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Net Zero: Aspiration to Delivery in Wiltshire

net zero
Net zero

Cllr Richard Clewer

Wiltshire Council’s Leader, Co-President of the UK100, and Chair of the Countryside Climate Network. 

In this first of two articles detailing council efforts to reach Net Zero, Richard Clewer, Leader of Wiltshire Council, explains how Wiltshire has become one of the top performing councils according to Climate Emergency UK, which ranks councils’ efforts on their Climate Scorecards.

As a council leader, the challenges of turning aspiration on climate change into delivery are huge. On one side, you face those demanding action now – regardless of national legislation – and on the other, sceptics distrusting every move. Depending on whether you are a metropolitan, urban, or rural authority, you will face different challenges around the ability to reduce car use in favour of public transport or the need to accept that rural areas require cars. All councils face significant financial pressures and this makes maintaining a small climate change team, which is critical for applying for grants and accessing government funding, a challenge.

In Wiltshire, we started by developing a simple strategy for tackling climate change, referring, in particular, to UK100’s excellent Power Shift report, analysing the actual legal powers councils have to tackle carbon reduction (this has just been updated in the Powers in Place report). We have carefully expanded this into a full Climate Change Strategy but have been very careful to avoid making pledges we can’t deliver on. We have also ensured that this is linked to Wiltshire’s Natural Environment Plan, so work on climate change and biodiversity are seen as different parts of the same opportunity.

Wiltshire Council’s Business Plan sets out our mission, how we will measure our achievements, and the key things that guide our work. One of the plan’s four missions is ‘We lead the way in how councils and counties mitigate the climate challenges ahead’. Another key part is ‘We want Wiltshire to be a place where we (the county) take responsibility for the environment’ and ‘We are on the path to carbon neutral (Net Zero). This means the council’s, and county’s, climate ambitions run through everything the council does and culturally, our collective aims are embedded in the organisation’s consciousness.  

Decarbonising the Council

There are two main strands to our work. Firstly, leading the way by decarbonising the council and secondly, helping Wiltshire more widely to decarbonise.

In terms of decarbonising the Council, almost all of our programs also save us money and are self-funding. We have not only cut council emissions to 5,275 tCO2e in 2021/22, a 75 per cent reduction since 2015, but have also saved millions of pounds a year in energy bills by doing so. We have used SALIX Public Sector Decarbonisation funding to tackle areas where a business plan requires extra funding, for example, the new air source heating system at our Five Rivers Sports Centre. 

We consider decarbonisation across all areas of Wiltshire Council’s operations. We have a retrofit scheme, which is improving all our council housing to an EPC B (significantly more ambitious than the national target of EPC C). All new council housing is being built to a zero-carbon standard using modular construction. Local authorities have significant areas under our control that we can use to kick-start retrofit industries and to make early headway in reducing carbon emissions. 

In all of this, we are also sense checking with independent experts as to whether our plans are actually delivering. An independent report from consultants Anthesis, recently found we’re in a very strong position to meet our carbon neutral commitment for the Council by 2030.  

The Wider Economy

Decarbonising the council, however, is only the start. The harder part of the work is in encouraging and helping businesses and residents in Wiltshire to also reduce emissions. The Council is a critical player here as well. Our Public Service Board has seen the NHS, military, fire service, and police using our expertise to start their own decarbonisation programs. We regularly report back on this to the Board and are all now learning from each other.

Things get more complicated when dealing with our residents. The tension between the aspirations of councils and the reality of government policy becomes more of an issue here. This is where being honest about what we can achieve, and where we are reliant on working with others, is essential. 

National policy is sadly lacking in coherence. For example, explaining to residents why Wiltshire Council can build zero-carbon homes now, whilst housing developers are still building houses that will need expensive retrofit to become zero-carbon in a few years, is tricky and I would make a plea for coherent long term national policies to give councils the framework to deliver.

Last year, Wiltshire Council received an excellent rating of 81 per cent in Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Plan Scorecards (a wholly independent assessment of councils across the country), ranking it as the top-scoring rural unitary authority. We were particularly pleased to score maximum points in 2022 for the community, engagement and communications; ecological emergency; and co-benefits criteria.

The Wider Public

Public engagement is particularly important when dealing with an issue as complex as climate change. We ran a social media campaign #WiltsCanDoThis encouraging people to take individual action. It was a huge success, with 76 posts seen 1.1m times. We also need to talk to those who don’t have online access by putting information in libraries, in leisure centres, and on parish notice boards. We need to bring people with us and that means lots of varied communication.

We’ve also set up a Wiltshire Climate and Environment Forum, made up of residents from across the county. They give honest feedback and provide a sounding board for our work.  

The targets we’ve set cannot be achieved solely by one dedicated council team. The work is of such a scale that it demands the whole organisation participates. This was recognised by our recent Local Government Association Peer Challenge, which stated, “The council’s work to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change is impressive, with many activities that would be considered exceptional in other organisations, being seen very much as the ‘day job’.”

Councils need to lead the way in tackling climate change and cutting emissions, but we can only do that if we are honest with our residents about what we can and can’t do. We must collectively understand the powers we have to deliver change and adapt our plans to local circumstances to bring our residents, old or young, metropolitan or rural, with us.

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