11 April 2011

Can councils do sustainability in times of austerity?

It’s great to see another book out there which looks at the myriad ways that local government can take action on the sustainability agenda. But what’s particularly good about this one - “Sustainability in austerity” by Philip Monaghan – is that it addresses the fundamental question which is on the lips of most in local government: can you spend money on sustainability in a time of draconian public sector budget cuts?

I’m glad to see that Philip’s answer is, like mine, an unambiguous and hearty “yes”. His book is packed with examples from around the world of local government policies that have had an impact on carbon emissions or sustainability more generally, but which have been cost neutral in the short or medium term.

It’s the perfect companion book to my “Communities, councils and carbon – what we can do if governments won’t” which looks at the problems, and the solutions, from the point of view of community groups and elected councillors. A large chunk of my book is devoted to helping community groups to understand local government, which it took me several years to do when I was elected in 2006. “Sustainability in austerity” is written for the council officer or manager, which is perhaps unsurprising since Philip is Head of Environmental Sustainability at Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council in Merseyside.

One of my favourite examples, which is in both books, is from Flanders in Belgium where the cost of waste and recycling collection has been removed from the municipal taxes and put into the price of special bar coded bin bags. Residents buy the bags from local shops. Bags for waste cost the most; bags for the most valuable recycling cost the least. Your waste and recycling will not be collected unless it is in one of these special bar coded bags.

The ‘Belgian Bag Method’ neatly gets round the biggest problem with Pay-As-You-Throw in cities – the difficulty of associating a household with a particular bin. In theory it’s the perfect solution because it should encourage people to produce less waste and to think more carefully about what can be recycled. I tried to get DEFRA to let us test the concept but sadly they had other ideas when they introduced some Pay-As-You-Throw pilots in 2008. Shame that no council in the UK wanted to test those DEFRA ideas!

I’m not entirely convinced by Philip’s line that “dealing with sustainability is like going to the dentist – we don’t want to do it but it makes us feel good afterwards.” I’m more of the view that you have to change the values of the dental patient, to continue Philip’s analogy, such that the trip to the dentist becomes intrinsically more attractive, and therefore less like a trip to the dentist! That, I think, is what the Transition Town movement tries to do – reshape the journey as something positive and transform the identity of those embarking on the journey.

The Transition Belsize draught busters in the London Borough of Camden provide an excellent example of the potential there is to be unleashed in the community. In late 2009 Transition Belsize began offering free draught busting workshops that were practical, hands hands-on events in local homes using good good-quality window and door draught-exclusion products. I went to one of these and was blown away by how useful and friendly it was – 15 people learning new skills and working together happily on a local solution to a global problem. The net result was reduced energy bills at almost no cost and a neighbour-to-neighbour discussion about the need for behaviour change (rather than council to resident).

At the same time, Camden Council had won a bid to make Belsize Park and the surrounding area a Home Energy Efficiency Programme (HEEP) pilot for the whole of London. That meant up to 1,000 households each receiving ten energy and water efficiency measures and benefitting from an hour of energy energy-efficiency advice. The aim of the funder, the London Development Agency, was to test the concept for the whole of London. One – the draught-busting workshops - was a bottom-up attempt by residents to help themselves and enhance their community in the process. The other – the HEEP pilot - was a top-down council initiative to install a range of measures, understand what other help could be offered and to try to drive behaviour change. The former worked well; the latter didn’t work so well.

In mid-2010 the council tried a different approach: they commissioned Transition Belsize to deliver draught busting workshops. The council bought the draught-busting materials, paid a small fee to the workshop leaders, publicised the workshops and quality checked the outcomes, but the community delivered the solution. It went so well that earlier this year Transition Belsize were given a contract to draught bust all of Camden’s schools! If the Big Society meant anything, and I’m far from convinced it does, then this would be it!

Philip touches in passing on the concept of 'peak oil' and the chaos that its consequences are likely to unleash in the industrialised world. Bristol Council commissioned an excellent Bristol Peak Oil Report which illustrates this perfectly. I think 'peak oil' is an absolutely indispensable tool for explaining why we need to effect dramatic change. It also tends to work even for those who continue to be sceptical manmade climate change, which, from my experience, is about a third of the local councillors in the UK!

Alexis Rowell

You can get hold of "Sustainability in austerity" by Philip Monaghan from Green Leaf Publishing here.