Councils & Declaring a Climate Emergency

Services delivered by councils across the UK represent five per cent of our national greenhouse gas emissions.  As they manage household waste and transport policy, as well as the taxing of businesses, their influence on environmental impact goes well beyond the greenhouse gas emissions of the services they manage.  This is why many have been pressured into declaring a climate emergency.

Here you will learn about how you can influence your council and how to help them implement a climate emergency through policy.  There are numerous discussions on our site about how people have been involved in this process, so please do dip into this content in addition to what is here!

Scope of councils

Local authorities, district, city, borough, town and parish councils, have varying degrees of influence and most will own and run green spaces and local facilities.  City, borough and district councils have control over transport and building policy, parking facilities, schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and manage many more buildings and spaces.  

Local authorities create the plans for an area, which instructs on the number, type and position of housing. They also have direct financial control of many public services, including waste collection and management.  These councils are visible, influential and have an estate delivering services to people across an area, whilst employing and providing pension funds for many public sector workers.

Writing to your councillor

A good point for any citizen concerned about an issue locally is to first look up their representative and write to them.  Names, addresses and email addresses are found on the council’s website.  Here are some tips about trying to find the right person to write to, as it’s not always clear.

  • Waste, housing, policing, health service, divestment: Write to your Local Authority councillor.  Go to your local authority and look up the councillor for your ward and then write to them.
  • Transport policy, buses, green space: Write to your City, Borough, District or Town Councillor.  Go to their website and look up the councillor for your ward and write to them.

When you write to a councillor it is good to always state where you live and why you’re writing.  Then you could go on to explain what action you would like them to take.

Declaration of climate emergency

Although over 270 councils have made a declaration of climate emergency, which usually entails the goal to be carbon neutral by 2030, most are scratching their heads about how this is to be implemented.  This is partially due to the politics involved – as making a public declaration, which is publicly a very positive thing to do, often doesn’t come with ready-made policies to back it up.   Most make a commitment to form a group to consider how the policy may be implemented, but drag their feet in turning this into real-world actions.

The politics of a climate emergency

The political party make-up of councils, alongside the knowledge of the councillors, has determined whether a climate (and ecological) emergency motion has been passed, and whether this declaration has resulted in real action.  Almost all councils which have a Labour majority have passed such a motion, with a number of Conservative-run councils also following suit.

Getting a climate emergency motion passed

A group of councillors usually puts forward a motion – a short document which outlines what the council will agree to in a council meeting.  The motion is presented by a single councillor (the presenter) who speaks for the motion, with there being the opportunity for residents within the council to also speak or to attend the meeting.  

Questions are put to the presenter and discussed within the council chamber.  Motions usually set the direction of council policy and are much more easily passed if they do not contain complicated clauses, which can cause confusion and for the request for these motions to be re-written and re-presented.  Full council meetings occur less than once a month, so opportunities to present motions need to be used wisely.

Declaring a climate (and ecological) emergency usually results in a council agreeing to be carbon neutral by 2030, with motions containing agreements to set up groups to consider how this can be achieved.  Due to these having a seemingly light obligation on the council, they are often easily passed, as councillors want to demonstrate their commitment to tackling the climate and ecological crises.  

Turning a climate emergency into actionable policy

When motions are set before the council to, for instance, change transport policy or divest pension funds, there are practical considerations that are technical and complex.  Consequently, these factors can be off-putting for the majority of councillors, as implications are not properly understood.

Councils are often made up of pensioners who can afford to spend their time with very little or no pay received.  Within local authorities, there are younger professional politicians who have ambitions within their party.  As a result, when really forward-looking policy is discussed, arguments are mostly between traditionalists who wish to maintain the status quo and pioneers who are happy to accept the higher risks to enable change.  The older generation and conservative politicians tend to fall into the first camp.  For that reason, really impactful policy is difficult to pass.

To break the deadlock, significant education is required, and therefore citizens’ assemblies or public meetings with professionals speaking, have proven to be extremely effective in bringing people on board.

How groups can support the delivery of a climate emergency

There is likely to already be one or more groups existing locally, which are working to help a council deliver a climate emergency.  Joining these groups is as simple as turning up to a meeting, and where there isn’t a group, then engaging in a local environmental organisation can be a great way to start one.

Groups, first of all, understand what the council has control over and then consider who on the council may support motions for change.  Some hold public meetings which can help educate councillors and engage the general public, almost certainly resulting in more people joining.

The size of the group isn’t the most important thing – most important is the make- up and agreed purpose. Having people who understand the implications of decisions is critical, as when councillors agree to make a change, they really need to know that policies are deliverable and feasible. Above all, it is useful to know about how other groups have been successful and what ambitious policies have been passed by other councils. This will ensure that your group can be confident in presenting ideas.

Here’s a process for a group to follow: –

  • Determine the council’s direct holdings in land, buildings, staff, finances and transport.
  • Consider what influence councils have over other organisations and who supplies services to them.
  • Bring together a citizens’ assembly or public meeting to talk about what policies the council could implement.
  • Create a road map of motions to support the delivery of new policy.
  • Establish good working relationships with councillors.

 How Better Century can help

  • Numerous web pages of content that will help you understand the practical implications of decisions.
  • A list of organisations that may be willing to participate in public meetings, as well as to provide evidence and support (see these resources for consideration; buildings, transport, divestment).
  • Our community site, which offers a way for you to get support. Read about some of the experiences and reply to topics where there are people going through the same journey as you.
  • Closed areas of the community site within which a group can self organise, exchanging information in a digital environment where the whole group can be educated about sustainability. Please contact us if you would like to use this function.

Suggested policies

We provide here a list of policies which a group may consider when trying to help enact a climate emergency (these are drawn from this post): –

  • All buildings to be powered by 100% renewable electricity within the next budget.
  • All energy efficiency measures with a payback period of 8 years to be researched and implemented within the next two years of budgets.
  • Solar panels to be installed on all buildings that can provide an 11-year return on investment.
  • Any heating units that need replacing across the estate to be replaced with renewable heating, and for all buildings on the estate to be powered by electric sourced heating by 2030.
  • To move all vehicles managed by the council to electric by 2030: meaning that any currently needing to be replaced are replaced with electric vehicles.
  • To divest all council funds and pensions from oil and gas by 2025.
  • A revision of housing policy that results in all developments to have renewable heating, the highest energy efficiency standards and to have solar panels.
  • A 30% net gain in biodiversity must be achieved from any development.

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Community referred charities that can help

RecommendationWebsiteDescription
Extinction Rebellionhttps://rebellion.earth/Extinction Rebellion is a global environmental movement with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.
Friends of the Earthhttps://friendsoftheearth.uk/
RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds)https://www.rspb.org.ukThe RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home and secure a healthy environment for wildlife.
The Wildlife Trustshttps://www.wildlifetrusts.org/The Wildlife Trusts, the trading name of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, is an organisation made up of 46 local Wildlife Trusts in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and Alderney. The Wildlife Trusts, between them, look after around 2,300 nature reserves covering more than 98,000 hectares.
The Woodland Trusthttps://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the United Kingdom concerned with the creation, protection, and restoration of native woodland heritage. It has planted over 43 million trees since 1972.