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Lib Dem councils doing what's right for their local community and the planet rather than following central government diktat

July 27, 2009 1:42 AM

Over the last three years it has been my privilege as Camden Eco Champion to have a remit to scour this land for best practice on the environmental agenda. Two things have struck me forcibly: the best practice out there is mostly being done by Lib Dem councils and none of the leaders on this agenda are doing what central government is telling them to do.

York pioneered smart meters in libraries which the Energy Savings Trust is now rolling out across the country. Woking, Camden and Lambeth all created low carbon exemplars by retrofitting Victorian houses with energy efficiency measures. Camden, Sheffield and Kirklees all offer free cavity wall and roof insulation for both social and private housing because it's the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions across their boroughs. Camden, Kirklees and Woking are looking to pilot energy efficiency loans for residents in solid wall homes.

Birmingham and Woking are well advanced in terms of installing new era Combined Heat and Power (CHP) district heating systems which aim to connect as many businesses and institutions in the surrounding area as possible. Kirklees proved that councils could lend money to residents for solar water and recoup it on the sale of the property.

Following an energy audit of its recycling Camden rejected the tonnage targets set by the government which favour commingled or commangled recycling and went back to separation at source. Cambridge and its neighbours councils share an excellent reuse website system. Many Lib Dem councils are now looking at anaerobic digestion as a way of turning food waste into electricity. Camden is running two municipal vehicles on biomethane made out of food waste which means no noxious emissions and 80% less carbon emitted than diesel.

Milton Keynes invented the local carbon offset fund - a planning contribution for developers unable to reach zero carbon through energy efficiency and renewable. Eastleigh added a voluntary component to persuade those businesses offsetting into dubious schemes on the other side of the planet to invest instead in their local community. Camden requires every new building that comes to planning committee to put in a green roof, rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, CHP or links to CHP, 20% on site renewables and some form of Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUDS).

Sutton is seeking to incorporate One Planet principles into everything it does including procurement. Somerset passed a Transition Town motion which said all the council's budgets should be revised in line with the principles of Transition, a community attempt to address climate change and peak oil (the end of cheap oil). Kirklees has brought in a system of carbon accounting alongside its financial budgets. Camden piloted the Carbon Disclosure Project's public sector programme which seeks to encourage suppliers to disclose their carbon emissions and their emissions reduction strategy.

Islington has more car club spaces per resident than any other council. Camden pioneered the concept of car-free housing. Richmond brought in emissions-based parking permits. Sutton has won plaudits for its sustainable transport policies.

Camden is mapping all potential food growing sites across the borough using satellite imagery and is working on a sustainable food policy for the borough with Sustain and the PCT. Islington is spending a small fortune on actually creating food growing sites.

Many councils are looking at using the Sustainable Communities Act 2009 to try to unlock blockages at central government level. There are also the wellbeing powers in the Local Government Act 2000 and the decentralisation powers buried deep in the Local Government and Public Involvement Health Act 2007, which describe the duty of upper tier authorities to divest budget and resources and assets to lower tier authorities including parishes and community groups if a case can be made that decentralised assets can be managed better.

I just can't stress enough that the leaders on this agenda are not simply doing what the government is telling them to do - they are doing what they think is right for their local area and for the planet. Sometimes that means taking a risk. Sometimes it means spending money that local government increasingly hasn't got. But what choice do we have? If central government won't do what needs to be done on climate change and peak oil, then local communities and councils will have to get on with it. And I would argue that we're better placed to do it. So let's get on with it.

Cllr Alexis Rowell, Chair, Camden Council all-party Sustainability Task Force. (Alexis is currently writing a book provisionally entitled "Communities, councils and climate change - what we can do if central government won't!"