Councils pick their own green targets

Environmental targets recently adopted by councils for the next three years have, the government says, made the environment "firmly part of local government priorities". But Susanne Baker finds it is still too early to judge

July saw English councils setting out their priorities for the next three years in the biggest shake-up of the local authority performance framework for nearly ten years. The reorganisation saw many adopt statutory targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for the first time, and a large number set further targets for municipal waste management.

The targets are included in 150 Local Area Agreements (LAAs),1 three-year action plans drawn up by upper-tier, unitary and metropolitan borough councils in partnership with their district councils and other local stakeholders, and then agreed by central government. In April this year the LAAs replaced the Best Value regime, which included 600-1,200 indicators and was considered onerous and impractical.

The new system contains just 198 indicators covering economic development, education and social policy as well as 13 on environmental issues (ENDS Report 390, p 39 ). These address areas such as climate change, waste, air quality, flooding, cleanliness, fly-tipping and biodiversity (see figure 1). Proposed indicators on water use, contaminated land, abandoned vehicles and pollution control improvements failed to make the final list.

Although local authority performance will be measured against all 198 indicators, the LAAs are now the only vehicle for agreeing targets with central government.

Whereas councils previously had a plethora of targets to work towards, LAAs limit the number to a maximum of 35, based on indicators selected from the full national set. The targets are set over a three-year period.

The idea is that every LAA is tailored to the circumstances and challenges that each area faces, rather than all councils aiming for the same targets. Financially the LAAs signal a new approach. About £5 billion of general grant funding is no longer ring-fenced, giving authorities more freedom in spending decisions.

The new system should also mean less data gathering. All government departments have pledged to make at least a "20% cut in the data returns they require from councils by April 2009, and at least 30% by 2010". It remains to be seen what this will mean for the environmental data government demands from authorities.

Environmental targets
Every LAA includes at least one environmental target (see figure 2). Most contain two to four, but seven areas - Barnsley, Lambeth, North East Lincolnshire, Redcar and Cleveland, Rotherham, Salford and Trafford - chose only one. Kent, one of the areas that piloted LAAs, has seven - the highest of any area (see table, p 32).

Overall the Environment Agency is content with the outcome. "If you look at the whole suite of economic, housing and social indicators the best you could expect is one or two environmental ones," says acting head of sustainable development Richard Howell. "So the outcome is really encouraging, given the other important issues councils have to deal with."

For the first time councils have signed up to statutory targets to reduce CO2 emissions. Two targets are available: one to reduce per capita emissions in the local area, the other to cut emissions from local authority operations.

These proved to be some of the most popular targets, with 87% of LAAs containing at least one of them and five - Bournemouth, North Yorkshire, Poole, Richmond upon Thames and Stockport - adopting both. Just 20 areas failed to adopt either.

Over a third of areas adopted the target to adapt to climate change, although it is still unclear what councils will have to do to meet it. Government guidance being drawn up is likely to dovetail with the Nottingham Declaration (ENDS Report 387, pp 36-39 ), which requires authorities to explain how their services, plans or policies will be adapted to climate change and to establish a robust monitoring and review process.

Progress against the target is likely to be rated as poor, acceptable, good or excellent based on criteria that take into account the comprehensiveness of the authority’s response, the quality of decision-making and the actions taken.

The Local Government Association’s climate change officer, Philip Mind, says the number of authorities that have adopted climate targets "signifies very strongly a commitment to respond to climate change".

Certainly the number looks promising when compared with a survey last year that found that while many authorities said climate change was a key issue, few had taken measures to reduce emissions in their areas (ENDS Report 387, pp 36-39 ).

Friends of the Earth (FoE) is also upbeat about the CO2 targets. Head of FoE England, Paul de Zylva, says local authorities have plenty of scope to go beyond their own housing stock and energy efficiency advice.

The Environment Department (DEFRA) was also keen for councils to adopt some of the three waste indicators on offer: the amount of waste diverted from landfill, the amount of residual waste generated per household, and the percentage of household waste sent for reuse, recycling or composting.

Some 83% of areas adopted at least one of these, but less than half (45%) pledged to increase the amount of household waste reused, recycled or composted and only one in four have set themselves a target to reduce residual household waste. West Berkshire agreed targets for all three.

Even more disappointing, only one area, the City of London, chose to set a target based on the single air quality indicator on offer, which requires an area to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from authorities’ operations.

