You win some, you lose some. In July 2008, Somerset County Council, then a Liberal Democrat-controlled council, passed a resolution supporting its local Transition initiatives. It was much lauded as a visionary piece of policy-making, a council noting the vibrant activity of Transition groups within the county and deciding to honour that and to begin seriously to explore with them the potential overlaps and interfaces between those two ‘tiers’ in the community. However, it has become clear that what started so boldly and with such great promise has since fallen away. In the spirit of learning from such reversals, this piece explores what we can learn from recent developments in Somerset, and also what we might draw from them in relation to the government’s current ‘localism’ agenda.

So let’s start this story by first looking at the resolution itself. While the Somerset resolution did not commit the Council to any financial support of initiatives, it stated that the Council:

  1. Acknowledges the work done by communities in Somerset on Transition Towns and that the independence of the Transition Movement is key to its grass roots appeal.
  2. As demonstrated in its Climate Change Strategy, fully endorses the Transition Town Movement and subscribes to the principles and ethos of the organisation’s goals to reduce dependence on fuel oil and create more sustainable communities.
  3. Commits to providing support and assistance to all towns in Somerset that wish to join this initiative to help them achieve the goals they set for themselves as local communities, as demonstrated under the ‘Community Initiatives’ section of the Climate Change Strategy.
  4. Therefore, requests the Scrutiny and Executive Committees to consider through the council’s strategic planning process; allocating funds to assist in achieving the outcomes of the Transition Towns Movement in Somerset and requiring all directorates to engage with and provide support for Transition Initiatives in Somerset
  5. Through the work outlined above, seeks to become the first Transition Authority in the UK.
  6. Agrees to undertake a review of its budgets and services to achieve a reduction in dependence on fuel oil and produce an energy descent action plan in line with the principles of the Transition Initiative.

It took everyone by surprise. It was drafted and passed with no consultation with either the Transition initiatives on the ground in Somerset, or with Transition Network. We were all amazed and delighted. While clearly an exciting and ground-breaking development, it resulted in a lot of head-scratching (an excellent MSc dissertation by Niamh McDonald about the resolution can be read here). Subsequently, as a way of exploring how the resolution might work in practice, a document, ‘A Transition Audit of Somerset County Council’ was written by Dan Hurring for the Council in 2009, which audited existing activities and how they overlapped with Transition (unfortunately this document doesn’t appear to be online anywhere).

However, soon after it was published, there was an election, and the administration changed, becoming a Conservative-led Council. This brought with it a considerable change of attitude and organisational priorities. Over the past few months, the Council has moved from having a commitment on climate change, as stated in its 2008 Climate Change Strategy, to providing:

“leadership to prepare the county for the effects of climate change and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as engaging local communities, key stakeholders, government agencies and the business community to deal with the challenges presented by climate change”

… to their ‘Medium Term Financial Plan’ (published in February) which states that “some services will be stopped completely e.g. climate change work, work on renewable energy, natural environment policy and delivery”. Their Climate Change officer has been made redundant as of April 1st, and the Sustainable Development team will be abolished from the same date. In a remarkably restrained email announcing the ending of her post, the Climate Change officer wrote:

“I have enjoyed working with you over the past couple of years and it is a pity we could not have achieved more together. I hope local priorities will once more be realigned with national priorities so that organisations in Somerset are able to work together to tackle the causes and effects of climate change”.

SCC is still doing work around reducing its own footprint, but not that of the wider county. Given that emissions produced directly by the activities of the Council are around 1% of those of the county as a whole, this is pretty insignificant (although worthwhile). At the same time, the likelihood in Somerset of flooding is increasing (large parts of the county are, after all, very close to sea level) but the Financial Plan, at the same time, is cutting spending on flooding risk management by 27% over the next 4 years.

The network of Transition initiatives in Somerset has now written to SCC to express their assertion that in erasing climate change and renewable energy from the work of the Council it has forefitted any claim to being a Transition local authority. They write:

“This situation underscores the reckless short-sightedness of an authority which has in a short time moved from a potentially leading position in preparing for a low-carbon or zero-carbon world, to one where our county is sleepwalking towards the shocks and disruptions that will follow, as sure as night follows day”.

Transition Network will be following suit, and has written to SCC to state, with sadness, that we consider the July 2008 resolution to now be void. I do not mean for this post to be in any sense party political. The current swathing spending cuts are impacting councils of every political hue and are clearly forcing councils to think hard about what their priorities actually are. What we are seeing in Somerset though, tells a story that directly challenges what is happening in the wider political landscape, and the government’s assertion that it will be the ‘greenest government ever’. It also challenges the concept of localism, one of the cornerstones of current government thinking.

