Scotland Climate action and sustainable development , Communities and society , Welfare and equalities

Delivering recovery through the Sustainable Development Goals – case studies from across Scotland



With the convergence of a global pandemic and an escalating climate crisis, the stakes are higher than ever – and the importance of securing a greener, healthier, fairer future has never been greater. As evidenced by the plethora of green recovery plans that have surfaced over recent months, all governments have been focused on figuring out how to respond to and recover from this crisis while simultaneously preventing another form of crisis.

In policy terms, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an important blueprint for this activity as they lay out the goals and targets that must be met to achieve universal sustainability. The SDGs provide a universal call to action and are a key part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These 17 Goals are made up of 169 targets that all UN Member States have agreed to work towards achieving by the year 2030. Scotland signed up to the SDGs in 2015, and in July 2020 the Scottish Government released a national review of progress, which includes examples from across the country and highlights some of the challenges going forward.

The role of local authorities in localising, contextualising and delivering the SDGs is vital, and the work of councils forms a central part of this review document that has been co-produced by the Scottish Government, the SDG Network Scotland and COSLA. With this in mind, the following briefing will highlight some key case studies from councils across the county and consider the future possibilities for the SDGs in Scotland.

The case studies

Localising action on poverty

Covid-19 has exacerbated impacts of poverty and inequality across the world and Scotland has been no exception. This pandemic coupled with the prospect of Brexit and a looming climate crisis present significant challenges to UK governments working towards the SDGs. Despite this, however, the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of local action, of supporting people and communities and facilitating cohesion.

Across the UK, councils have been instrumental in catalysing action. Local authorities are often the first line of support for people in poverty through services such as education and children’s services, housing, employability, transportation, hardship and crisis support, advice and support, and income maximisation, many of which are supplemented by additional partnership programmes and projects.

Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland play an important role in guiding this network of support and, since 2015, are obliged to plan for improved local outcomes with a view to reducing inequalities of outcome through the participation of socio-economically disadvantaged groups. The delivery of these improved outcomes is facilitated by Local Outcomes Improvement Plans that align with the National Performance Framework and place a priority on addressing poverty and inequality. In response to this, councils have developed their own poverty action plans, such as those from West Lothian, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

Many Community Planning Partnerships such as those in North Ayrshire, Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife and Renfrewshire have also set up ‘Fairness’ or ‘Poverty’ Commissions to consider ways to improve strategies towards poverty and inequality. According to the Scottish Government review: Emerging policy and programme priorities have included increasing access to local savings opportunities; access to affordable credit; increased welfare rights, advice and advocacy; enhanced out-of-school holiday provision; innovative child care provision; and a range of measures to address food insecurity.

Reducing hunger through effective referral pathways

Food is a complex and often contentious topic and one that has been thrown into the spotlight in recent years as issues such as obesity, biodiversity decline and food insecurity become increasingly concerning.

Hunger is one issue that has caught significant attention. In 2017, food banks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout had seen a 17% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average. The fact that people are going hungry and even starving in one of the richest countries in the world is a disturbing trend.

Developing effective, holistic and connected referral pathways for people in need of support is vital in addressing the issue of hunger. One example of good practice cited in the review is North Lanarkshire Council’s Food Poverty Referral Gateway that ensures that all presentations of food crisis are referred to the Scottish Welfare Fund as the first port of call. This means that cash grants can be sought before a referral to a charitable food provider and increases the likelihood of appropriate referrals to services such as welfare rights advice, housing support and debt advice, to help address the root cause of the problem and prevent future crises. This approach has seen a 22% drop in food bank referrals locally.

Empowering school leavers  

With the disruption to learning this year, coupled with the impacts of isolation and uncertainty on the mental health of young people providing supportive, consistent education is vital. Today’s young people are entering into an uncertain and often unpredictable world and preparing young adults for the transition into stable, fulfilling occupations is an important area of action for governments.

One example of how school leavers are being supported by councils across Scotland is through the Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) Programme works with employers, schools, local authorities and Skills Development Scotland to connect the world of work to the world of education. Councils have played a key role in implementing this programme. In South Lanarkshire, for example, the council has more than doubled the college work-based learning offer in schools and the number of pupils taking part in foundation apprenticeships has increased by over 400%. Aberdeenshire Council has created a WorkPlus programme for young care experienced people (an issue we have written about recently at LGiU) which provides them with an 8-week paid work placement in the local authority’s services alongside employability and job searching support. As a result, all of the initial participants have progressed into either employment or further training.

Working towards gender equality in local politics

Although Scottish Government has a gender-balanced Cabinet, only 35% of MSPs and 29% of local government councillors in Scotland are women. In fact, today there are fewer women MSPs today than when the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999. Inclusivity and diversity is an issue covered in recent LGiU briefings, where he have explored how representative local governments are of the communities they serve.

This is an issue that was addressed directly by COSLA, who in November 2018 hosted the Achieving Gender Equality in Local Politics conference. This event brought created a platform for networking and idea-sharing by encouraging participants to set their own goals for how they personally can contribute to achieving positive change. This event was followed with the creation of a story sharing campaign and an action plan developed by COSLA’s Barrier to Elected Office Special Interest Group.

