COVID-19, the environment and local authorities

Tiffany Cloynes and Clare Hardy from law firm Geldards LLP explore what local authorities can do to encourage communities to still think consciously about the environment during COVID-19. 

Local authorities and other public bodies have to balance a range of important issues to ensure that they serve their communities effectively and comply with all their legal obligations.

One factor for local authorities to consider is the impact that their decisions have on the environment.

For example, in Wales, public bodies have duties under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which require them to carry out sustainable development and to pursue objectives which contribute to the well-being of future generations when they carry out their functions.

Other legislation places duties on local authorities in England and Wales in particular areas of their activities.

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic and the action that has been taken to address it has forced local authorities to rethink the ways that they deliver certain functions.

This could have an impact on their effectiveness in addressing environmental issues.

In some cases, legal obligations could be reduced or suspended. For example, usually, a local authority in England has a duty under the Education Act 1996 to prepare for each academic year a sustainable modes of travel strategy, which promotes the use of sustainable modes of travel to meet the school travel needs of its area.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 gives the Secretary of State in England and the Welsh Ministers in Wales power to make provision to disapply or modify various statutory requirements.

This allows the Secretary of State to provide for a local authority to satisfy its duties relating to sustainable travel to school by using reasonable endeavours to do so.

In recent years, recognition of the potential impact of travel on the environment has led to a lot of encouragement for people to use public transport and attention to maintaining and improving facilities for public transport.

However, the need for social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus means that the capacity of public transport has been reduced and that people are being discouraged from using it.

Approaches and policies which have aimed to reduce journeys by cars carrying one person may no longer be appropriate, as they may be the only means of making a journey if it is not practical to walk or cycle.

At the time of complete lockdown, when there was limited activity and movement, the potential tension between the need to protect public safety and the need to protect the environment might not have been so obvious.

However, as we adjust to living in the ‘new normal’, in which we continue to ensure safety but also try to maintain a stable economy, it will be important to strike an appropriate balance.

Most people will have recognised the need for local authorities to act quickly to address the crisis caused by the coronavirus and that they might need to take a different approach to the way that they deliver their services.

However, if it appears that this will lead to long-term changes in the way that local authorities operate and that this might have a negative impact on the environment, public support might start to wane and the potential risk of challenge to local authority decisions might increase.

Local authorities could take proactive steps to help them achieve this difficult balancing act, including:

• Ensuring they have good sources of information and evidence about public health and safety issues and about environmental issues. All local authority decisions must take account of all relevant information and it is essential that decision-makers have a comprehensive supply of information on which to base their decisions.

• Reviewing policies and strategies to identify and address any which may have been affected by action necessary because of the impact of the coronavirus. Local authorities will need to amend policies and strategies if any necessary amendments are identified and to keep them under review.

• Ensuring their decision making is effective. As well as taking account of all relevant information and disregarding irrelevant information, local authorities will need to make decisions for proper purposes, observe procedural requirements, not act in bad faith and not take a decision that no reasonable local authority could take.

• Communicating effectively with their communities and with others who may be affected by their decisions. They must comply with any obligations for consultation and must ensure that any consultation that they carry out is effective. They should also be proactive in informing people about their decisions and the reasons for these where possible but they must also ensure that confidential information is kept confidential.

There has been a lot of support for public bodies during the coronavirus pandemic, as people have appreciated the efforts that have been made to keep public services going at a time of crisis. People have also accepted that public authorities have needed to make difficult decisions. It is to be hoped that this positive attitude towards local authorities will continue as time goes on but local authorities could undermine this if they provide inadequate or confusing information about their decisions.

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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