Sustainability Lessons from 14 years in Local Government
Regular readers may have noticed that my output here and on social media has been somewhat patchy over the last few weeks, That’s because I was engaged in a tough Council re-election battle, one which I ultimately lost by 12 votes out of 2000 or so cast.
Obviously I’m disappointed, but I’m very proud of my 14 years’ stint on Newcastle City Council, particularly on the Sustainability front – I spent 7 years as deputy Cabinet member for Environment & Sustainability when my party ran the Council, then 7 years as opposition spokesperson. Not to put too fine a point on it, and modesty aside, during the first seven years, Sustainability performance improved rapidly peaking with being designated the UK’s Most Sustainable City two years running by Forum for the Future (2009 & 2010). When we lost control in 2011, things went into marked decline.
So here’s a quick reflection on the lessons that I learnt over those years (many have appeared here before, often lightly disguised!):
- Leadership is everything – when we took control in 2004, we set two big aspirational targets: zero waste and carbon neutral. Cllr Wendy Taylor, the Cabinet member 2004-2011, showed immense grit and determination to get a massive bureaucracy to take those goals seriously. The incoming administration in 2011 dropped those goals and deleted the cabinet member post, spreading responsibility around a variety of roles and claiming a ‘green thread’ ran through everything. The weakness of the latter approach has been proven by falling recycling rates and stalled carbon reduction programmes.
- Commitment = stretch targets. Those two goals drove everything we did and made it clear to the whole organisation, whether officers or councillors, that we were serious about doing things differently. Hitting the targets is not the point: we didn’t get close to zero waste, but driving recycling rates from 8% to 43% wouldn’t have happened with an incremental approach – as demonstrated by recycling declining to 38% once the target was removed.
- You’ve got to make Sustainability easy: one of the controversial things we did was to replace a segregated recycling collection involving a open crate, to a semi-co-mingled system involving a wheelie bin. Green activists screamed sell-out, but the recycling rate went up from 25% to 38% overnight. We made it easy and convenient for busy individuals to recycle and they did so.
- Experience works: One area our administration was slow on was promoting cycling. So I challenged a group of senior officers and councillors to cycle from the Civic Centre to Newcastle Central Station at the far side of our compact city centre. I can still hear the cry of alarm from one of my colleagues as we ventured across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. From this traumatic experience, a revamped, ambitious cycle strategy was born (our party drafted it, but it came into force under the current administration who to their credit are implementing it).
- People love winning: when I was first told we had won the Most Sustainable City accolade, my first thought was “how bad are all the rest?” and the second was “oh no, everybody will think we’ve finished when we’ve only just got started” but I was wrong – winning first time galvanised officers, fellow Councillors and partners (success has many parents etc) and drove us further and faster (our lead in the Forum for the Future ratings increased over the following year).
- Activism is doing, not protesting: I’ve had a few wins in Opposition, however I’ve learnt you can protest all you like, but if those in power won’t listen, you can rarely achieve anything. This is why I eschew protest for action no matter how small, grind my teeth when activist-journalists get lauded more than people at the coalface, and why I recommend my clients (and everybody else) work to align responsibility with authority.
So now I have just the one job, I will be able to focus full time on implementing these lessons in Terra Infirma’s clients!