Interview with Warren Hatter on local government and low carbon policies

Warren Hatter is a London-based consultant and commentator with a special interest – and many years experience – in local government and carbon policy. MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson asks him a few questions…

Is local government where it needs to be on climate change, compared to the hopes that were around when the Nottingham Declaration was created?
You’d be surprised if I said that local government now was brilliantly addressing climate change, and I won’t let you down on that. You’re right about the Nottingham Declaration (in 2000) though. There was a lot of optimism, wasn’t there? I recall that those were more optimistic times generally around local government, which is a factor; I bet professionals in many fields would say that local government is a less hopeful place now than then. A new government had come to power with promises of devolving responsibility to local government (this might sound familiar!) and times were not as tough as they are now financially.

There was also a clear direction of travel in relations between central and local government; the idea was emerging that local government’s core function was “place shaping”, not simply delivering services. As a local authority leader, having a comprehensive approach to carbon and climate only really makes sense if you see your role in those terms. If you see yourself as first and foremost a service deliverer, then it only makes sense to address the carbon linked directly to service delivery.

However, I don’t think we ever had a positive, constructive narrative about low carbon places – about how we can be fulfilled, have fun, get on with people, be healthy, etc. Instead, carbon (and sustainability more broadly) has tended to be framed as a threat, addressing it looks dull and worthy, and the visions there have been look twee or hair-shirted to many. This is not local government’s fault, of course – on the whole, we went with the crowd.

I think there are governance reasons, too, for many local authorities not having successfully nailed their approach to carbon. In particular, I’d identify the lack of obligation to consider the half of our carbon footprint that is in the supply chains of the things we buy and use (scope 3 emissions) and the lack of interest in this – with honourable exceptions, of course. One problem with considering only territorial – or production – emissions is that these perspectives are simply not very engaging. Who, as a resident, could really get motivated by reducing the emissions of a place, which includes and excludes different items in a way that makes no sense behaviourally? For example, if I drive a car on a journey, the only emissions that count in the Borough’s footprint are those from the petrol I burn as far as the Borough border.

The lack of confidence in recent years has also been damaging. A confident local government family would, since the Climate Change Act, have been trying to persuade central government to let it take on responsibility for delivering on the UK’s carbon budget – each place taking its fair share. But, frankly, there was no stomach for this from the local government establishment, although a decent and impressive cross-section of Leaders campaigned for this with Friends of the Earth.

Most recently, the narrow focus that has come with dealing with extensive budget cuts has been another factor. And, over several years, the relative lack of officer capacity hasn’t helped.

I should add, though, that there has been progress, and some standout authorities, throughout the 12-year period you’re asking about. And, across UK local government, there are very many authorities with solid delivery on climate and carbon.

Could you name some UK local authorities which are doing well on mitigation, and give your impressions of what the reasons for that good performance are?
I’m not in the best position to judge, as I don’t get to hear about all the good stuff that goes on. Off the top of my head, I’ve been impressed by a number of the initiatives I’ve heard about in Bristol, and by the way that Haringey has introduced an annual carbon-focused full Council meeting. My time as a judge for the Low Carbon Council category in the Local Government Chronicle awards (I’m just waiting for this year’s batch of applications!) tells me that there are plenty of councils with impressive initiatives to reduce emissions in their own estate and operations, and also a number who have done good work with businesses: Oxford springs to mind. I’m pretty sure that there is some good work being done by councils in support of Transition initiatives, though the only one I know much about is Lambeth, near where I live, where the Council has supported the Brixton Pound, for example. Brighton & Hove introducing the Phlorum tool is a positive step, as it prompts the inclusion of supply-chain emissions in the consideration of building plans. Aberdeen, Peterborough and Durham should also get honourable mentions here. That’s all very top-of-mind, and I’m bound to have forgotten some really good examples. I’ll apologise in advance, and also point out that I’ve deliberately not mentioned clients; it wouldn’t seem right!

What does “behavioural economics” have to offer to help increase levels of participation in “green” activities (whether it’s recycling, civic engagement around low carbon etc)?
My view is that insights from behavioural sciences can be really useful. One of the flaws with the ‘green’ movement has been that, like many, we’ve tried to persuade people to do the right thing for the right reasons. In practice, we’re nowhere near as rational or in control as we like to think we are. We should be making sustainable behaviours easy, normal and rewarding
Understanding our biases, which all have sound evolutionary reasons, can also be good for helping us understand and change our behaviour as citizens. For example, if I understand loss aversion, I can find ways around it in my life: if deciding whether to keep a possession or pass it on, I should consider how much effort I’d be willing to make to obtain it (or how much I’d pay) if I didn’t have it. To understand loss aversion, do I need to understand its roots in evolution (that nearly all my ancestors didn’t know if they had enough food to get through the season, most of the time), or do I just need to access a tool to address it, and see if it works? I don’t know.
People might see this as a fad, but I reckon it’s deeper than that, not least because much of the evidence from decision sciences has emerged in the past couple of decades, and these things take time to filter through.

If you were David Cameron for a day, what would you do?
The two things that central government could do that would set the framework within which it would make perfect sense for local government to do a great job on climate change are, firstly, to find a way of moving towards consumption-based carbon metrics being the main reference point for addressing carbon …

If you were Eric Pickles for a day, what would you do?
… and, secondly, to disaggregate the national carbon budgets in the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan to the local level, so that each local authority – or, more appropriately, each place – is accountable for reducing its share of emissions. Ideally, this would include consumption-based emissions. This would bring an immediate focus to policy-making around influencing behaviour.

Anything else you’d like to say?
How about I tell you why I remain optimistic? Our species is phenomenally successful, which should give us some confidence in our ability to reverse the way we’ve begun to exceed our planet’s natural limits. The other side of that coin has always been that we *know* we’re exceeding those limits yet continue to push – but we are now beginning to understand our quirks and biases as humans, which are ideal for the world of 200,000 years ago, and which explain why we behave in this way – and this gives me some hope that we’ll still pull through.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Interview with Warren Hatter on local government and low carbon policies

  1. Sam says:

    Hi, I noticed the comment about Harringey introducing a carbon focussed full council meeting.
    Last weekend, on my way to the TUC anti austerity meeting, I visited an elderly (74) disabled old friend who lives in a first floor council flat in Harringay.
    He feels the cold because of his heart and lung problems so he often has the gas fire on when many of us would not need it. I don’t know if he has loft insulation, but he doesn’t have double glazing, but steel framed 1950’s windows. He doesn’t have a fitted kitchen, the bathroom furniture is also 1950’s and no insulation works have been done in the 10 years that he has been there.
    The Blair Labour government gave local authorities to 2010 to modernise all their properties and forced them to push up rents to pay for it. The Tories extended the time limit to 2012.
    My friend tells me that earlier this year he was told that next year he will get double glazing and a new gas boiler, but not kitchen or bathroom modernisation. He will be glad to hear about a carbon focussed full council meeting.

  2. Reblogged this on The Ripple Effect and commented:
    It’s not often I get asked to do an interview. So I was happy to oblige with some answers when asked recently. This is what I said about local government, carbon and climate (and a little on behavioural sciences), prompted by questions from Manchester Climate Monthly.

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