With no baseline data available, the City of London’s target has yet to be set. Ed Dearnley, policy officer at Environment Protection UK said he was not surprised only one area had signed up. He said areas had been reluctant to sign up to the target "because of issues over what they can control and measure". But this does not appear to have been an issue for areas when signing up to commitments to reduce CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, a target to monitor progress on flood prevention measures was chosen by just five areas: Derby, Kent, North Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire and Richmond upon Thames.

But the fact that 26 areas adopted a target to increase the proportion of sites of local importance where conservation management is being implemented was a "major step forward", said David Knight, biodiversity team leader at Natural England.

Some 35,000 "local sites" have been identified in England for biodiversity and geological conservation, which complement existing internationally and nationally designated sites.

Ambition versus realism
Unravelling what the effect of all these targets will be and how much good they will do the environment is difficult to work out.

In particular, it is tricky to assess how ambitious the quantitative targets are and the extent to which achieving them will require measures additional to those required by other regulatory drivers. These include planning guidance (ENDS Report 396, pp 42-43 ) and the Carbon Reduction Commitment which is the emissions trading scheme for non-industrial energy users.

Excluding emissions covered by the EU emissions trading scheme, plus those from motorway use, forestry and land use, DEFRA estimates most areas should expect to reduce CO2 emissions by 11-13% compared with 2004 by 2010 and 19-23% by 2020.2,3 But its analysis did include the impact of regulatory regimes like the Carbon Reduction Commitment (ENDS Report 398, pp 46-47 ).

Philip Mind argues this is unimportant as long as the end result is that emissions are reduced. "It is possible to argue that there is a degree of overlap between the indicator and existing national policy instruments," he says. "But they both help to push councils in the right direction and complement each other. The sum of the parts will be greater than the two taken in isolation."

Recycling concerns
But there are concerns the absence of recycling targets for each local authority could stymie efforts to increase national recycling levels.

The new targets represent a broad range of ambition. Greenwich and Wirral, for example, each pledge to increase recycling by 23% - the highest set. This would take them to a level significantly higher than that set by the statutory recycling targets for all authorities previously imposed by the government.

At the other end of the scale, East Sussex promises to increase recycling by just 5%. But it is encouraging that the areas adopting waste targets include some of England’s lowest performers.

With statutory recycling targets for all authorities now abandoned by the government, a key question is whether the waste targets in the LAAs are sufficient to ensure England meets its national waste strategy targets. These include a target for 40% of household waste to be recycled or composted by 2010.

Preliminary government data suggest that they are. In 2007/08 the rate rose from 30.7% to 33%, suggesting it will have to rise by a further 7 percentage points in the next three years to meet the strategy’s target. But when this question was put to DEFRA by ENDS, it was unable give an answer because it is still trying to work it out for itself.

But should the 40% target be higher? "The main drivers for councils on waste are the landfill allowance trading scheme and the landfill tax. To some extent we’ve now lost the positive driver for recycling," says FoE waste and resources campaigner Michael Warhurst. "There is a worry that losing the recycling targets to such a large extent will mean there will be a push to energy from waste." The government says that if targets are set too low or if performance appears to threaten England’s ability to meet national targets, it could trigger a review of targets.

The Audit Commission and other inspectorates are developing comprehensive area assessment (CAAs) which will introduce a new method of assessing authorities’ progress. The regime will be introduced in April 2009, with the first assessments reported in autumn of that year. As well as publishing performance data against all indicators, CAAs will include a risk assessment of management, a scored "use of resources" judgment for public bodies in an LAA and a scored "direction of travel".

Handling stragglers
Responses to poor performance will vary according to the severity and importance of the issue, the government says. It retains its powers to intervene in cases where there is critical or sustained under performance.

The main plan is "sector-led improvement support" through new "regional improvement and efficiency partnerships". In theory these will agree support packages to get areas back on track if they start to go adrift against their targets. Formal arrangements have yet to be finalised.

It is uncertain how much importance the Audit Commission will give to the environmental targets in CAAs, but Sustainable Development Commissioner Alice Owen says there are early signs the Audit Commission is "genuinely seeking ways to put the principles of sustainable development in the centre of this process".

And there is another, more powerful incentive for councils: a £340 million pot of cash with which the government hopes to tempt areas to deliver against their targets. Those that meet a minimum average level of performance will receive grants which will be confirmed at the end of the LAA regime’s first year.