How to talk to your council on climate

If enough voices make themselves heard, change is possible. But securing action from decision-makers comes with its challenges. Campaigner Denis Fernando explains how to get your council to act on climate (and how to respond if they say no).
  Published:  16 Sep 2021    |      5 minute read

As a campaigner, I'm used to asking for things and being told "no". But there's a lot of truth in that saying, "if at first you don't succeed..." Part of securing action on complex issues like climate is knowing how to keep the conversation going and persuade decision-makers.

So to help you get the change you're after in your community, I've pulled together a list of common council responses to the climate crisis and how to reply. The list is designed for people who've taken our online action [link] and asked for an ambitious Climate Action Plan for their area, but feel free to adapt and edit it to match your needs.

Competing priorities

1. "We [the council] don't have enough money to do most of the actions in the Climate Action Plan. How can we make an impact?"

Answer: We appreciate that councils are struggling with budget cuts and limited resources. The Climate Action Plan will help to raise funds for the council to invest in the changes needed to restore nature and meet climate goals. For example, introducing a workplace parking levy or similar initiative can help raise money for sustainable transport. Similarly, you can use legal and planning mechanisms such as Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy to fund climate actions and nature restoration projects.

You can also read the guide written by Friends of the Earth and Ashden (a climate change charity) which highlights the best measures councils can take that will have the biggest impact in terms of carbon savings, affordability and co-benefits.

Friends of the Earth and groups in its Climate Action network are proactively working with local government associations to call for more powers and resources from central government for councils to take the necessary action on climate breakdown, nature restoration, and to build back better from COVID-19.

2. "Our priority is COVID-19 recovery, we don’t have time to work on climate action at the moment."

Answer: We understand that councils are focused on the COVID pandemic and developing local recovery plans. But the pandemic and the climate crisis don't need to be mutually exclusive.

Pandemic economic recovery plans could provide huge potential for both people and planet. For example, the Local Government Association calculates that nearly 700,000 direct jobs could be created in England’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy by 2030. These jobs are crucial for the 500,000 unemployed young people (16-24 years) who've been particularly impacted by the pandemic.

There are further measures the council can take that will also help overcome both crises and improve health, reduce carbon emissions and boost nature. These measures can also contribute to building resilient local economies while saving time and resources. Examples include:

  • Retrofitting homes. High standards of energy efficiency could help prevent 3,200 deaths a year related to cold damp homes.
  • Prioritising and creating natural green spaces. Green spaces like parks and woods don't just remove carbon from the atmosphere, they also benefit our wellbeing. Their importance highlighted by lockdown restrictions and the impact on communities deprived of green space, whose residents are twice as likely to be Black, Asian and minority ethnic people than white.

If they're not "in power"

3. "My party doesn’t lead the council. How can we make a difference?"

Answer: Council committee members can present council motions and questions in favour of climate action and push for commitments from the leading party.

Look for allies within the council, potentially with other parties, and secure their support by highlighting joint concerns, like the cost of damage to infrastructure from extreme weather. For example, the estimated cost to local authorities of repairing the damage following the 2015-16 floods is £73 million, excluding repairs to roads and bridges. And following floods in December 2019, Derbyshire County Council estimated that the cost of repairing damaged roads could be more than £20 million, higher than its annual road maintenance budget.

If you're open to finding allies outside the council, then working with local community groups is a clear way of demonstrating how much support there is for climate action. Find out if there’s a Climate Action group near you and contact them.

Finally, convince your fellow councillors to take action by showing what neighbouring councils are doing on climate and where they’re accessing support. You can find information on the Climate Action Plans of other councils on Climate Emergency UK.

4. "We don’t have influence over all of the areas in the Climate Action Plan."

Answer: There's always action that you can take in your area of influence. You can make a difference within your operations, whether it’s ensuring a rapid transition of the council’s own fleet to electric vehicles or ensuring your procurement policies cut carbon. All councils have varying influence through wider responsibilities too, for example as a housing provider, planning authority or waste authority.

Your voice also matters at other levels of government. For example, you could vocally oppose high-carbon developments, influence businesses in your area and encourage residents to continue or adopt climate-friendly behaviours.

And if you feel that your action is being hampered by inadequate national policy or lack of resourcing, you can call for more resources and regulatory and fundraising powers by signing up to the Blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level.

Frequent responses

5. "We already have a strong Climate Action Plan."

Answer: That’s great that your council has already put together a plan. Climate Emergency UK have a checklist for developing and reviewing plans to tackle climate breakdown, so check how your council’s Climate Action Plan measures up against the checklist.

You could also consult Friends of the Earth's climate data tool, which tells you how well your area is performing on key issues like transport and energy, and which sectors might need to be prioritised within the Climate Action Plan.

6. "I’m very interested in finding out what we [the council] can do. Can we meet to discuss this further?"

The best way to discuss local action with a councillor is by joining a group that's already working on the issue. If you don’t have a group nearby and would like to meet with your councillor as an individual, our network's lobbying guide should help you prepare.

7. "We have a strategy/ statement/ policy on climate already."

Answer: I'm not sure this counts as a Climate Action Plan? We define a Climate Action Plan as a document containing a set of concrete actions, with a clear timeline, budget and deadlines. This document should be published and easily accessible by the public. This is not the same as a climate strategy, which is a broader, more overarching document. The plan must be regularly updated, it should cover the current year and have been created since 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement.

Climate Action Plans should cover all areas where the council has powers and influence, from parks to housing. Therefore, a transportation plan or energy plan that mentions carbon emissions is not, in my/ our view, a Climate Action Plan. Take a look at our template Climate Action Plan for councils to get an idea of what your plan could look like.

8. "I don’t think climate change is an issue."

Answer: We're already experiencing the impacts of climate change in the form of more extreme weather, like the floods and heatwaves of summer 2021. Met office scientists expect more wetter and warmer weather as a result of the changing climate, but the Climate Change Committee says the UK isn't properly prepared for the impacts and must act fast to adapt. This includes action by local authorities.

Although climate may not be a priority for you, it's a huge concern in local communities. A recent survey by YouGov found that 75% of UK respondents are concerned about climate change. Therefore, it’s likely that climate will be a factor in how our community votes during the next election.

What's more, if you take action on climate it'll benefit other areas like economic growth and health. For example, insulating homes creates jobs for local people, improves health, and saves people money on their energy bills (freeing up income to be potentially spent locally). Improving cycling and walking infrastructure improves air quality and encourages an active lifestyle, both of which have health benefits.

What next?

Hopefully, these examples give you some idea of how to engage your local decision-makers on climate action.

There are already local campaigners and Climate Action groups across the country working to get strong Climate Action Plans for their communities. By taking our online action, you'll be putting more weight behind their campaigns and showing councillors the broad support there is for a local Climate Action Plan.

If you'd like to go one step further and you're interested in joining a group, visit our local action groups website and find groups in your area.