Councils need an uplift to tackle the climate crisis

There’s an alternative future within reach where councils build housing, create green jobs and provide publicly-owned buses and trams. But we won’t get there with one arm tied behind our backs.
Minesh Parekh

The climate crisis is an existential threat which affects us all. But as much as it is a global crisis, its impacts are felt locally and it’s at a local level that we need to take action. Local councils will be essential in decarbonising our economy. With responsibility and powers over buildings, transportation, nature restoration, and waste, councils can directly or indirectly affect 40% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It’s therefore worrying that the vast majority of councils don’t believe they have enough funding to deliver net zero by 2050, let alone 2030.

A recent Local Government Association survey found that 85% of councils have little or no confidence in the government’s approach to decarbonise homes, and 80% in achieving net zero transport.The same survey also found that nine in ten councils in the UK do not think there is a sufficient financing plan in place to reach net zero by 2050.

This is a catastrophe waiting to happen, but unfortunately speaks to my own experience as a councillor in Sheffield.

Since 2017, my city has seen total emissions reduced by 12%, and with significant reductions coming from the transport (15.6%) and industrial and commercial (21.6%) sectors. This might sound impressive until you realise that we will need to reduce emissions by 77% of their 2019 total to hit our targets. We are doing what we can to reduce emissions. Last month, Sheffield City Council voted to support a £3m Green Investment Fund, which is being considered for several uses, including developing new community energy schemes or seeking match funding to expand our district heat networks. 

We have also now relaunched our free city centre bus service, providing four new zero-emission buses that will circle the city centre to help people get around.

As important as these projects are, they don’t touch the sides in terms of the carbon savings we need to deliver.

It isn’t enough to keep repeating that there’s no “magic money tree”, we have to talk about local government finances. Across the country we are seeing councils going bankrupt, and forced by this Government to make savage cuts. And even those that aren’t are stretched to the limit; Sheffield City Council has suffered a 50% real-terms cut since 2010, with core funding reduced by £856 per household.  At the same time the real cost of delivering services is going up, expected to be 29% higher in 2024/25 than it was in 2021. In essence, we are expected to do more with less.

This isn’t sustainable and is something that the next Government will have to seriously grapple with. Even in “normal” times the mantra of austerity doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but when we face an existential crisis we will need a transformative solution. We need new powers, and renewed investment, to lift the burden from our councils. With an immediate funding lift, councils could do wonders.

Sheffield City Council has seen a 50% real terms budget cut since 2010. cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Neil Theasby -

I’ve written previously about the importance of decarbonising housing. The sector is one of the main drivers of climate change, and a nationwide retrofit programme would help tackle the climate crisis and end fuel poverty overnight. Our failure to decarbonise has come back to roost through the cost-of-living crisis—brought on by our reliance on imported gas and our homes being the least energy efficient in Europe.

When the right wing press targeted Labour’s £28bn pledge, the party’s plans to insulate 19 million homes was one of the first casualties. Local retrofit programmes deliver a multitude of benefits—decarbonising homes reduces carbon emissions and lowers energy bills, upskilling workers locally delivers skills, jobs and wider economic benefits. When the whole country has suffered from the cost-of-living crisis there is no policy that more straightforwardly reduces emissions while driving up living conditions; it cannot be delayed.

There is no policy that more straightforwardly reduces emissions while driving up living conditions than domestic retrofit. Image: Unsplash/Zbynek Burival.

The same goes for public transport. Thankfully under Louise Haigh Labour’s transport policies are among our party’s most ambitious; railways will come back into public ownership and she will lift the forty year ban on councils establishing their own bus companies. 

South Yorkshire has shown what can be done for transport with extra resource. The Tory addition of combined authorities to the devolution mix has meant that more longer-term decisions can be taken locally. And last month, South Yorkshire’s trams were brought into public ownership, after almost thirty years in Stagecoach’s hands. Bringing the trams back into public hands is the first step to expanding the network, and thereby remedying our reliance on private cars. 

Municipal austerity must end. Image: Roger Blackwell/Flickr.

But when we come to buses, as welcome as it would be for the ban on municipal bus companies to end, that future Labour government must also ensure funding streams for local authorities wanting to set up their own bus company, if they are to sufficiently challenge the private sector. Forty years of privatisation has shown an unwillingness to invest in transport, which is why there are nowhere near enough zero carbon buses. We need funding to provide the publicly-owned low-carbon transportation so desperately needed across the country.

I’m standing for election to be a Local Government representative on Labour’s NEC, to bang the drum for more funding for councils. There’s an alternative future within reach, with local authorities building council housing, creating good green jobs, and providing publicly-owned buses and trams. But we won’t get there with one arm tied behind our backs. This fourteen-year horror story of municipal austerity must end.

Minesh Parekh is a Labour Councillor for Crookes and Crosspool in Sheffield

Minesh Parekh

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