Speaking to Environment Journal, Simon Neilson, who took up the role last month after stepping up from the post of vice president, said ‘local responses’ to big national issues will not work ‘in our view’.
Mr Neilson is currently the executive director, economy and environment for Walsall Council, and has also been part of ADEPT’s leadership team since 2014.
What do you see as the key challenges for local authorities around transport at the minute?
The big transport issue for us is the disparity between local roads funding and the Highways England strategic road network. Where there is forward certainty worth billions of pounds in funding for Highways England, local authorities are still in a poor position, with the effect of austerity meaning our roads are in a really in a state of terrible disrepair in some places. We estimate the backlog to be somewhere around £12bn just to get us up to normal standards. We appreciate the important role the strategic road network plays, of course, but you have to pay attention to the local roads, where journeys start and end.
[Transport minister] Jesse Norman spoke at the LGA conference last week in quite good terms about his approach, which will be to work with local government to make sure roads are in a fit state of repair, but until we see the money flowing through, we are reserving judgement.
And what are the key challenges for issues around the environment?
Air quality sits across transport and environment as a key feature of our lives. We put in a very strong response into the air quality consultation about a month ago. You can’t push this problem down to local areas to solve. This needs a national approach to say ‘we will grasp this nettle’. It’s a real shame on our country that because we can’t see pollution. We are allowing people to live and work and conditions, where if you could see it, you would make a judgement call about going outside some days in a lot of places. Having local responses to a lot of big, national issues just won’t work in our view. What we’re saying is ‘get off the fence government’ and put some implemented plans in place, such as clean air zones with charging, which we’ve seen from the London congestion charge, will work and amend people’s behaviour.
Following comments last week in parliament last week that the clean growth plan will not see the light of day until in the autumn, how important is it that the government find time for these issues?
I think where we need to be working with government departments is saying ‘what are the ways in which you can make these things happen without the need for primary legislation?’ There is a real risk that there will be procrastination on issues like air quality. The need is urgent and it’s now. I think the only way it has raised in prominence in government is because ClientEarth has taken them on. The draft plan [published in May] has been widely condemned as a statement of statement. It’s not a plan to address the problem.
Any other key environment issues facing local authorities at the moment?
Waste management is a day-to-day, bread and butter issue for all of us. It dominates a lot of our time, but one of the key uncertainties we have is what will be the effect of Brexit be on our waste policy. We want to recycle more. We want to ensure there is a closed loop of produce being reused in the future. But the volatility of the [recycling] market means you can make a decision one month, and the next month it’s a bad decision because of prices for different parts of the waste stream are so volatile. It’s difficult to predict what the best course of action will be. Aiming to achieve 50% recycling for all household waste is a great aim, but with financial constraints and the different make-up of waste around the country, it’s very difficult to achieve that as a whole country.
Does the devolution agenda and the emergence of combined authorities offer an opportunity for local authorities to work together on these issues?
The government is looking for solutions right now, which are tactical, easy to deliver and don’t take a lot of time in the Commons to get through. They will naturally look to those places that have the governance in place, which means places are working together. Those [areas] with mayors mean will get the attention of government better than they would have done a year ago. The government can have one conversation with a small group of people or a figurehead mayor that ‘says what can we do in your place to improve growth and how can we get national productivity up, how can we deal with problems like air quality, environmental growth?’.
I think devolution will be less of a philosophical policy thrust in the next couple of years and will be more tactical. I think those places will naturally put themselves at the front of the queue. Speaking from a national perspective, it might work for us in the West Midlands, but it will leaves vast swathes of the country behind in that discussion, because they can’t offer that kind of governance. It’s very difficult in a two tier area, when you don’t have that single democratic voice of a mayor. Who do government ministers talk to? I think government and ADEPT need to provide solutions for everywhere, appropriate to the places they represent.