On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.
Looking back one of the things that I am clear that I have done during my time as a councillor has been to be a champion for the issue of climate change within the authority. Getting the council to take seriously its responsibilities towards playing its role in tackling climate change developed into one the things on the top of my personal agenda. I am sure there were ways I could have been a better advocate for the cause but by being the councillor that would keep going on about it I kind of made it my issue. So much so that my ward colleague would frequently talk about “Andy’s global warming” as if I was personally responsible for it all.
While it was an issue that I kept coming back to when in opposition, asking questions in council and so on, it was what I did during my time as portfolio-holder with responsibility for environmental issues between 2004 and 2007 where I made the most significant impact. This is the story of how an initiative by elected members was responsible for putting the issue of climate change on to the agenda of Luton Borough Council and as a result gave council officers the opportunity and space to make solid progress on the issue.
After the minority Liberal Democrat administration was elected in 2003 in the area of the environment our initial priorities were street services and transport. Climate change was not really on the council’s agenda both at member and officer level. However, in 2006 I with my colleague Martin Howes, the then finance portfolio-holder, decided to set out to change that.
The key decision we took was to get the Council to sign up to the Nottingham Declaration in late 2006. The Nottingham Declaration is a pledge by local authorities to systematically address the causes of climate change and to prepare their community for its impacts. It was launched in October 2000 and updated in 2005, and has been signed by over three hundred English local councils.
It is important to make clear that this was a member initiative. It was something that Martin and I chose to do and got the backing of the Liberal Democrat group for. No officer had suggested to me that we should sign up to the declaration. Nor do I remember being lobbied to do so from outside. It was something that we cooked up together.
We were also very keen that this would be more than just talk. We saw signing up to the Nottingham Declaration as a lever to put tackling climate change on the agenda. Martin was keen to get financial gains from energy efficiency and I wanted to widen the scope of the Council’s approach to environmental policy, but what we most wanted to achieve was to get the to Council to take practical actions. So much so that I can clearly remember Martin and I sitting together to rewrite the officer recommendations on the first key report to the executive in order to make them more action orientated.
We also saw it as important to establish clear officer responsibility for taking this agenda forward. In the beginning this turned out to be the Council’s Scrutiny Manager working alongside an officer working group that was established. We also, in order to ensure that this process gained momentum, asked for regular reports to the executive on progress for the first key year. I have collated and uploaded the paper trail of the various council reports if anyone is interested in looking at the detail.
Our approach to taking forward the Council’s work on climate change was threefold:
- First we wanted to identify some quick wins. We wanted to identify things of benefit that could be achieved within a short time frame.
- Second we wanted the work to be cost neutral. We looked for actions that would fund themselves from savings or that would bring in external funding.
- Third, we did want some engagement with the public on the issue of climate change, but we thought this would only be credible if the council was practising what it preached. So we saw the priority at the start being about “putting our own house in order”.
So what did we achieve with this initiative?
The key impact that we had acting as elected members was to provide a space and structure for officers to make progress. The work that followed the signing of the declaration highlighted existing good practice and allowed officers to make connections with other strategies and activities across the council. It also put in place new mechanisms that allowed the officers to develop new initiatives.
So our key achievement was to embed the climate change agenda into the work of the council. This work has continued through the change of administration in 2007 and continues today.
On two occasions last year I was asked to be a guest speaker and facilitator at the Climate Change Leadership Academy organised by Local Government Improvement and Development and run by the excellent Steve Waller. These two day courses for elected members were designed to show how local councils can take action to prevent and mitigate climate change and empower councillors to lead that work within their authorities. I was asked to bring insights from my experience from Luton to share with the other participants.
I chose to talk about how we had used the Nottingham Declaration as a lever to get the issue on the council’s agenda and this blog post is based on the first part of the presentation that I gave at these training days. I have made the slides available online for anyone who is interested in looking at the whole thing.
Going back through my notes I’ve realised that there is a lot more I could say about climate change at LBC and the role of local government in tackling the issues more generally. I certainly want to talk a bit more about what practical actions signing up to the declaration led to. It appears that I have the material for another few blog posts!