Labelled a ‘gold tier’ council by Uswitch for their approach to sustainability, Oxfordshire is standing out as a pioneering force in climate action. We chatted with Oxfordshire County Council’s Corporate Director for Environment and Place, Bill Cotton and the Head of Climate Action, Sarah Gilbert, to share their insights with local government colleagues, near and far, who are keen to pick up the pace in adapting to a changing world.
Starting his local government life back in 1990, Bill Cotton is certainly a seasoned pro of the sector; before making Oxfordshire County Council his home a few years ago, he worked in local authorities across London, Leeds, the South West and the South coast. As Corporate Director for Environment and Place, Bill credits his background in town planning as a handy asset for the sustainability ambitions he now spearheads, “I like to think of myself as a place-maker first and foremost.”
On Bill’s team as Head of Climate Action is Sarah Gilbert, an Oxfordshire County Council veteran who has worked at the organisation for over a decade in a variety of sustainability roles and completed her master’s in the topic at Cambridge. “Sustainability is definitely my bag and background”, Sarah says proudly, adding, “and Oxfordshire is a very inspiring place to work on this agenda.”
The changing tide of social and political attitudes has certainly added impetus. Just like everywhere else, Oxfordshire is feeling the pressure to adapt. Bill and Sarah credit a mixture of fortuitous factors in helping the council carve a way forward on climate action. There’s a longstanding and strong community mandate. “Even prior to recycling collections, the council were spurred by community interests to drive forward local collections and circular type industries,” shares Sarah. With between 100-150 climate community action groups in the area, Bill remarks that “It certainly tells you a lot about the nature of the population,” – and also what they expect from their local government. In addition, there’s a lot of economic opportunity in Oxfordshire due to the abundance of big, innovative tech and scientific industry, plus the obvious asset, Oxford University, which led the county’s seminal report: Pathway to Zero Carbon Oxfordshire – a localised and specialist exploration of the issues and solutions.
Bill believes that their council’s advantageous position is exactly why it’s so important they do not rest on their laurels.
“If we can’t do it in Oxfordshire then the human race is stuffed. We have a real opportunity with the amount of institutions, businesses and organisations. I think we’ve got a leadership role to play nationally and internationally, and with that comes a duty to crack on.”
The key is partnerships
Both Bill and Sarah emphasise that private sector partnerships bring significant value to their climate action ambitions because they’re incentivised to innovate. Sarah explains, “We’ve had some really interesting private sector partnerships like Zeta who are developing EV charging hubs to provide more functionality to residents.” However, that’s not to say local government hasn’t got its own critical role to play.
“I always come back to my old classics, which is why, what and how,” Bill outlines, elaborating further, “I think local government has a really good role to play in working out the why we’re doing it and what we need to do but the key is to be really open-minded about the how and go find the people who are really good at the how.” He advises, “Focus on the ideas and spend your energy creating a solid foundation of partnerships that are united by the clarity of the mission.” In firm agreement, Sarah notes that “It’s important for local government to build a culture of being open and available to work with the community and private sector partners and to try and make it as easy as possible – especially given the complex problems we’re trying to address.”
Britain’s first zero-emission zone pilot
Last year, Oxfordshire launched a zero-emission zone pilot in a small area of historic Oxford city. Initially, conceived from a cross-political and cross-council endeavour that recognised climate change as a very central issue. Bill conveys that it really all came down to strong collaboration. “It was everyone saying, let’s try something really practical and radical to take this forward and test whether such a thing could actually work.” He affirms that ‘the real test is still to come’ – moving the pilot case study to a city-wide environment. “It’s in the pipeline for a few years’ time. We’re working through the process very carefully but we’re really committed to doing it!”.
Sarah calls the zero-emission zone an ‘important policy statement from the council’. “What it’s done is create a long-term statement of intent from the council that motivates people who are going to transition to do so perhaps quicker and make those changes with the confidence in our direction of travel.” Bill hops in with the advice that the more notice you can give people about the upcoming changes, the more time they have to adapt and start making decisions to align. “In my experience with the business communities, they’re used to adapting. It’s what business is all about.” He cites an example of how in the wake of the zero-emission zone, Oxford now has a booming e-cargo business and the council is working with the University on last mile delivery for student packages.
The unexpected response
Alongside the plans for extending the zero-emissions zone, Oxfordshire is also in the process of planning another big transport scheme around six new traffic filters in the city centre which will remove the vast majority of through traffic. “It’s planned for Autumn 2024, so the countdown begins!” Bill exclaims. He adds in a telling tone that, “it’ll be interesting when it lands,” – referring to the council facing international attention following the scheme’s approval which drew in attention and conspiracies from the likes of QAnon. “The pent-up anxiety in society comes through in the most unusual places, especially when something as benign as our planning and transport policies are a target,” Bill says.
Ultimately, both of them see these incidents as a reminder that local government can always try to better engage with communities. “It’s important to get out and listen to people. People get very worried, and quite rightly nervous, about change in their lives. Even though they want the climate fixed, when it starts affecting them, there is a human reaction to it. Even if you can’t fully address their concerns, listening goes a long way to helping these things land,” Bill shares.
One way Oxfordshire has tried to improve communication is by launching a website called Climate Action Oxfordshire with partners, as a way to consolidate and disseminate information in an easy, accessible manner to residents – with the ambition to branch this out to businesses and schools in the near future. “We started it about 18 months ago after the Pathway to Zero Carbon Oxfordshire report made clear that we not only need a mixture of infrastructure investment but also to support a huge amount of behaviour change,” explains Sarah. The website is filled with a range of best practice examples across all areas of climate action but with an emphasis on the direct application to everyday life in Oxfordshire.
