activism politics

Interview: Council climate scorecards and how to use them

Last month Climate Emergency UK released their Council Climate Scorecards, which assessed every available council climate action plan in the UK. I spoke to Isaac Beevor, Campaigns and Policy Officer at Climate Emergency UK, about the exercise and how it can be used.

What are the Council Climate Scorecards?

The Council Climate Scorecards are an assessment of every local authority’s climate plan or strategy. They’ve been created using our own methodology, which is based off of our Climate Action Plan Checklist checklist (which was supported by CAT, FoE, Ashden and APSE) that researched council action plans and identified best practice.

Why are they necessary?

Going back a couple of years we saw council chambers packed, in 2018, 2019, with residents asking councils to make a climate emergency declaration. Since then part of the issue that local groups have is that they’re finding it difficult to ask their councils what to do next. We thought it was important to provide a benchmark of what a good action plan looks like, and see where climate plans don’t reach that benchmark. The Scorecards inform residents on what their councils are planning on doing, and also what they can ask their councils to do to improve.

It will help councils too, especially climate officers in newer posts, and for smaller councils who often only have a single person in a council who is doing as much as they can. By providing this data, this benchmark, officers around the country can really benefit and see how they can create stronger plans.

What sort of things do the scorecards look at and how were they compiled?

We have nine sections, 28 questions, and they go from governance, development and funding, to commitment and integration of climate action across the council, to whether the plan includes mitigation strategies and adaptation actions. Within those categories we’re asking things like: do they have a strategy on waste? Do they have adaptation actions for buildings, or for transport? Are the actions in the plan assigned to an officer or department?

To compile the scorecards, we collected all the climate action plans that were publicly available before the 20th September 2021. That included plans from 325 councils, and then we had over 100 volunteers who conducted the first mark of those climate action plans. Then we sent those marks to the councils for a right of reply. Even councils that didn’t have a plan got the spreadsheet so that they could see what questions we were asking.

The purpose of the right of reply was to allow councils to raise any points that they thought we got wrong, or flag anything we might have missed. Almost 50% of councils that had a plan responded to the right of reply. This was an important piece of engagement work, and demonstrated that a high percentage of councils wanted to engage. Then we did a scoring audit where a smaller team of volunteers and staff audited the plans, taking into account the first mark and the right of reply. We audited every council. The aim of the audit was to improve the quality of the mark and ensure consistency of scoring.

Who’s doing best?

If you look at our website you’ll see that we have starred top performers in each list and for each category. The top single tier councils were Manchester, Solihull and Edinburgh. For district councils it was Somerset West and Taunton, Staffordshire Moorlands and East Devon, and for counties it was Somerset.

We also awarded a performance star for any council that achieved full marks on a particular section. It’s really useful for people who are using the site to look out for those, because even if a council didn’t score well overall, they might be doing really well in one section, say co-benefits, or diversity and inclusion, or communications and engagement and you could learn from them.

What are the top performing councils doing that others aren’t?

One of the key things we pulled out was that councils that were doing really well were including adaptation actions within their climate action plans. If you look at the adaptation and mitigation section for single tier councils, the average score is 9 out of 18. We had nine questions of adaptation and nine on mitigation, so you can see the split there: councils are focusing on mitigation, which is great because that will help us to reduce emissions. But not as many councils are thinking about actions to adapt.

In terms of governance and funding, councils that have costed their plans, or that have included SMART targets, are doing better. Councils that have detailed who is leading on the plan, what committees are overseeing it, and who is responsible for actions – that’s something that the top performers made really clear.

We did get feedback from councils that said they had done some of this work, but it wasn’t in the public plan. But the point of our exercise was to assess what was publicly available. It’s great if councils are doing that behind the scenes, but residents wouldn’t know that those actions are being picked up, and it would be harder to hold their councils to account.

What can councils do that want to improve?

First, you’d be looking at top performers, the councils in your category, and see why their plans are so strong compared to yours. On the site we also have a lot of filters that people can use to find similar councils to themselves – whether that’s similar deprivation status, population, political control or urban/rural. You can look up councils similar to you and see why they are doing better.

For example, yesterday I was using the filters to pull out Wandsworth, Bournemouth and Hillingdon. Three similar councils in lots of ways, but with very different scores. That would be a useful exercise, for Bournemouth and Hillingdon to ask themselves why they were not doing as well as Wandsworth.

Anything that surprised you?

It was surprising to see that among district councils, some of the top performers were councils that had coalitions. Four of the top five scorers were coalitions, and it was interesting to see that with coalitions climate seemed to move to the top of the agenda. General political control was interesting, because it didn’t necessarily matter. Councils that were Conservative or Labour could be doing great, or not so great.

Something that was disappointing was that 84 councils didn’t have a climate action plan. We know that there have been about ten more plans released since we started our assessment, but that’s still around 70 councils that have no plan to reduce emissions.

What’s next for the scorecards/rankings?

This is a pilot project this year. We were confident in our checklist and that we could score climate action plans. But in future years we hope to assess climate action – what councils have actually done to reduce emissions, rather than what they are planning to do. Some councils that aren’t doing so well on their plans might be doing better in the actions that they’re taking. Or vice versa, councils with good scorecards might not be fulfilling those actions, so we want to be able to focus on what will really reduce emissions.

We’ll need to develop a new methodology for scoring actions, and what councils have done to reduce emissions. To help us to do that we’ve launched a new crowdfunder, hoping to raise £10k by the end of the month to help us move forward in that.

We are a really small organisation and we’ve done this first scorecard on a shoestring budget. We’re proud of what we’re done given our capacity, but we want to be able to build on it and move forward to assess actions. The money we raise will help us to research how councils are reporting their actions, and how we best assess emissions reductions. Then we’ll be able to mark and release climate action scorecards in future years.

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