England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society, Covid-19

Leading from the front line: supporting local government to deliver net zero

The past six months have been a whirlwind of conversations – slightly awkward chat show style introductions, the ubiquitous phrase “you’re on mute” and the occasional child/dog/cat/gerbil offering an often valuable contribution. I have met an incredible range of people from across Scotland with a variety of roles in local authorities and partner organisations. We have discussed frustrations and challenges, successes and achievements. Sometimes there is a team with different specialities and roles, sometimes there is just one individual. Always, there is passion, drive and energy.

Local government is a tough working environment at the best of times. Addressing climate change would be challenge enough, let alone during a pandemic where priorities have changed and many have been pulled into the emergency response. The past year has demonstrated the agility and power of local government to adapt and adjust but it is important to note that innovation was already happening before the pandemic. Entrepreneurial spirit is often seen as the domain of the private sector with a focus on new technology but local authorities across Scotland are fostering and promoting new ways of working across their own operations and spheres of influence.

There are examples of inspiring projects and initiatives tackling every aspect of climate change: adaptation and mitigation, technology and behaviour, small scale local action and regional strategies. All developed and delivered by hard-working officers, elected members and partner organisations, notably community action groups. Indeed, working in partnership is frequently pivotal to success and impact. There is increasingly an understanding that climate change is not just about the environment, rather it is part of a broader agenda that has significant impacts on health and inequality and needs organisation-wide change. The drive for a ‘green recovery’ encapsulates this, bringing together economic development and climate change priorities to create a better future.

It is an honour to be working alongside and supporting these endeavours and I am determined to add value rather than duplicating or further cluttering the landscape. Challenges and barriers remain, particularly around how we are going to deliver net zero. There is no simple right answer but there is a need for detailed, coordinated, operational action plans that bring together policy, technology and crucially, people. Local government is uniquely placed and essential in designing and delivering these solutions, mainstreaming climate action and drawing on local expertise and understanding. However, policy clarity, resourcing and assistance are needed from the Scottish and UK Governments and supporting organisations.

The Improvement Service was established in 2005 as a national organisation to help councils provide effective community leadership, strong local governance and high quality, efficient local services. Climate change is a driver of our Strategic Framework and a cross-cutting theme of our core priorities. It is of growing importance to Elected Members and officers and ensuring we are contributing to this agenda will mean we are as effective and relevant as possible.

Since joining the organisation, I have been impressed by the genuine drive and courage to do things differently. Colleagues at all levels are creative, proactive and agile which means we are in a strong position to help tackle the biggest challenge facing local government – a just transition to net zero.

A key area of impact is through our position and reach into local and national government. The Scottish Government has set ambitious targets and released a suite of associated policy documents but there is still uncertainty around what is expected of local government and crucially what is needed to deliver these expectations.  We are working to develop our networks and influence, collaborating with COSLA and the Sustainable Scotland Network to ensure a coherent and complementary offer and ask of national government. We are also supporting the Scottish Cities Alliance to create a national Peer to Peer Network and deliver an Elected Member training programme.

In addition to working on our influence, we are reviewing all of our activity from board level to programme and individual workloads. A lot of what we do already supports the climate change agenda but we can, and must, develop this further. What gaps exist and what can we develop or signpost? We are liaising with professional officer networks to share learning, developing our work on data analysis/benchmarking, shaping planning policy and exploring resources and events for Elected Members. We can help embed transformation by building capacity, sharing notable practice and communicating and influencing the national picture.

To do this, all our staff need to be engaged in meaningful dialogue on climate change and so we are implementing an organisation-wide training programme in Carbon Literacy. We are also considering our operations in a post-Covid world.  Sustainable travel and flexible working were already the norm for many staff and throughout the pandemic the organisation has worked hard to support mental health and wellbeing. What else can we do? Our own drive for improvement must not only be around what we do, but how we operate.

In this pivotal year of COP26, I am excited to see how local government continues to shape the response to climate change and deliver benefits for people and planet. The Improvement Service has an important role to play in supporting this innovation and transformation and we look forward to continuing to develop our activity.

If you are interested in discussing further or working with us please visit our website: https://www.improvementservice.org.uk/products-and-services/consultancy-and-support/climate-change

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