Last year, we wrote about East Anglian councils’ climate action plans as assessed by Climate Emergency UK (CE UK). Shockingly, many had no net zero plan in 2021. This year, most have, so CE UK has scrutinised how well they are now delivering on their targets. Inexplicably, some councils are doing very much better than others.
CE UK’s 2023 progress report
The new report shows progress up to March 2023 using publicly available data on council websites, and Freedom of Information responses.
Councils were individually assessed on environmental progress under seven headings: Building & Heating; Transport; Planning & Land Use; Governance; Biodiversity; Collaboration & Engagement; and Waste Reduction & Food. A ‘total score’ was reached for each authority by averaging across all seven topics.
Only 41 UK councils in England achieved a total score above 50%, and the average is only 32%. The County Councils did better (at 35%) than District Councils (at 29%). But both clearly have a long way to go before they are fully fighting for net zero.
So, what is happening in East Anglia?
The top England score is only 53% (Oxfordshire). Norfolk came second with 51% and other Eastern counties were all 40-50%. While these are above the national average, they are not overly impressive.
All councils achieved their highest score for ‘Building and Heating’ which includes helping residents reduce emissions from their homes.
On the other hand, ‘Planning’ was often a very low score. This is about ensuring that new developments minimise environmental impact, and vetting fossil fuel planning applications. Cambridgeshire was the only County which scored above 20%.
District and borough councils
Again, scores were low. Cambridge City Council did best with 55% overall, with West Suffolk close behind. Most authorities languished well down the list, with Castle Point, Great Yarmouth, Rochford, Breckland, Maldon and Fenland staggeringly not even managing 20%.
There is a clear link between social deprivation and performance on the environment. The seven most deprived Districts in the region averaged a score of 25%, while the nine least deprived averaged 33%.
It also seems that political control makes a real difference. Conservative authorities had an average score of 25%, compared to Liberal Democrats (33%) and Labour (35%).
View your local council’s performance here.
Is your council in the hall of shame?
Castle Point in Essex is the second lowest in England overall, although it is far from the most deprived. It actually scored zero for Planning & Land Use.
Fenland, South Norfolk, Mid Suffolk and East Herts scored 0% – yes, zero – for Waste Reduction & Food, showing no progress at all in supporting sustainable food production on their land, and in local circular economy initiatives.
Less than zero for transport
In Transport, councils can receive penalty marks for actually creating higher emissions by building high carbon transport projects, or if local pollution exceeds safe World Health Organisation levels.
Marks were deducted from Maldon, Harlow, Braintree, Castle Point, Rochford, Mid Suffolk, Babergh, Breckland, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland and Three Rivers for their transport plans. This is worrying as it indicates these places are allowing road building projects and are not working to improve air quality.
One East Anglian council leads the way, showing what can be achieved.
Cambridge City Council was regional top-scorer, leading the table in four areas: Building & Heating, Transport, Governance & Finance, and Waste Reduction & Food. And they came second in Collaboration & Engagement. So, what do they already have in place?
- Passivhaus consultation: Planning for new Net Zero Carbon social housing
- A solar farm to power Cambridge’s bin lorries.
- Research into a city centre low-carbon heat network for Cambridge residents.
- Retrofitting public sector sites like schools, offices, libraries and leisure centres with renewable energy efficiency measures.
- Many proactive transport proposals to encourage more walking, cycling, public transport and electric vehicle use.
Barriers to progress
Why do some places do better than others? Why is there such a wide variation between places?
CE UK found that “… government policy U-turns are … barriers to effective local climate action.” However, in places where headway has been made, community support and political will are common factors.
It’s also important to know the financial context, as councils may want to do more than budgets allow. Since 2010, all East Anglian councils have seen their spending power slashed; as much as by half in Great Yarmouth. Many cash-strapped councils are forced to focus on funding mandatory services, and climate objectives may take lower immediate priority. However, Cambridge actually had a 29% cut in spending power, but still made good progress, despite not being one of the most prosperous Districts. For Great Yarmouth, Breckland and Fenland, one may guess that levels of deprivation are a constraint. But if Cambridge can make progress, why can’t Castle Point or Rochford, which are equally prosperous? Is it a matter of priorities?
The climate emergency is gaining pace. Local authorities may in future find themselves spending much of their budget repairing damage from climate-caused disasters, like the recent floods in Suffolk. Councils must accelerate their net zero plans to do whatever they can to help prevent and mitigate the consequences.
Long-term planning is crucial. Every county and town must take action. All factions on all councils must work towards ambitious targets, and enough money must also be available to fund their programmes. Much more needs to be done.