One in five UK councils have no climate action plan, campaigners say

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<span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

More than one in five of all councils in the UK have no climate action plan, research shows.

In 2019, Theresa May’s government committed the UK to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Since then, hundreds of local authorities have published plans to show how they intend to become carbon neutral.

But analysis by the not-for-profit campaigning organisation Climate Emergency UK, shared exclusively with the Guardian, found that of the 409 local authorities across the UK, 84 still did not have climate action plans, while 139 had not committed to reach net zero emissions by a specific date.

Climate Emergency UK scored 325 plans according to 28 questions grouped into nine categories, including how well councils’ plans would mitigate the impact of climate change locally, whether climate and ecological emergency was integrated into existing policies, community engagement, climate education, scale of emissions targets and commitments to tackle the ecological emergency.

council climate embed

This first year’s scoring was intended to establish a baseline of councils’ plans and scale of ambition. Next year’s will assess to what extent local authorities are on track to reach net zero emissions.

Although most local authorities have published climate plans, 38 district councils, three county councils, and 43 other councils in Great Britain and Northern Ireland have none. They include Norfolk county council, Gloucester city council and the London borough of Hackney.

Annie Pickering, a campaigns and policy officer at Climate Emergency UK, said: “It’s been three years since the first councils declared climate emergencies and our scorecards show that many councils are still not making action on the climate and ecological emergency a priority. Councils can have a real influence on creating low-carbon communities, and with the warmest new year on record in the UK, we need to see action fast.”

Somerset West and Taunton district council topped the league with a score of 91% (see below). Other high-scoring councils included West Midlands Combined Authority (89%), Staffordshire Moorlands (87%) and Solihull (85%). The average score across all UK local authorities was 46%.

The analysis revealed significant regional variations, with the average score for Scottish authorities 50%, compared with 46% for England and 45% for Wales. Scotland scored particularly well on measuring and setting emissions targets. Scotland’s public bodies have been legally required since 2011 to reduce emissions and, since 2019, to report on progress. Edinburgh was the highest rated Scottish council, on 83%, and the joint fifth highest-scoring UK local authority.

The city’s £1.3bn redevelopment of Granton Waterfront will create a 11 hectare coastal park to protect biodiversity, create up to 3,500 new net zero carbon homes, use lower-emitting offsite construction methods and improve public transport links. Edinburgh has allocated £2.8bn over 10 years to build 10,000 new sustainable and affordable homes by 2027, and to retrofit its 20,000 council houses to make them more energy efficient. And from 2025, all new school and early years buildings will be built to Passivhaus standard. The council has also upgraded all street lighting across the city to energy-efficient LED lights.

In contrast, only four of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils had a climate action plan at all, with all four scoring 31% or lower. In Wales, just under a quarter of local authorities have no plan. The highest-scoring authority in Wales was Cardiff (70%), while in Northern Ireland it was Ards and North Down council (31%).

“Some councils are clearly taking a strong lead on climate action, but others have much more to do,” said Cara Jenkinson, the cities manager at the sustainable energy charity Ashden. She said cutting emissions and nature restoration must be a priority for every council department “if they are to be carbon neutral by 2050, let alone 2030.”

Nottingham is arguably the furthest ahead. The city has reduced its overall CO2 emissions per capita by 52.3% since 2005 and is on track to be carbon neutral by 2028. It has planted nearly 22,000 trees and installed more than 130 public electric vehicle charging points. Just under a third of council vehicles and nearly half of Hackney carriage taxis are ultra low emission vehicles, and the city has one of the UK’s largest fleets of electric buses. A workplace parking levy on employers providing 11 or more parking spaces for staff generates about £8m a year, which is ringfenced for renewable transport schemes.

In 2014, Telford and Wrekin council became only the second local authority in the UK to build a publicly owned solar farm. To date it has saved more than 13,000 tonnes of CO2 emissionsand generated £1.3m for the council. Since 2020 the council has cut its carbon emissions by more than 57%.

But English planning laws can make it harder to ensure that new developments are zero carbon or carbon neutral. From 2006, authorities were able to insist that houses were built to the highest energy standards, but this regulation was scrapped in 2015. The government’s new future homes standard aims to ensure new homes built from 2025 will produce 75-80% less carbon emissions than those built under current regulations. But councils’ energy efficiency plans remain subject to viability assessments from developers. If a developer can provide a sound viability assessment that proves a policy would make a scheme unaffordable, there is little local authorities can do to counter that.

David Renard, the leader of Swindon council and the Local Government Association’s environment and planning spokesperson, said: “Local government has a fundamental role to play in tackling climate change, but net zero can only be achieved if councils are empowered.” The LGA is calling for stronger powers and longterm funding to tackle the climate emergency.

A government spokesperson said: “We welcome this research, which shows four in five councils are supporting our ambitions to deliver net zero by setting out climate action plans, with more expected to follow. Councils have an integral part to play and we will continue to work very closely with local partners to meet our climate change commitments.”

How Somerset turned green

Somerset West and Taunton was the only council to score above 90% and was one of only 21 to get top marks for its plans to improve biodiversity and combat the ecological emergency. It has declared its area a fracking-free zone, pledged to manage council services, buildings and land in a biodiversity-friendly manner, embed ecological initiatives alongside climate action in all work areas, and ensure that addressing both emergencies are strategic priorities for planning policies and design guides for new development. It has developed a climate-positive planning policy and is building zero-carbon council houses, as well as retrofitting existing housing stock. The council’s entire pool car fleet will be electric by the end of 2022.

Dixie Darch, the executive member for climate change at Somerset West and Taunton council, said local authorities should lead by example. “We are committed to putting the climate emergency and environmental responsibility at the heart of what we do. The challenge has never been greater for local councils: it is essential we rise to that challenge,” she said.

In addition to its own plan to make the district net zero by 2030, Somerset West has joined with the county council and three other district councils to create a climate emergency strategy for the whole county. This strategy includes developing wind and solar energy on councils’ land, improving public transport and electric vehicle use, and the creation of a nature partnership to improve biodiversity and restore nature. A campaign promoting recycling has led recycling rates to increase to more than 50%, among the highest in England.

Meanwhile, at Somerset county council, the highest-scoring county, initiatives include a £1.5m climate emergency fund for community projects that help the county become more resilient to climate change.

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