Luton Borough Council and climate change

I wrote in a previous post about how during my time as an elected councillor on Luton Borough Council I got the Council to sign up to the Nottingham Declaration on tackling climate change in 2006 and how that was used as a lever to get the Council to take the issue seriously.

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. 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. This blog post is based on the presentation that I gave at these training days.

Luton Borough Council has achieved a lot on the Climate Change agenda since 2006.

The Council’s current corporate plan contains two core aims relating to the environment and climate change.

  • Successfully Adapting and Mitigating for Climate Change
  • Reducing the consumption of water, energy, materials and minimising waste, including support for renewable energy generation

The Council has developed a comprehensive set of strategies to implement those aims.

There is the Carbon Management Plan a strategy for reducing the council’s own carbon emissions which was developed with support from the Carbon Trust. There is also the Climate Change Adaptation Plan the strategy for adaptation. Then there is the Local Area Carbon Emissions Reduction Action Plan a strategy for fulfilling the council’s role in encouraging the reduction of carbon emissions within the wider community which was developed with support from the Energy Saving Trust. Finally there is the LBC Environment Framework Strategy.

There has been the implementation of various energy saving measures within the Council. This has meant a 31% reduction in CO2 emissions from LBC buildings, from 41,930 tons in 2008/09 to 29,040 tons 2009/10. It has set a target of reducing C02 by 11% funded by the council (a further 14% if external funding secured) by 2014. It has an aspirational target of 60% reduction by 2019. The specific actions have included; the roll out of smart metering including to schools, libraries and community centres; the installation of computerised energy management systems in some council buildings; and energy awareness communications to council staff. It has also done work on household energy efficiency through the fuel poverty team.

Other initiatives have included; in 2008 commissioning an “Eco Footprint for the Area of Luton”; adding objectives on renewable energy to planning policy, requiring that all reports to the Executive must have considered environmental implications, and carrying out community engagement through the “My Climate” initiative. One project involved an aerial thermal mapping survey of the whole of Luton the results of which are available online.

Another major thing that the council has done is to ‘mainstream’ climate change adaptation. It has adopted the National Indicator 188 (planning to Adapt to Climate Change – planning for a changing climate) as a key council target. Apparently Luton was the only local authority in the East of England to have reached Level 3 by March 2010 which involves having a detailed action plan in place to deal with the effect of climate change on the Council’s ability to provide key services.

Finally, to better take forward this work the council has also recently established a dedicated Climate Change Team.

I have some criticisms of what the Council has done. Given that I believe that this issue is of crucial importance I want to see the Council go further and faster. I have been particularly frustrated by the pace of progress. I am also concerned about the balance between adaptation and mitigation. Whatever we do now climate change will happen and so local authorities will have to adapt themselves and their communities to it. But I don’t believe this should become an acceptance that we only adapt because there is nothing we can do to stop the process. We must at the same time be doing all we can to reduce carbon emissions and to slow and stop climate change itself.

I also have worries about the level of commitment from elected members. I never felt that the two Labour environment portfolio-holders who followed me had the same level of commitment to the issue that I did. I also think there was a lack of engagement with the issue across all parties in the council chamber, including some genuine climate change sceptics amongst the Tory group. There is also a real danger that given the financial circumstance faced by local authorities climate change work becomes a casualty. Maintaining member commitment and leadership when councillors will be faced with so many other pressures may prove difficult.

But I may be being overly pessimistic. Although I am no longer amongst them, I hope that members of the Liberal Democrat group will continue to raise climate change as an issue and if we are lucky there may be an environmentalist or two amongst the new intake of Labour councillors. What does give me comfort is that it is clear that climate change has become a mainstream part of the council’s agenda and that is unlikely to change.

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