Photo credit: @leechalmers

As residents, we often demand that our councils take action on climate change and many other issues. But what powers do our town, district and county councils each actually have – and who’s responsible for what? Susan Murray takes a look.

“So what is the council doing about it?”

How many times have you heard that refrain when another local problem raises its ugly head? When we come to unpack it, though, we realise that this simple question requires answering several more questions:

  • Which council are we referring to?
  • What do we actually want to be done?
  • Is the council able to take action?
  • What are the obstacles to action?

‘Which council’ is particularly confusing for many residents of Lewes because three different layers of local government – town, district and county – each have their headquarters here. The town council is the most physically obvious with its imposing red-brick town hall right on the High Street and so this is often the first place people go only to be redirected to the less visible offices of the district and county councils at Southover House and County Hall respectively. To actually know which council we need to approach (supposing that we do know where to find each one) we need to know what powers and responsibilities each council has.*

What Lewes Town Council can do
The Town Council deals with allotments and some green spaces. It also runs the All Saints Centre on Friars Walk, Malling Community Centre and the Town Hall itself, providing reasonably-priced facilities for all kinds of local activities.

It also owns Pells Pool and the Priory ruins, but has agreements for local organisations to run them. It is one of the 300 largest parish councils in England and through its powers can make useful spending decisions, such as to subsidise certain local bus routes and give grants to many local activities. Currently it can raise extra taxes for such purposes, as it is not subject to the government’s cap on council tax increases. It could well be argued that much of what it is responsible for lies right at the heart of what makes Lewes such a special town.

What Lewes District Council can do
Lewes District Council is responsible for planning (decisions about what can be built where); rubbish collection and recycling; housing (including housing benefit) and homelessness; council housing (it owns 3,550 council houses and flats); licensing; environmental health; public toilets; care for parks, public spaces and the green environment including some verges but not all. It shares back office services, and many officers, with Eastbourne Borough Council, which helps to reduce costs, but can have the effect of making decisions seem more remote from local people.

What East Sussex County Council can do
East Sussex County Council (ESCC) runs schools (but not, of course, those now part of Academy chains); adult and social services, transport, highways and waste disposal. These involve major costs so ESCC is by far the biggest spender and takes the largest chunk of our council tax.

And let’s not forget the South Downs National Park
The South Downs National Park has overall responsibility for planning decisions in those parts of Lewes District that fall within it, including of course Lewes. If you want to object to a planning application you need to do so via the SDNP website. Needless to say – and obvious from this example alone – there are many overlapping powers and responsibilities between these four authorities and sometimes even they can’t always decide who should take action!

So, what can each council do about climate change?
To come to the other three questions – what do we actually want to be done and is the council able to take action? Here it is best to take a concrete example of great importance to TTL supporters. Having declared a climate emergency at both a town and district level, what actions do we want to our councils to take and are they able to take the steps required?

Renewable energy
Let’s suppose we want to ensure that renewable energy is included in all new developments with a view to moving towards zero carbon emissions. Here is where the town council’s ownership of key resources in the town and its ability to increase its precept (council tax) gives it some advantage. For instance, it owns Malling Community Centre and is engaged in upgrading the building. Instead of opting for the cheapest means of heating, Lewes Town Council has been able to decide that it wants to go for the most environmentally beneficial solution. Therefore, a ground source heat pump will be installed. Equally the town council has long wanted to install solar panels down at the Pells swimming pool and these are part of its plans for improvements there. These are pragmatic one-off decisions – great for the town but hardly likely to solve the climate crisis overnight.

The district council can also take pragmatic decisions, but these are more heavily constrained by financial considerations. For example, it has previously installed solar panels on some 700 council house properties, but the economics of this only made sense because the feed-in tariff gave it a financial return that would eventually pay for the panels.

A possible second round of installations has, however, been rendered financially unviable because of the withdrawal of tariff payments to new panels. How come? Government policy is not in accord with what local councils want to do. That, together with severely tightened council budgets largely driven by the government’s austerity policies, means that even progressive councils like LDC cannot necessarily act as they – and we – would like.

Climate-friendly development
You would be right in thinking that planning policy should be one of the best means of ensuring climate-friendly developments. But, again, central government sets the Planning Policy Framework and planning committees cannot override it to demand carbon neutral developments as the price of planning permission because developers would appeal and win.

That isn’t to say that councils can’t achieve a lot with the right encouragement and messaging and we note that LDC has indeed set up a Climate Action Forum to support and promote all kinds of local initiatives – you will find both TTL and the Lewes Pound there, for instance. It has also recently closed public consultation on its Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Framework, which includes working to green its own premises and transport.

Encouraging fewer cars
Traffic issues in Lewes are currently locked in controversy – not least because the prime concerns of walkers and cyclists aren’t necessarily the same as those of shops and businesses. Highway matters come under the remit of ESCC and, as we have seen, they aren’t necessarily the most adept at mediating between different viewpoints and so end up pleasing nobody. In the end, however, ESCC will have to agree to and carry out any necessary work, so it is vital to respond to their consultations. Until 11 December, for example, ESCC is inviting comments on its Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plan. If a more connected approach to getting people across the county to cycle and walk more is important to you, do try to respond.

It all starts with the right government policy
So by all means take your issues to the right local council. They may be able to act, but bear in mind that to do their best – or even just a bit more – they need in many cases to be operating within the right government policy climate. As host country to the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next November – perhaps the last chance for global climate action – we should all be encouraging the British government to put its own house in order and enable our local councils to act as we and the planet would wish?

*NB All of this refers of course to non-Covid times