Living Wage Cities

The real Living Wage helps to ensure that peoples’ basic pay meets the cost of living and is something that is actively championed by Scottish Government. At 81.5%, Scotland has the highest rate of workers in the UK earning the real Living Wage.

In 2019 Dundee became the UK’s first Living Wage City, a feat secured through the collaboration of Dundee City Council, SE, Dundee, Angus Chamber of Commerce, private and third sectors. Over 50 Dundee employers have volunteered to commit to ensure all off their staff and subcontracted staff receive a real living wage of £9.00/hr.

Sustainable cities and communities

Place and communities have been a real focus for governments and wider society over recent months. While extremely challenging, the national lockdown experienced in April 2020 highlighted the power of communities and the importance of local resilience. This huge effort to support people in places across the county has been facilitated in large part, by local governments working around the clock to develop systems and ensure that vulnerable people were protected and supported.

Given the multiple challenges facing Scotland (Covid 19, Brexit and the climate crisis to name a few), developing community resilience is a hugely important issue for both national and local governments. In light of this, this review highlights a number of projects that demonstrate local sustainability and resilience. One example cited in the report is the Stromness Regional Plan which was been developed following a warning from the community that the town was being ‘left behind’. The plan has since won the Royal Institute for Town Planning’s Silver Jubilee Cup and through the collaboration of Orkney Islands Council and has resulted in 12 major projects implemented across the town including new and upgraded public spaces, new shops and businesses and a new primary school. The Council has also started work on a new international research facility and infrastructure for tidal and wave energy generation, which has received funding from the joint COSLA/Scottish Government Regeneration Capital Grant Fund. The success of this project has been down to the close collaboration between the Council’s town planners and the local community that meant that the needs of local people were put at the heart of this plan.

Across Scotland COSLA has worked with councils to develop Participatory Budgeting programmes, a development that demonstrated the ambition to involve communities in more meaningful decisions within their community.

Place-based climate action

With the climate crisis quite literally lapping at our doorsteps, helping communities to adapt to future changes is a key part of many government agendas over the coming months and years.

Unsurprisingly, flooding has been a key priority for local governments in recent years, and this review highlights a number of projects that aim to address this issue. One of these is the Selkirk Flood Protection Scheme, which was launched in February 2017 and will protect approximately 600 properties (residential, business, agricultural, commercial and recreational) and critical infrastructure. Scottish Government covers 80% of the estimated total cost of £31.4 million with the remainder being financed by Scottish Borders Council and the scheme won the Environmental Award at the Saltire Civil Engineering Awards in 2019.  A similar scheme was launched in Elgin in 2017 and is set to protect roughly 270 residential and 75 business premises from flooding, avoiding damages of an estimated £29 million.

One further project highlighted in the review is Aberdeen Adapts, which is a project helping the city to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change by creating its first climate change adaptation strategy. It is led jointly by Aberdeen City Council and the University of Aberdeen and is made up of a wide range of engagement activities to collect views from local stakeholders on how best to prepare for the risks and seize the opportunities inherent in our changing climate.

The importance of green space

During the nation-wide lockdown which began in April 2020, the importance of urban green space became acutely apparent. Not only was there immense pressure on urban greenspace, but access to that space reflected deeply engrained inequalities within British, and Scottish, society with people in poorer neighbourhoods less able to access public or private outdoor space. According to one survey, for example, fewer than half of those with a household income of less than £15,000 lived close to green space compared to 63% of those with a household income of more than £35,000.

Three projects are highlighted in this report are working to redress this imbalance. The first is Middlefield Greenspace and Regeneration Project run by Aberdeen City Council. Developed within the community this project provides quality outdoor recreational space that is accessible to people whose life choices are limited by their personal circumstances. Through this project these individuals are also supported to participate in a wide range of activities within the space. 

The second project is St Eunan’s Community Greenspace. Run by West Dunbartonshire Council this project aims to transform a former primary school into a community green space with biodiversity areas, raised bed allotments, recreational areas for children, outdoor exercise equipment, and outdoor education areas as well as interpretation about the heritage of Clydebank.

The final project is Edinburgh Living landscapes which is run through a collaboration between a number of partners including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Council. This is a wide-ranging project which undertakes activities such as encouraging wildlife into residential gardens, ensuring green areas are sustainable and resilient, creating urban meadows, and integrating green infrastructure in the city.


We live in a time where a multitude of pivotal public service demands and pressures are converging, and looking through the SDG lens is one way of understanding the multiple policy and delivery implications. While simultaneously negotiating the pandemic and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit are right now the two most immediate obstacles in the path of governments, these acute problems have arrived at a time of global climate crisis that threatens to fundamentally and drastically change the world we inhabit at every scale. As flooding incidents and bush fires around the world bring the climate crisis to everyone’s backdoor, the recent household survey shows how important this issue is to people in Scotland.

In recent months a plethora of green recovery plans published across every sector indicate that there is a broad consensus on the need to change, to use this shock as a catalyst for developing a more sustainable future. There is potential for the SDGs to play a key role in guiding us towards this future. While widely embraced at an international level, the effective localisation of these goals is vital if progress towards a more sustainable world is to be made. As this review document highlights, local governments play a hugely important leadership role in this localisation and the holistic nature of the SDGs means that there is the capacity for this approach to be used in decision-making across public services.