What is environmental localism?


In the first of a special series on environmental localism, Sarah-Jane Denton, consultant in the environment and climate change team at Simmons & Simmons LLP, examines the rise in environmental localism and discusses some of the recent trends.

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What is environmental localism?

‘Localism’ is a move away from centralised government in favour of greater powers and decision making for local authorities, with the perceived benefit that communities and local people will be more involved and invested in issues which directly affect them, including policy and decision-making. The Localism Act 2011 (LA 2011) was passed with the stated aim of removing bureaucracy and the influence of central government. Environmental localism, by extension, represents a move towards environmental policies designed at a local level, to address local manifestations of national or international environmental challenges. The term can be used to describe a wide spectrum of environmental initiatives, from the achievement of national emission targets via the promotion of community energy programmes, to controls aimed at improving areas prone to flooding. Localism also encompasses small scale town or city-specific measures such as cycling incentive schemes which represent, individually, small changes but, in sum and over time, make a positive contribution to the achievement of environmental objectives.

What is the current status of the environmental localism movement in the UK? What are some of the main trends?

In the face of a central government with limited capacity in all areas at present, local governments are not waiting for central government to take the lead and instruct them to adopt greener practices and projects. In 2016, a large number of local leaders of boroughs, towns, cities and counties (71 at the time of writing) formed a network named ‘UK100’ to devise and implement plans for the transition to clean energy—in many cases in conjunction with private sector businesses, with the goal of achieving 100% clean energy by 2050.

The contribution of UK100 to the UK’s climate goals has been recognised and welcomed by the then Climate Minister Nick Hurd. Some of the UK100 projects already extend beyond energy and into wider sustainability and green economy plans—the success of the first round of projects could well drive local councils to go it alone in other green areas. It will be for central government, however, to provide a supportive framework in which this local leadership can grow. While councils are willing to take the initiative, the government is being urged to act to prevent continual ‘reinvention of the wheel’—to issue guidance and advice, to share best practices and facilitate councils doing the same. This is particularly true where councils have stepped up but there may not be full clarity over who bears responsibility in a particular area, with air quality being a prime example. The government even raised the possibility of passing on EU fines to local authorities, though it has since said that it would not do so unless, perhaps, local authorities fail to meet their own responsibilities which contributed to the overall achievement of air quality objectives.

The Mayor of London recently released a draft environmental strategy. Do you imagine other appointed metro mayors will promote environmentalism in their regions? Is this form of localism likely to gain more traction in the future?

An amendment to the Greater London Authority Act 1999, made by LA 2011, requires the London Mayor to publish an environmental strategy. Other regions are not under the same statutory obligation and not all share the system of government which equips London to handle its devolved powers so adeptly. However, signs are that other cities and regions do share the Mayor’s ambition—as noted above, the UK100 boasts participants from all corners of the UK, many undertaking innovative projects neither directed nor funded by central government. According to research cited by the UK100, up to a third of local residents want to be involved in environmental projects and decision making.

London has forged plans to tackle air pollution at the local level. What does the Air Quality Plan (AQP) mean for local government in this area? Can you envisage other regions following suit and, if so, how?

The plan published in July 2017 recognises a role for councils in improving local air quality, leveraging their particular understanding of the factors contributing to air quality problems in their local area. The AQP will need to be followed up with adequate funding for local councils to implement schemes in order to be effective. Several local councils of large cities with significant pollution problems voiced their disappointment, following publication, with the government’s failure to allocate new clean air zones where driving would be charged, instead asking councils to looks at equally effective other options before imposing charges.

The councils called for ‘national backing of local action’. Councils already have an ongoing obligation to monitor air quality and improve it where statutory nitrogen oxides (NOx) levels are found to be exceeding national limits, though in reality they may not have effective control of local sources of pollution. They have access to various grants for making improvements, but in relatively low amounts—only £11m has been awarded under the Air Quality Grant scheme since 2011. The plan will require local authorities to assess, choose and implement measures to achieve statutory NOx levels in the shortest possible time. This is only a subtle shift compared with local councils’ existing responsibilities, though raises the profile of the issue and increases pressure on the government to provide adequate support for local councils. Local council plans will need to adhere to criteria set centrally and the plan approved by government before it can qualify for funding, which will extend to £255m according to the plan.

The Committee on Climate Change recently released its UK Climate Change Risk Assessment for 2017 (CCRA2). What does this report say about devolved nations? Are there differences in the risks identified?

The CCRA2 presents individual chapters for each of the devolved nations, reflecting the slightly different risk levels faced by each in relation to the six identified priority areas. Temperature change, for example, is a particular risk for England (with London the most susceptible). Water shortage could become a serious issue for England before the end of the century, with demand predicted to exceed supply in some areas by 200%, whereas in Scotland demand is generally less than 25%, and most parts of Wales face no threat of water shortage. Action, however, mostly remains within the remit of central government.

Are certain devolved nations embracing environmental localism whereas others are less enthusiastic? If so, why is this the case?

Certain devolved nations have been more forward from a legislative perspective, for example, Scotland enacted its own Climate Change (Scotland) Act in 2009 which set it on a national path parallel to that followed by England and Wales—the overarching 80% reduction by 2050 target has historically been the same. However in June 2017, no doubt encouraged by the rapid growth of renewable energy in the country, Scotland announced its intention to raise its target to 90%, a move which, if the Bill becomes law, will cement its position as the UK’s leader on climate change. Wales enacted the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 to oblige a wide range of public bodies from the Welsh government to the National Library to act sustainably, protecting resources and biodiversity. Rather than any particular local driver or risk factor, each nation’s policy on environmental matters and its ability to enforce the policy, as we see with localism generally, is to a large degree driven by the political priorities and distractions of the moment. While Scotland positions itself as a climate leader and an attractive destination for green business, Northern Ireland is challenged by the collapse of its government and the Westminster government has limited resources to focus on non-Brexit environmental issues.

Could devolution lead to a fragmented UK environmental policy (as seen in the Scottish government’s and the central government’s conflicting approaches to fracking)? Could Brexit soften or exacerbate the potential fragmentation?

Some 80% of environmental legislation is currently derived from the EU. This means that the whole of the UK has had to follow the EU’s lead and stay in reasonable alignment, except where legislation has yet to catch up with technology or where the EU permits legislative ambition over and above the requirements of a Directive. The Scottish and Welsh governments accused the Westminster government of a ‘naked power grab’ when the Withdrawal (European Union) Bill was first published in July 2017. The Bill prevents the devolved legislatures from legislating contrary to retained EU law after Brexit, which in simple terms means that central government is defining policy in devolved areas for the immediate future by preventing a departure from EU rules.

In Scotland, the SNP pledged in its 2017 election manifesto to ensure that powers, including in the environment sphere, repatriated from Brussels to the UK would be devolved to Scotland. There is a lot of speculation about the approach that central government will take to environmental policy after Brexit, not helped by the ongoing delays to the publication of Defra’s 25-year plan. Whether Scotland and perhaps Wales will look to diverge their environmental policies depends to a large degree on the level at which the bar is set by central government.

Filed Under: Environment

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