Localism, as has been discussed here in the past, is the idea that central government should be made smaller for ideological reasons, and that power is dispersed to local councils and communities instead. While in some areas of life this is really important, and key for a successful Transition, in terms of climate change, it is a disaster. I wrote a while ago about my experience at last year’s Development Trust Association conference where David Prout of the Department for Communities and Local Government talked about the Big Society and about localism. I challenged him on how a local carbon economy could possibly ever be delivered when the power over whether and how it happens is devolved to Councils for whom it often isn’t a priority or, in some cases, who are actively opposed to climate change even being a concern. In my review of the day I wrote:

“…he said that at the moment what happens is that windfarms are often routinely refused planning due to the ideological stance of the Councillors, and that they are, as he put it, “playing to the gallery”, keeping their political allies happy, but safe in the knowledge that their decision will be called in and reviewed by the Secretary of State. They make decisions in this irresponsible way, but, he argued, the best way to deal with this is to devolve decision making to them so that they have to learn to take responsibility for their actions. It needs a long term process of increasing maturity which will force them to think about the long term issues. Government can either, he said, regulate, or it can change the way in which government works.

Transition Training with Somerset County Council, April 2009 (before the election).Transition Training with Somerset County Council, April 2009 (before the election).Recent developments in Somerset are another substantial blow to the idea of the Big Society and localism, especially in the context of a co-ordinated national response to climate change. If central government is to be contracted, and responsibility for the installation of a renewable energy infrastructure is to become that of local councils, the Somerset story strongly suggests that this is a strategy guaranteed to fail. National government can set climate change targets, emissions reduction strategies and targets for how much renewable energy it wants to see installed, as it has done in this week’s Carbon Plan published by DECC, yet all of it will struggle to actually happen when faced with councils that have downgraded climate change to the extent of being a non-issue, as Somerset have just done. It means that rather than, as was the original idea, Councils being empowered and enabled to be bolder and more pro-active, ideological constraints are coming to the fore and making a nonsense of the whole idea.

From a Transition perspective, there is a huge amount that local authorities can do if they take an engaged and pro-active role in the process of building resilience in their area. There are some great examples of councils working with their local Transition groups. Woking and Kirklees spring to mind as councils that are doing bold and visionary work on climate change. Yet recent developments in Somerset indicate that these great steps forward can just as easily turn around and go backwards.

It is worth just pausing here to remind ourselves of the scale of the climate change challenge. If we are to reduce our carbon emissions in order to avoid runaway climate change, what scale of cuts are we looking at? One of the most detailed studies of this[1] concluded that the world’s emissions will need to have peaked by 2020 and that a 72% cut by 2050 will give us an 84% chance of avoiding runaway climate change. In practical terms this means that where we are heading in terms of personal emissions is somewhere between an 86 and 92% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. It is worth stopping to read that twice.

To put that in perspective, that is roughly the per capita emissions produced by Mozambique today. On top of this, there are those who argue that our current emissions are deceptively low because they don’t take into account all the goods we import, and the emissions caused by their manufacture and transportation. Creating a low carbon economy is, after all, much easier if you no longer manufacture anything. It is estimated that around a quarter of China’s emissions come from producing goods for export. With the average UK carbon footprint being 9.7 tonnes, our imports of goods add another 4.7 tonnes per person, nearly 50%. It is clear that the challenge of climate change is about far more than low energy bulbs, solar panels and driving slower. It is a profound shift in what we do and how we do it. It is a complete adjustment of what we imagine to be lying in front of us, what our expectations are of the future. It is not a shift that will come about by accident.

At the same time, the UK is rapidly approaching a major oil crunch, with oil at $114 a barrel today, but having passed $120 last week. George Monbiot wrote yesterday about the scale of the challenge that presents and the level of resistance to even the smallest changes. On Sunday Chris Huhne announced the need for an emergency plan in relation to rising oil prices, having just days before announced that when oil passes $100 a barrel his department’s low carbon plan for the UK makes better financial sense than the current high carbon one. Hmmm.

Recent events in Somerset are saddening. Transition initiatives in Somerset continue their work, but a huge opportunity has now been taken away from them. The world was looking to the leadership and the imagination that was being shown in Somerset. These times need boldness and vision and we had a taste of that. Peak oil, climate change and the unravelling of the UK’s economy represent huge challenges, but also great opportunities. When climate change is seen as a stand-alone, distinct issue, rather than something that cuts across all aspects of a council’s work, it can be simply crossed off the list to save a few quid. Yet at the same time, the county spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year on imported energy, much the same on imported food and building materials. Money is pouring out of Somerset, and with some imagination, Somerset County Council could see making Somerset more resilient as an extraordinary opportunity. Somerset County Council moved these discussions forward significantly, and we owe them our thanks. Now that they have dropped the baton, it is over to other more enlightened authorities to pick up where Somerset left off.

[1] Meinshausen, M. Meinshausen, N. Hare, W. Raper, S. C. B. Frieler, K. Knutti, R. Frame, D. J. Allen, M. R. (2009) Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C. Nature 458, 1158-1162