel Towns of Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester show that this approach reduces emissions, improves quality of life and delivers impressive value for money.

All three MPs are clear about the opportunities offered by localism. But they challenge the government to move from a first wave of localism to a more confident, radical second wave. To give local areas both power and  responsibility to act on climate change.

Green Alliance is continuing to support MPs through its Climate Leadership Programme which helps to provide politicians with the skills and knowledge they need to lead the way. And future Green Alliance work on localism will be exploring how local action can be supported and encouraged from the centre. As local areas gain in confidence, we can look forward to seeing new climate solutions emerge.

Written by

Rebecca is a researcher at Lancaster University and an associate of Green Alliance.

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