New challenges for scrutiny

Action on climate change is urgent, and the stakes are high – but the size and scale of the task can make local action feel like a Herculean challenge.

How can ‘act local’ have real impact, how can the steps taken at this level lead to significant and sustained outcomes, and how can progress be aggregated across the county? 

The challenge of climate change has been thrown into sharper relief by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. At first glance, it may seem that the consequences of lockdown have advanced short-term gains against the negative effects of climate change, but in the medium and long term, the position is more uncertain.

What’s clear is that both the pandemic and the continuing threat of climate change have demonstrated the need for places and communities to become more resilient. 

There is a growing understanding that a holistic local response is necessary, and that this recent shock to the system could present an opportunity to radically shift practices and behaviours.

So what steps could local scrutineers (councillors sitting on scrutiny committees and the officers who support them) take to ensure that the learning and ‘positives’ from the pandemic correlate with climate challenges ahead? How effectively will councils revise their climate action plans to accommodate the new thinking that has emerged?

Almost 70 per cent of principal councils have answered the call to action by declaring a climate emergency and, in the wake of the pandemic, many are actively planning a green recovery. 

But there is some uncertainty about what such declarations actually commit councils to in practice, and how plans will be funded considering the post-COVID financial situation for local government. Councils that have made these bold commitments now need to show how they will prioritise and embed climate action in all policy areas. 

This is where scrutiny has a vital role to play. The nature of climate change, as a critical global problem, is a tough one for scrutiny to tackle, but the scrutiny function can provide a cross-party forum to develop evidence-based recommendations, support improvement and provide public assurance.

Scrutiny has a critical role to play in testing assumptions in the development of climate action plans, particularly in light of the pandemic. Scrutiny can ask how well the council understands the need to take action locally, and how it will establish an accurate overview of the risks and opportunities in the local area.

For an effective response, there must be visible council leadership and ownership to drive strategy forwards and maintain accountability. Scrutiny can secure wider political buy-in for long-term action as well as holding decision-makers to account.

Crucially, scrutiny can also serve as the critical friend by challenging how climate change mitigation and adaptation is being embedded into the activity of each council department. It can explore how climate implications are assessed, while ensuring there is a system for evaluating progress and scheduling regular updates.

Among the most important roles scrutiny will play in climate action is in channelling residents’ views and supporting the council in engaging with local partners – to better understand needs and align priorities for environmentally and socially sustainable transformation.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny and the LGA have recently published ’10 questions to ask if you are scrutinising climate change’ and are hosting a virtual event on the subject on 18 September. For more information about the report and the event, please visit www.local.gov.uk/centre-public-scrutiny-10-questions-scrutinise-climate-action

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