Local councils can play major role in climate challenge

A September sunset across the Exe estuary pictured from the sailing club. Photo by Simon Horn.

A September sunset across the Exe estuary pictured from the sailing club. Photo by Simon Horn. - Credit: Archant

A recent YouGov/Times poll found that three-quarters of us recognise climate change is real and caused by human activity - rare common ground in polarised times.
However, despite confidence in the need for climate action, most people do not trust Joe Biden to make the right calls on climate change, and even fewer trust our own Prime Minister.
Depressingly, this is probably correct. Can we trust them to tackle the root causes of climate change: evident dependence on private transport, millions of jobs tied to high-emission sectors and political accountability to big corporations rather than the public?
We are too limited in how we think about our environment. Politicians try to compartmentalise climate into a separate policy brief, revealing a failure to identify how it permeates all aspects of our lives. Only 16 per cent of us believe it should be a priority as we come out of the pandemic - falling behind the economy, unemployment and health. But without serious climate action, we will be headed for economic disaster in the future, exponentially rising unemployment and tens of thousands of people will continue to die each year from air pollution-related diseases.
Despite this, I think serious climate policy is likely anytime soon. But conversely, longer-term, it must be a certainty. Governments always act when they are forced into a corner (think of the various short-notice lockdowns over the last year). The problem is, these changes will happen at the eleventh hour, with little regard for economic implications and even less for local contexts (think again of the various short-notice lockdowns over the last year).
So, where does local government come into this? What could our town, district and county councils possibly do to combat a global phenomenon? The answer is that they can get us prepared for the changes that are yet to come. Local authorities have a vast amount of power over the day-to-day lives of their residents, so they must lead from the front in moving our communities to a more sustainable future. 
Beginning the transition to a post-carbon economy in Devon is a priority today, not a wish for tomorrow. The regional resilience local government could create by delivering a sustainable foundation for Devon’s economy is enormous, especially when compared to the alternative: sitting on our hands, waiting to be trampled by the reactive, blunt tool of central government.
These changes do not have to disadvantage us or harm our local traders. As consumers, we have nearly all embraced shopping locally over the last year. It is high time that our councils - especially our county council, which takes about 70 per cent of your council tax bill - did too. Based on the public contracts register, only 44 per cent of Devon County Council’s contracts (worth billions in total) are granted to businesses within the county - and just three suppliers out of well over 500 are based in Axminster (and these were relatively low-value). Our district and county councils must urgently recognise the inherent resilience created by spending within their council areas: we can and should aim for over 80 per cent of contracts to be in-area.
Shopping locally is half of the equation; shopping responsibly is the rest. Councillors must evaluate not just value for money in bids but also social value. DCC has made a good start in considering the in-house ways of lowering emissions (LED street lamps, for example). Still, it is now imperative to look to those who deliver the lion’s share of Devon’s services. Contractors must also be socially and environmentally responsible.
Both of these ideas should be linked to a more ambitious climate change and environment strategy document. Councils should strive to pull every social and economic lever available to them, and central government must support them. East Devon District Council has budgeted to spend just shy of £70 million this financial year, and Devon County Council is due to spend over £1.4 billion. With creative and strategic use, these vast sums of taxpayer money can build real resilience in our communities - now and into the future.

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