How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Affecting Councils' Plans To Tackle The Climate Emergency

Covid-19 has changed everything – so what has it done to targets to slash emissions?
Spring in Troutbeck Valley with the Kentmere Fells beyond, in the scenic Lake District
Spring in Troutbeck Valley with the Kentmere Fells beyond, in the scenic Lake District
Tonywestphoto via Getty Images

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Delayed plans and stretched budgets triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic could make it more challenging for councils to meet their climate change targets, local authorities have warned.

During the summer statement on Wednesday, chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to unveil a £3bn green package to help cut emissions, including £2bn in grants for the public to insulate their homes.

The cash has been marked as an attempt by the government to “build back greener” in the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak – and to meet its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

But while local authorities have welcomed the plans, with hospitals, schools and other local buildings also expected to receive £1bn to improve insulation and green heating technology, they have also warned the Covid-19 pandemic could make it more difficult for them to meet their own climate change targets.

In July 2019, Liverpool City Council declared a climate change emergency, setting a target for the city to be net carbon zero by 2030.

It was already a “tall ask”, said councillor Laura Robertson-Collins, who is leading the council’s efforts to tackle climate change. “We had a budget that was cut by around 60% between 2010 and 2020,” she said.

“Post-health emergency, there has obviously been a massive economic impact on the city and on the council. The council budget will probably have to be reset in a few weeks.”

Across England, councils are facing huge holes in their annual budgets after shouldering the costs of the coronavirus crisis.

While the government has given local authorities £3.2bn in emergency funding, the Local Government Association has warned councils could actually need almost twice that.

View of Liverpool
View of Liverpool
benkrut via Getty Images

Robertson-Collins said: “We’re very much hoping the government will do what they said they would do, which is pay us whatever it took, because everything went on hold.”

However, despite the financial challenges facing Liverpool City Council, it has not changed its fundamental climate objective to be carbon neutral in 10 years, with plans to build its into a number of projects.

Robertson-Collins insists that the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown presents an “opportunity, as well as a threat”.

“It has changed people’s views in some ways about things like driving and clean air and their local green spaces,” she said. “So lets absolutely grab that new consciousness.

“The government needs to do a great deal more and very quickly to help councils. But let’s build on what has been a massive problem and not just build back better, but grow back greener.”

In recent weeks, the council has revealed plans and funding for seven new pop-up cycle lanes across the city in response to the impact of Covid-19 on the public’s travel plans.

Like Liverpool, Sheffield City Council has adopted plans to become net zero by 2030.

Apart from delays to a citizen’s assembly on climate change, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t changed a lot of what the city intends to do tackle the climate crisis, said Mark Jones, the council’s environment lead.

“We are trying to push on ahead, irrespective of Covid and everything else, because climate change hasn’t gone away, despite the drop in emissions we have had because of lockdown,” he said.

But he is “deeply unsure and worried” about Boris Johnson’s plans to invigorate the economy post-pandemic with radical reforms to the planning system.

Boris Johnson at a building site in Dudley on June 30
Boris Johnson at a building site in Dudley on June 30
POOL New / Reuters

Under new regulations, developers won’t need planning permission to turn buildings and land in town centres into housing – a move the government said will make it “easier to build better homes where people want to live”.

But Jones said it seemed like the PM “wants to tear up the book and give a free for all to developers”.

“One of the biggest levers I have as a local councillor other than transport policy is planning policy – where we build those new properties, whether those properties are within an active transport radius of workplaces,” he said.

“So unless the government comes to its senses on this ludicrous approach, we’re going to really really struggle to achieve what we want via the planning system and the transport system.”

It’s a concern shared by Robertson-Collins, who called on the government to give local authorities “effective powers”.

“They were talking the other day about undermining planning law even further – we need really really stringent planning laws now so that local authorities can make sure anything that is built is up to the absolute highest environmental standards.”

In Birmingham, a number of plans to make the city carbon neutral in the next decade have been delayed by coronavirus – including the city’s clean air zone.

A project to charge high-polluting vehicles for entering the city centre will not come into force until 2021 after Birmingham City Council asked the government to delay the scheme so businesses could focus on getting through the health emergency, rather than upgrading their vehicles.

Putting the full climate change plan to council for endorsement has been pushed back too as people adjust to home working, said Maria Dunn, the council’s head of development policy.

But Dunn sees “challenges and opportunities” ahead of the local authority created by Covid-19.

“We have seen people move to very different ways of working and seen reduced traffic on the roads. We have got an opportunity to influence that and the Birmingham transport plan was being prepared and it was due to be adopted this year.

“It’s still due to be adopted this year, but what we have now is the Birmingham emergency transport plan, which is a more immediate response and is picking up on those opportunities to encourage walking and cycling and making sure public transport infrastructure continues to be in place.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK is leading the world in tackling climate change as the first major economy to sign a commitment to net-zero emissions into law.

“We’re giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic as part of a £27 billion package for local communities and businesses to tackle the pressures they have told us they’re facing.

“Later today, the chancellor is expected to announce details of a £3 billion investment in making the economy greener, including a transformative £1 billion programme to make public buildings more energy efficient.”


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