14th November 2019
Environment Bill… What next?
While the environment has been on local government’s radar for many years with, for example, air quality, waste reduction, and recycling rightfully occupying space on council agendas, the new urgency of the “climate emergency” has seen many authorities sign up to achieving net zero carbon status.
Central Government’s attempt at combatting climate change has recently come in the form of the now-published Environment Bill.
But what does the Environment Bill intend to achieve at the national level, and what will it help councils to do at the local level, that will make a difference? How can local government help shape the legislative agenda to ensure that it does help us rather than just place regulatory burdens; new costs; and “one size fits all” targets?
These are the tests as the Bill passes through parliament and work is undertaken on the regulations and guidance that will follow.
As always with Bills, and the Acts that follow them, they provide the legal framework for what is to be done, but not how it will be done. It goes with the territory that this Bill starts with a new governance framework for the key environmental issues. That is to be welcomed against the background of leaving the EU environmental directives. It’s certainly good in proposing new requirements for producers seeking to reduce waste from their products and to reuse items; redistribute surplus food and; and discourage single use plastic items.
However, it soon gets into an emphasis around setting targets and adopting plans. It proposes to enable greater cooperation between different levels of local government, and other relevant public bodies, in the preparation of Local Air Quality Action Plans; and refers to new enforcement powers for councils. These proposals need to work to help us by removing barriers where they exist.
Of course, targets, penalties and charges are not new measures to tackling longstanding environment issues. In fact the “Local Air Quality Management Framework” goes back to 1995. Targets for recycling waste and “landfill tax” have been with us for many years. The Localism Act brought in financial sanctions for councils as the UK came under pressure to meet air quality standards; and now we see clean air zones with charges being introduced in some areas.
Like many seemingly insurmountable challenges we face, from housing to social care, local government is once more at the forefront of achieving environmental improvement.
In our own councils, we are working on actions to reduce energy use in our buildings and achieve carbon neutral approaches to the way we work. In Rotherham, we have seen a 44% reduction in Co2 from our buildings compared to 2014; and a 63% reduction from street lighting over the same period.
The Bill only covers a fraction of what we are doing as councils to improve the environment and tackle climate change.
There is a risk that all that gets talked about is collecting household waste. We need to be looking now at how we engage with government to shape the detailed actions that come from the Bill, ensuring they help us achieve our aspirations; and support us through real powers and the resources needed to make it happen. We can’t assume that everyone has got the message yet about climate change either.
Solace, with its broad network of experienced leaders, is poised to help with this. I am pleased to be writing this piece as Solace’s first ever Policy Spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change.
Our inaugural meeting for this new work area was held last month, which brought a wide spectrum of leaders from different authorities. The conversations we had paved the way for Solace’s future role in this area.
There is real potential for local government leaders to be given direction and peer support for their climate activities by using Solace as a network to share the ideas that drive the environmental, organisational and behavioural changes needed within our communities to deliver the most impact.
To enable that to happen, local government will require the powers and necessary resources to take urgent steps on climate change , such as a sustainable base of funding and further devolution of environmental powers.
We also still face the major task at national and local levels to win hearts and minds about the way we live our lives and how we can all help to improve the environment that we live in.
While the General Election campaigns get underway, we will be using the time to hold conversations with civil servants and other key partners about how Solace, and the sector, can maintain maximum impact in combatting the climate emergency, whoever forms the next Government.
In the meantime, I’m keen to hear how you think we could offer the best contribution to the policy landscape in this vital area – please do get in touch with your ideas.
A version of this piece was featured in the MJ’s “Soapbox” column. To view this, click here.
Sharon Kemp, Solace policy spokesperson for environment and climate change and chief executive of Rotherham MBC