“We’re not seeking to reinvent the wheel but to be a single front door to some of the really good advice already out there,” Sarah overviews, adding, “We also understand that we’re not always the best voice on every topic. So, we have a variety of voices on the website, like people from the community action group network or stakeholders on community energy, who can share information about their particular passion.”
The biggest concern
When asked what their biggest concern is, without hesitation, both interviewees jump straight to the same thought: Just Transition. A fantastic display of a united team. Currently, a very popular term in political circles and what Bill deems to be ‘one of his favourite phrases’. “We’ve got to radically change the way we operate society and the economy in almost every single place but that can’t be at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable in the community,” remarks Bill. They share that Oxfordshire is looking into ideas like scrappage schemes and necessary exemptions to help people with their needs of today while easing them into changing their behaviours to be more sustainable.
Bill contemplates that when working in this space of local government, it’s important to keep asking yourself why all the time. “Why am I doing this again? Why are we putting ourselves through this? Why are we putting the community through this? It all comes back to proper policy objectives. Not just climate ones but around health, public health, air quality, and so forth.”
What comes next for Oxfordshire?
Sarah highlights that the zero-emission zone is absolutely just one aspect of a much bigger plan. “A lot of legwork has taken place over a number of years to develop a viable and credible EV infrastructure strategy that our partners sign up to. People in local government know how hard it can be to land consensus around a policy and gain a common sense of where you’re heading.” The strategy aims to solve a range of local problems like providing for areas that don’t have off-street parking and putting charging stations into district car parks overnight. “The team has looked quite widely at what the real challenges are for Oxfordshire residents and tried to practically address those,” Sarah summarises.
Although they are led by highly-regarded and even award-winning strategies, Sarah points out there’s still a long, complex road ahead, as is the nature of climate action. “As you unpack some of those aspects, they get wider and wider. For example, you start asking, ‘How are you going to connect rapid chargers to the grid in a constrained environment?’ and then that leads you down a different road for the kind of work you need to do there”. Bill chimes in, “And that’s why we love local government because it’s a never-ending series of rabbit holes!”
They both affirm that overall they’re really pleased with the way the climate work is going at Oxfordshire County Council and where it’s heading over the next five to ten years. “It’s not easy, it’s the difficult unglamorous work but we’re getting there. You’re fighting a war, not a battle so you’ve got to keep plugging away,” Bill says. They both also speak highly of a particular councillor for keeping the pedal to the metal. Bill jests, “I’m not saying this to blow smoke anywhere but we are blessed with a cabinet member, Cllr Pete Sudbury, who is absolutely passionate about the subject and also very learned about it as well.” Bill adds, “Pete’s the person in the room who always reminds us that ‘an emergency means emergency’ and I think that sense of urgency is really important.”
Do you know an award-worthy councillor? Nominate them today for LGIU’s Cllr Awards
Although the focus in local government is usually, and rightly, local, it’s hard not to worry about wider issues and the impact they have. Sarah shares, “I have some trepidation about how the financial position in the national economy might affect climate action. One thing that occurs to me is we need to get much more efficient across layers of government in how we spend pounds on climate action. It’s important we champion, through our networks, where it may be more efficient to devolve funding to local government to deliver better outcomes and help shape programmes in local areas.” Sarah cites the stop-start and complexity of the government’s retrofit programmes as an example of why this bottom-up approach to funding is absolutely needed going forward.
The one thing everyone should know
Bill acknowledges that along with understanding climate change usually comes a change curve for the future of humanity and our exhausted planet. “People often think, what can I do about it? And actually, if people can get over that sense of helplessness, they’ll realise they can make an impact. They have a voice, both democratically and politically, but equally in their own actions. You’re not powerless, you can make a difference.”
From Sarah’s perspective, she thinks it’s important everyone knows that not only are the solutions already here but they’re actively happening right now in many of our communities. “I think it’s helpful to sign-post over the fence to different neighbourhoods where you see positive things going on. It makes climate action seem much more engageable for people instead of thinking it’s something external that is going to be imposed on them. I think for local government, it is really about scaling up the solutions and the message to our residents has to be we’re making places better and more liveable.”
Before we end our conversation, Bill shares his admiration for the younger generation and what they’re bringing to the table, “This will show my age but I’m heartened by the young people, the energy and optimism they are showing. They’re all turned on about this issue.” He reaches across his desk to share with us a poster that his daughter gave him, “There’s a brilliant quote here, I think she must have got it from somewhere else – although I hope I’m not taking it away from her – but it says, ‘we need to put a price of carbon in the markets and a price of denial in the politics’, I think that’s quite powerful. We’re not going to change the system overnight but we can work with the politicians who have the opportunity to make a big difference.”
We both praise Bill’s daughter’s quote for being motivational and then he flips the poster around to show us the drawing, “It is a picture of the earth both burning and crying, so yeah it’s a real motivator to have right by the desk.”
This interview illustrates some powerful principles on local climate action that we explore in-depth in our latest report from the Local Democracy Research Centre.
This report highlights how local democracy is essential to achieving our net zero emissions, but that maintaining democratic consensus is challenging in current circumstances. Building on several of the insights covered within this interview, we highlight some of the different ways councils in the UK have experienced this and how they are navigating this crucial and sometimes controversial arena, while capacity and resources are at a premium. We look further in our Global Local newsletter with learning, support and inspiration from local governments around the world.