Council Climate Action Scorecards: a fragile theory of change

Peer pressure on UK councils has suddenly become the dominant leverage for campaigners frustrated at the sluggish implementation of local climate commitments.

By publishing scorecards in 2022 for the content of local climate plans, and more recently for actions taken to deliver them, Climate Emergency UK has acquired a leadership role in local authority climate advocacy, defying its own modest resources.

The Local Government Association (LGA) doesn’t like the Council Scorecards, saying they “unfairly compare councils with different challenges.” I’m a little surprised myself at the broad acquiescence amongst climate activists to the blunt weaponry of these league tables. Some years ago I tried to steer our local climate charity towards a goal that measured progress in relation to similar rural English districts, focusing on the average carbon footprint of each resident. The diehard local activists would have none of it, preferring the absolutist target of carbon neutrality by 2030, an absurd aspiration, then as now.

Now the talk is all about comparative data for climate action. “How you can use the Council Scorecards in your campaigning” is the typical theme for events around the country in recent weeks. The flagship is a Climate Emergency UK conference in London on March 21: Scorecards Successes: Enabling Local Climate Action.

This timing, just a fortnight after the UK Spring Budget, may prove awkward. The LGA is desperately lobbying the Chancellor to shake up his parsimonious policy for the annual financial settlement for local government. Already there’s a drip-feed of news of imminent bankruptcy of “well run” councils, likely to evolve into horror stories of cuts in valued non-core services, as the new financial year approaches.

The fact that climate and other environmental concerns are not statutory responsibilities is almost beside the point; the reality is that councils have been reduced to a desperate holding pattern; no longer agents of meaningful change, whatever you may hear from candidates in the May elections.

Encouraging campaigners to lobby for improvements in Council climate plans conjures the idiom of flogging a dead horse rather than kickstarting momentum towards net zero UK. In fairness, Climate Emergency UK has recently toned down its founding premise that “councils are ideally placed to be leaders in responding to the climate emergency,” in recognition of the lack of relevant powers and resources. Nonetheless, its recently published, and somewhat convoluted, “theory of change” continues to position councils as central to delivery of “local climate action at the scale and pace needed.”

Mature and effective place-based climate campaign groups, focused on local goals, such as we have in Winchester, are a much rarer breed than is generally supposed. They too are handicapped by modest resources and should be ruthless in  prioritisation. A strategic response to the Climate Scorecards might be limited to familiarisation with the fantastic database of council climate material, enhanced by excellent search and filter tools that can locate best and worst practice.

Almost all council climate plans are of very low quality, mere lists of worthy interventions in pursuit of an irrational timetable. Climate Emergency UK has rightly awarded low marks in their Scorecards. I wish the project had summoned the courage to declare a Fail result across the board, prescribing a fresh start, rather than scrabble around for improvements.

This is a big ask, with no clear model on the table. External governance and multi-stakeholder participation is the key reform, with development of a local climate plan and its delivery taken out of the hands of local councils.

Somehow from the current hotch-potch of steering groups, climate commissions and climate assemblies, we need a governance formula that creates leadership, strategic direction and executive implementation, all properly funded, for a defined local area, without compromising democratic principles. Many will argue that areas larger than traditional local authorities are appropriate; I wouldn’t rule out consideration in the opposite direction – that micro-areas such as parishes are more relevant to the challenge of net zero and energy security.

The funding requirement compels innovative participation of business actors – the utility-scale renewable energy companies, the distribution network operators, housebuilders, the solar and heating industries, and major national companies with local operations (often consuming vast amounts of electricity). These are uneasy bedfellows for local communities but they hold the levers of inward investment for net zero, far more than the endless pilot schemes of central government, outsourced to under-resourced councils.

The Climate Scorecard methodology marks “governance” only by reference to the internal management of a local authority. A chance to shake this up lies in the agenda for the Climate Emergency UK conference which includes a session titled: “what does good climate governance look like?” One hour is not enough!

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Council Climate Action Scorecards 2023

Scorecards Successes: Enabling Local Climate Action: Climate Emergency UK Conference: March 21, 2024

Climate Emergency UK: About Us (including “Our Theory of Change”)

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