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PoweredUp - local authorities and net zero

Local authorities have a crucial role in helping the United Kingdom to achieve net-zero. They can procure services and assets in a more climate-friendly fashion, manage their own buildings and estates in a way that reduces carbon emissions, set policies across their own local areas, and have strong convening powers to bring together citizens, businesses and other actors who live, work and play within their administrative boundaries to agree collective actions.

It appears that many councils are exploring how to take meaningful action towards net-zero. A recent National Audit Office report stated that 38% of English councils have committed to reach net-zero by 2030, and the majority of councils across the UK having either developed, or are actively developing climate action plans.

However, what do these climate action plans actually look like? And how might open data and the use of common data standards support the development, monitoring and implementation of these? This was the topic of our September PoweredUp event, where we were joined by Stef Webb, futuregov's Director of Place and Louise Crow, Programme Director for mySociety, to share some initial thoughts to start the conversation.

A lack of National Framework for climate action plans and reporting

As we learned from Louise, there is no national framework for climate action plans or reporting, no shared understanding of what data should be used to inform them, nor how to engage with stakeholders in the development process.mySociety's Climate Action Plan Explorer is helping to shed light on the widely varying current practice in local authorities. Alongside volunteers, Climate Emergency UK and mySociety are collecting council net-zero plans and updates to these, and making it easy for interested parties to search across these plans. Their open tool has allowed civil society groups and citizens and even councillors and council officers to better understand the actions of other local authorities, and encourage the development of better plans and policies within their own. Even the National Audit Office has been using the data to help research what is taking place across the UK.mySociety's own research has shown that there is also no common understanding of what the scope of a local authority's plan might be; meaning that many councils may be much more ambitious than others, and making it a challenge to compare across local authorities.

This challenge in comparing across local authorities is exacerbated by the fact that, as Louise highlighted, while many plans contain carbon footprint baselines, it appears there is no common standard for developing baselines. This also makes it easier for local authorities to appear to reduce their carbon emissions by changing their methodology for measuring this, rather than taking meaningful action.

Embracing uncertainty and learning faster together

A lack of common data standards and methodologies makes it challenging for us to collectively work together on the wicked problem of climate change.

Stef highlighted that the drive towards net-zero is full of complexity and uncertainty. There are many actors working towards net-zero; local authorities, central government, voluntary and community organisations, businesses and citizens. The systems relating to how individuals and communities live their lives and how businesses operate are also complex, and actions taken to reduce carbon emissions in one geographic area or policy area, such as transport or housing, may have unforeseen impacts elsewhere.

Regular, consistent and openly published monitoring of the impact of interventions across policy areas and geographic boundaries, allows the creation of longer-term responses to the climate emergency, which are informed by where there are important connections between systems. Furthermore, it will help local authorities to fail or recognise success faster, and help local authorities to learn from the success and failures of each other and both speed up and reduce the costs of experimenting with interventions.

This would be significantly boosted by the use of common methodologies and data standards across local authorities. Common approaches would also make it easier for local authorities to work together, collectively identify datasets that can inform the development or monitoring of climate action plans, and either collaboratively commision these or advocate for central government to provide these; all actions that would help reduce the costs of gaining access to crucial information to help them understand their carbon footprint.

What interventions could usefully be made?

A number of possible interventions emerged through our conversation that we'll look to test the appetite for over the next few months, at PlanetData4 and beyond:

1. Developing standardised, open and regular monitoring of climate action plans will help with many of the challenges identified in this session.

It will enable sharing of learning across administrative boundaries, it provides an opportunity for local authorities to co-commission data to support the development of their climate action plans, and allow communities to hold their local authorities to account. It will also act as a forcing function to encourage the development of more standardised climate action plans, as local authorities look to ensure they are able to meet these reporting requirements.

While this will ultimately require central government to provide guidance or statutory requirements and the funding to meet these requirements, perhaps the development of a prototype could help, working with councils within a single Combined Authority or in collaboration with a small number of local authorities. There is likely to be learning that can be brought in from Scotland, where since 2015, local authorities have had a duty to act on climate change and report on this in a standardised structure.

We should also consider how combined authorities could have a role in helping to explore either the setting of common reporting standards within their regions, or potentially advocating to central government for the development of a common climate reporting standard.

2. Support local authorities to identify one or more common data requirements and ask central government to publish this

A perhaps small step to test the appetite for collective action would be to bring together a number of local authorities to identify one or more common data requirements, and consider how we might best make a case for these to central government. A good example of this has been the Business Rates Tool developed by ODI Leeds in conjunction with several local authorities, many of whom are sponsors.

3. Advocate for faster turn around of climate relevant national data sets

While national data sets can be beneficial for local authorities for cost purposes, there can be some challenges. The BEIS data set is released on a two year lag, which has significant impact on the ability for local authorities in learning about whether their interventions have real impact. Could this be released more frequently to provide greater feedback on what is and isn't working?What's next?

Has this tickled your appetite? We'd love to hear from you about what action could be taken forwards to help improve the quality of local authority climate action plans.

We will be continuing this conversation at PlanetData4 with our wider community. The aim will be to understand the appetite for exploring collective action in developing the ideas below, and if there is interest, identifying next steps.Signup today to join us.