A shift in power and responsibility under localism proposals means an uncertain future on environmental issues for council and civil society.
Proponents say it could result in a flowering of local action, with civil groups demanding more ambitious progress from their council. Others say it could result in stalled progress, with councils putting less store on climate change policy in the absence of drivers like national indicators and civil society uncertain about how to hold them to account.
At its heart, localism offers a wealth of opportunity. People tend to see environmental action as something abstract for the centre to deal with, particularly when it comes to tackling climate change.
In contrast, localism demands a real increase in people’s role in securing environmental progress. It could give them greater say in how their area develops, with the opportunity to realise ambitious visions for how retail, transport and public service provision take shape; how tackling climate change is built into new developments; and what priority is given to issues like green space and environmental protection.
It offers a practical, tangible way for communities to engage with environmental issues while delivering social and economic benefits. But the question remains whether there is a real power shift underway. How genuine can the handing down of power be without the resources needed to fulfil the responsibilities it creates?
Planning, in particular, is a system through which complex trade-offs are negotiated. Localism can only be passive - handing over rights but not resources - if it comes without effective support to build community expertise.
Communities rich in social and financial capital where the environment is high on the list of local priorities will no doubt make the most of these new freedoms, pursuing their visions unfettered by centralised limits. But in areas where the environment won’t make it onto the list of things that matter - and there will be many - can we blame communities for wanting to focus on more immediate concerns, or councils for rolling back their efforts in the face of swingeing cuts?
In the coming months, Green Alliance will be systematically examining these themes. Our vision is for a real partnership. One in which national government devolves new financial resources as well as new rights, and agrees differentiated responsibility for things of collective interest, such as climate goals.
It is unrealistic to expect councils to be responsible for ensuring that efforts to meet national carbon targets, or to deliver onshore renewables, add up across the country. But they can demonstrate vital leadership in local delivery against those goals and tackling the impacts of their own estate.
This is a pragmatic localism based on the principle of subsidiarity, rather than passive localism that offers new rights but no new resources. It recognises that, paradoxically, the state will have to exert greater central control further down the line if we fail to share responsibility for collective environmental goals. Importantly, all areas would be free to tackle their emissions in the way they see fit, and agreement would be negotiated not imposed.
Instead, it would serve the critical function of ensuring that the environment is at the heart of a genuine power shift.
Faye Scott, senior policy adviser, Green Alliance
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Green Alliance is an independent think tank working to bring environmental priorities into the political mainstream. We work collaboratively with government, the three main parties, civil society, business and others to ensure that political leaders deliver ambitious solutions to global environmental issues.
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