Communities, Councils and a Low Carbon Future, by Alexis Rowell came out at the same time as another Transition Books title on buildings. I didn’t want to read both together and this one sounded like the less interesting of the two, so it’s been languishing on the shelf. Predictably, I now wish I’d got to it earlier.
Like the other Transition titles, this is a big colourful square book exploring a relevant topic for Transition initiatives. After similar titles on food, money and housing (is someone working on transport yet?) this one addresses the tricky topic of local authorities. Without the council on board, there’s little chance of making a serious difference to your town, but working with them can be a mixed experience. Sometimes it’s encouraging and positive, but it’s just as likely to be slow and frustrating.
Rowell speaks from personal experience, both as a councillor and a local campaigner. He brings an insider perspective and paints a useful map of the landscape of your typical council. He has plenty of tips about how they really work, where the power lies, what councillors and council officers can and can’t do, and which levers to press to get attention.
If you want to engage with the local authorities, you need to know what makes them tick, the kind of approach that they can respond to and the kind of things to avoid. Just reading the opening chapter or two here is enough to avoid a whole pile of common mistakes and misunderstandings and would be useful to anyone who wants to make a difference in their local area. Later chapters deal with specific issues such as energy efficiency, procurement, planning and so on. These may not all be relevant to everyone, but the book would make a good reference when issues come up that require you deal with a particular department.
One nice thing about the book is that it shows just how much change one person can create when they know how to go about it. It doesn’t need a big team or lots of money. Many of the case studies here, and there are many, involved just one patient and ecologically minded councillor.
It also demonstrates the possibilities for action on climate change at the local level. Rowell is convinced that councils can move much faster and be much more ambitious than the national government. “If the government will not or cannot or does not lead the way on the transition to a low-carbon future,” says Rowell, “then communities and councils can!”
A word of warning – the government has changed since this was published, which means there will have been changes in the meantime. There’s a great section on national indicators for councils for example, but those have been swept away since the book came out.
Still, I learned plenty. And that’s why I wish I’d read this two years ago – I might have got a whole lot more done.