Thinking Big Locally


In the post-mortem that will follow the pandemic about what our government should have done differently, we have an opportunity to see things as they should be: to reconsider the fundamental role of government in facing such crises.

No doubt the slow response of government was foreshadowed by cuts to the NHS and public services. But let’s not waste our breath over old, partisan debates about national ownership or the size of the state. When facing a crisis that requires urgent action, the more acute question is how can we move faster and what should government enable?

Whitehall’s instinct is to look for grand solutions with big institutions and large corporations to deliver them. Planned spending on the “biggest road-building program since the Romans” illustrates our backwards perspective. Ditto HS2 over improving local rail services or attempting to expand Heathrow over legally binding reductions in carbon emissions.

What makes such big ideas look like ancient history is that we need to build something else entirely: community resilience. Public concern in the U.K. over climate breakdown is now at an all-time high. Over two-thirds of our local councils have declared a climate emergency. Everything the government does to make its stimulus package greener will address both the immediate economic and climate crises at once.

There is exciting talk about a Green New Deal: an ambitious plan to secure a safe climate and fairer society, by totally transforming our economy. For inspiration, it draws on the New Deal program created by President Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s that employed millions, oversaw a massive expansion of government-led initiatives and remade the U.S. industrial base. We need this kind of big thinking, but crucially we need it locally if we are going to build stronger, more resilient communities.

What does “thinking big locally” look like in the context of our economic recovery and climate safety? It looks like nearly 150 principal councils across the country that have declared their intention of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, twenty years ahead of the national target of 2050. These councils – in big cities and rural areas; in Scotland, Wales and England – are our frontrunners who are tackling the impacts of climate change and want to improve things faster. Collaborating with constituents and engaging with partners, they are working on Climate Action Plans for their entire local authority areas. This is a milestone in local government leadership that no other country has achieved, and their sense of purpose and commitment is something that should not be overlooked in planning for recovery. The impact of climate change is intensely place-based, and Whitehall can scale up its impact by scaling down its focus.

We know from history that as a society we can work together against the odds and win. Let’s see a stimulus package that builds back better by investing significantly in all of these existing local Climate Action Plans and in the people who are implementing them.

Originally published on LinkedIn on May 28th, 2020.

Photo credit to Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Recommended from Carbon Copy

  • Taking The Baton
    Taking The Baton

    Phew! So glad to have participated in a 24km stage of the climate relay from Ben Nevis to Big Ben,…

  • No Time To Waste
    No Time To Waste

    Britain’s biggest climate relay has had a tremendous start and it’s a joy to hear in our Carbon Copy Podcast…