Cllr Nick Forbes writes about the role of local government in tackling climate change

Please note – this blogpost was originally published on 9th November 2021

Sitting in Newcastle, on a grey and rainy autumn day, concerns about climate change couldn’t be further from many people’s minds.

While the eyes of the globe, and half of its leaders, may be just 120 miles away in Glasgow, families here worry about the ongoing cost of living crisis, the still raging pandemic, and the world immediately outside their window.

After more than a decade of austerity it is understandable that for many the ties that bind us are fraying and the economy of hope is at a low.

But while that is a great challenge, it is also a great opportunity for a future green revolution, and one that councils must be at the forefront of grasping.

Time and again – particularly during the pandemic – we have shown both individually and collectively that given the resources we can deliver, at pace, the change our residents and communities need.

While Governments grandstand, it is us councillors and local authorities who are there, day to day, who know our people.  We can bring the right local partners together and we can build a consensus needed for change.

The shift towards a low carbon future has many co-benefits. They include improved air quality, more green public spaces, reduced fuel poverty, safer streets, healthier and more active lifestyles, and the development of a “smarter” city. It will also help improve fuel and resource security. We just need to ensure our residents can see the bigger picture – it is not going green for green’s sake!

Authorities like Newcastle already have the plans for how we can achieve what is necessary to decarbonise, pivot to a new greener economy, and take urgent, meaningful action to improve the lives of those we serve.

I know our Climate Change Task Force in Newcastle is not alone in identifying, on a local level, what can do to achieve the fastest reductions in carbon, over the shortest period of time, for the resources available.

However, central Government need to listen and take the shackles off, giving us the powers, the funding and the regulatory framework for greater collaboration and the creation of good, well paid jobs.

Of course, we’re going to need access to a lot of money for all of this and I think it would be far better for funding to be devolved to us at a local level, so we just get on and do what we know needs to be done.

It’s frustrating that at the moment funding is a bit like having a jigsaw where you have to go to a different shop to buy every bit before you can put it together.

There’s lots of different streams for different elements and while clearly, we can’t have 10 years’ worth of money now for all the projects that we need, in my city alone we’ve got something like 70 or 80 individual projects potentially ready to go, but which are being hamstrung by endless rounds of national competition, which are time consuming and inefficient.

Yet where we are seeing success, you can see the power of local government to lever funding – be it the around £30 million from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme for work on 38 public buildings, including Newcastle’s historic Theatre Royal, or millions secured for housing decarbonisation projects.

However, the money for net zero can’t all come from the public purse.

We’re working hard to attract more low carbon businesses into our area through Invest Newcastle, helping the existing ones to grow, and we have delivered hundreds of energy audits for SMEs, so that they can leverage their own private sector match funding to decarbonise.

But on a much larger scale we’re going to have to find new ways of drawing in private finance and invent new financial instruments to be able to handle that kind of magnitude of financial risk.

Part of that could be where combined authorities can really come into their own, by borrowing at scale to fund investments that their constituent councils might find risky individually.

Whatever happens, local authorities have to be the key to delivering on our net zero ambitions – The message to Government is clear: Give us the tools, the powers and the funding and we’ll get you there.

Please note – this blog was written when Nick Forbes was Leader of Newcastle City Council between 2011-2022.