Action councils can take after declaring a climate emergency

Climate change has become a major issue for local authorities to consider. Tiffany Cloynes, partner at Geldards, and Adam Simpson, senior lawyer at Warrington Borough Council, outline some examples of good practice.

Many local authorities have made declarations of a climate change emergency and resolved to take action to address this. Those that haven’t are likely to find themselves under pressure to do so, either from local activists or national campaigns.

ClientEarth threatened legal action against local authorities if they did not set evidence-based carbon reduction targets and give these prominence in their planning policies.

When deciding whether to make a declaration, local authority members must act reasonably. In considering all matters relevant to the decision, they will need to consider what action they might need to take as a result of making a declaration.  If a local authority declares a climate change emergency, the communities that it serves will expect the local authority to have a strategy and plan of action to address the emergency and to review and monitor progress.

A key consideration for local authorities when declaring a climate emergency is the contents of the actual declaration.  Whilst it may be desirable to make the whole borough carbon neutral by a specified date, in reality how would a local authority ever be able to achieve making the entire borough carbon neutral?

The wording of such a declaration is key and the local authority needs to carefully ensure that a declaration is not just achievable but also realistic and manageable.

A good example being the declaration by Manchester City Council, who have a part share in Manchester Airport, which specifically excludes airport emissions from the declaration.

A local authority will need to take account of its declaration when it takes other decisions but will need to be careful to ensure its approach to tackling climate change does not fetter its discretion and prevent it from taking other decisions on the merits of each particular decision.

It will have a delicate balancing act to achieve in observing good governance and ensuring all decisions are lawful and preventing its declaration of a climate change emergency from becoming meaningless.

Whilst there has not been a formal challenge in respect of a local authority acting contrary to, or not taking into account its declaration when making decisions, failure to properly consider its declaration in decision-making processes could lead to action being taken.

The most obvious route would appear to be a judicial review on the grounds of irrationality, in that once a local authority makes a declaration, failure to consider that declaration when exercising its powers would clearly be classed as not taking relevant matters into account.

Warrington Borough Council declared a climate change emergency in June 2019.  The council has had a climate change strategy in place since 2013 and has a number of initiatives in place to protect the environment, including:

  • Purchase of two solar farms in Hull and York with the intention of meeting the Council’s energy needs;
  • Investment in Together Energy, an energy firm with aspiration to provide 100% green energy to its customers;
  • Bond investment along with a number of other local authorities to help finance a large scale solar farm;
  • Solar panel installation on hundreds of ex-council houses;
  • Supported the set up for two local community benefit societies (CBS) dedicated to supporting the local and wider community to share in the ownership of renewable and low carbon energy projects as well as raising awareness of renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainability;
  • Set up the Public Sector Social Impact Fund, a fund dedicated to enabling local authorities to participate in a range of investments that have as their aim a positive social impact in the UK, such as renewable energy schemes;
  • Currently setting up a community energy fund, the aim of which is to provide support to residents who are in fuel poverty or deprivation and to benefit from renewable energy and energy efficiency measures through the provision of advice, installation of technology and energy-saving measures.
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