Could councils implement the green policy pledges in Labour's 2019 Manifesto?
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition All-Britain steering committee recently published a briefing paper looking at how councils could use their existing powers to implement many of the policies promised in Labour's 2019 general election Manifesto, drafted under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. (See https://www.tusc.org.uk/17462/01-02-2021/new-tusc-report-could-councils-implement-labours-2019-pledges)
The following article examines this question in relation to the climate and environmental policy commitments in the Labour Manifesto 2019, which were presented under the heading, A Green Industrial Revolution.
It has been drafted by Chris Baugh, the former assistant general secretary of the PCS civil servants' union, who held responsibility for developing the union's policies for combating climate change. Chris was a founding member of the TUSC steering committee when our coalition was established in 2010.
Fighting for the Green Industrial Revolution
Labour's 2019 Manifesto contained a number of policies on climate and the environment with 'A Green Industrial Revolution' at the centre of its economic strategy.
It committed to reducing the majority of emissions required by 2030 with £400 billion to fund new off-shore and on-shore wind turbines, solar power, and the trialling of wave-tidal energy. A National Investment Bank would be established, with regional banks, to provide £250 billion in lending to business and green infrastructure projects.
The Manifesto made a commitment to upgrade 27 million homes to the highest energy-efficiency standards and address fuel poverty.
It promised the public ownership of water and the 'supply arms' of the Big Six energy companies through Regional Energy Agencies and a publically-owned national grid.
It also proposed an expansion of carbon capture/storage projects, expanding community energy with access to the national grid, and the creation of one million, skilled, unionised climate jobs.
As we know, it was to prevent the implementation of such an ambitious programme, including its climate and public works, that the establishment used all their powers to assassinate the character and undermine the policies of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Manifesto contains many policies for socialists, trade unionists and environmentalists to support. There are a number of areas where they potentially could be applied at a local level.
What councils can do
The question of councils taking decisive action on climate change is closely tied to the question of opposing and reversing years of cuts in council budgets.
However, there are a range of measures open to councils on environmental matters that can help promote the issue of climate change in limited but practical ways and build local support for campaigns to secure the public investment for the social housing, transport, community based and climate projects needed to support and revive working class communities.
Many of the council powers in relation to climate and the environment have been applied in a limited way and the extent of some of these powers are largely untested. This is a brief summary of these policy areas which offer the chance to develop support for local climate jobs plans.
Two-thirds of local councils (district, county, unitary and metropolitan) have declared a Climate Emergency. It is vital that Climate Emergency announcements are not just lip service but lead to real action.
Elected councillors, trade unions, environmental groups and campaigners' efforts will be fundamental to holding councils accountable through public pressure to translate paper targets into concrete action.
Although the Climate Change Act did not include a statutory duty for local authorities to set carbon reduction targets, again, public pressure will be needed for councils to set targets based on the carbon footprint not just of council run services but capturing total emissions for their area. This is the starting point for drawing up local Climate Emergency plans. But individual councils will need to link up to campaign for the funding needed for climate action.
Councils can ensure they buy green energy for their premises and ensure their pension funds disinvest from fossil fuels.
The chronic underfunding, legal market testing obligations and a de-regulated transport system are serious obstacles to extending a green, affordable and integrated system of local public transport.
But councils still have powers over emissions from buses and taxi licensing and road building schemes. They have responsibilities for road maintenance and for creating usable and safe cycle routes. There are early examples of councils creating electric charging points and reducing emissions through encouraging the use of electric vehicles, park and ride schemes, school buses and increasing pedestrianised areas.
Councils could use their borrowing powers to fund the development of tram networks, electric charging points and, of equal importance, funding a programme of energy efficiency through the street by street insulation of every home in their council area. With the advantage of reducing domestic energy use, reducing fuel bills and creating much needed jobs.
Councils will need to take the lead in monitoring and reducing air pollution and could work with Unite and Hazards UK who have produced important practical and campaign advice.
Not all local authority land is registered but will be by 2025. Despite the sale of council land in recent years, councils retain a high level of land ownership. This opens up the prospect of improving parks, nature reserves, sport facilities, local farmer and food markets, tree planting programmes and accessible public green spaces.
Councils have powers in enforcing environmental standards in public and private housing and buildings. The Green Building Council confirms that local authorities are not restricted in their ability to require energy efficiency standards above building regulations. These powers can be enforced in new builds and the social housing programmes for which TUSC stands.
The councillors we need
The fight against the continued privatising of local services and bringing services back under public council control is an important part of the TUSC election platform. Councils have powers in setting conditions for procurement and the regulation of contracts with suppliers which should cover good employment conditions, union recognition, service standards - and environmental and ethical practices.
TUSC councillors would work with trade unions to build support for a public campaign to oppose and reverse cuts in council budgets and draw up local Climate Emergency plans that create jobs and reduce emissions.
While many of these council powers will need to be tested in practice they will need to be accompanied by a mobilisation of public support for campaigns, alongside other councils wherever possible, to reverse the endless cuts in the living standards of working class families and secure the funding for social and climate projects as part of the socialist alternative offered by TUSC.