Council Watch - 2022/23 Sustainability Report review

Council Watch - 2022/23 Sustainability Report review

In September 2023 West Northamptonshire Council (WNC) published its first Sustainability Report.

WNC has set out its sustainability stall to cover all the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which include one climate goal. It’s now clear that climate breakdown is an immediate threat to our way of life, so this needs to receive a level of urgent focus that perhaps other goals don’t merit. It is a worry that this might not happen with the more broad brush approach to sustainability.

Of course we were keen to read the report and suggest you do too (full report here). This is what we thought about it, but we’d like to know if you agree – please comment below.

Achievements and projects actually delivered during 2022/23 are not that impressive. One could reasonably argue that this is because of the time it takes to get major projects off the ground in the bureaucracy-heavy local government system, but the speed of change in the face of an emergency is frustrating. The main positives in this report are the pipeline projects and future plans.

The report is split into sections aligned to ownership within the council - we thought there are a couple of stars and some that could do better.

-          Plans to develop a business case for large scale solar projects sound promising – this ought to have strong financial as well as environmental drivers.
-          It is also encouraging that funding has been obtained for a feasibility study into a sustainable heat network for Northampton and Rothersthorpe village.
-          An off-gas village competition could be a creative way to engage with communities and tackle the tough nut of transitioning households away from oil-fired heating.
-          We’ll be keeping an eye out for the Estate and Construction & Maintenance Climate Strategies due to go to Cabinet in 2023.

-          WNC’s first Housing Strategy was approved in 2022. It is structured around 4 themes; it would have been good for one of these to be more explicit about the need to decarbonise.
-         The excellent whole house retrofit project by Northamptonshire Partnership Homes (NPH) is ongoing and funding has been secured to eventually include 500+ homes.
-          A section on home energy efficiency improvements funded through various government grant schemes tends to highlight the complexity of the funding landscape and the small number of households benefiting under current schemes. This is largely outside the council’s control, but it really isn’t good enough.

Transport and Highways
-          Compared to some areas, West Northamptonshire is behind the curve with Electric Vehicle charging infrastructure so it’s good to see that there is work to enable car park and on-street chargers.
-          Active travel plans consist of a collection of small projects apparently without an overarching strategic vision. It is hard to see how the benefit of ‘behaviour change initiatives’ will be realised without material improvements to cycling and walking infrastructure.
-          The report mentions Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs) for Towcester, Brackley and Daventry – if you are curious about the Northampton LCWIP, it was consulted on in 2020 and is under review. More on local LCWIPs here.
-          It’s positive that the contract with Kier, WNC’s Highways partner, includes a ‘Climate Change and Environmental Management Plan’. However, apart from the use of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) in their fleet, the activities cited focus on employee behaviour and awareness, which might not be where all the big carbon savings are to be found.

-          Supporting ‘No Mow May’ and encouraging parish and town councils to do the same was a very good move. It would be even better to see WNC doing more to work with towns and parishes to implement management of green spaces for biodiversity all year round.
-          There are some very good individual projects mentioned – as with active travel, the overarching strategy isn’t obvious, but perhaps the local nature recovery strategy will provide that.

Emissions Reporting
-          The baseline emissions report issued in 2023 was a major step on the road to achieving carbon reduction targets.
-          Reporting a 3.4% increase in emissions against the baseline seems like bad news, but the significant positives are that this evidences transparency of reporting, and that the increase is partially down to including additional data.

-          Climate adaptation is frequently the poor cousin of mitigation – climate mitigation being broadly actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whereas adaptation is about adapting our lifestyle and infrastructure to help us survive in a changed climate.
-          With the impacts of climate change already being seen, adaptation needs to be better understood and receive much more focus. Unfortunately we don’t really get that here.
-          There are elements within this section that relate to adaptation – ‘how the development will adapt to climate change’, ‘manage flood risk’ as examples, but they are thinly scattered amongst many references to mitigation policies (‘modal shift to foot and cycle’, ‘provision of EV charging infrastructure’, ‘proposals for renewable and low carbon development’).

-          Removing disposable coffee cups from the café at WNC’s main offices might not seem like a world-changing move, but it is highly visible and necessary.
-          We at CA-WN are fans of WNC’s recycling campaign videos. Recycling and waste management aren’t going to fix the climate crisis but we can’t fix it without significantly reducing what we waste.
-          The Resources and Waste Strategy is another one to look forward to by the end of this year.

Economic Growth
-          This section makes clear that sustainability is a key part of the vision for economic growth - this is where the very wide definition of sustainability can be unhelpful. There are mentions of aspirations to reduce emissions and of supporting businesses with decarbonisation. We hope detail about how this will be achieved will be forthcoming soon.

-          This mainly talks about Northampton Bike Park. Good news on retention and ongoing management of natural features and habitats, but not much to get excited about for the non-mountain biker. 

Environmental Health
-          This covers the hot topic of air quality. I don’t think it will do much to satisfy the clean air campaigners who demonstrated outside the council meeting in September. Improving collection and sharing of air quality data is essential, but there is little sense of urgency.

Public Health and Wellbeing
-          This highlights good work from the Public Health team including sponsoring the Northamptonshire Energy Saving Service (NESS) which helps those in fuel poverty.
-          As always, it will be the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer first and more from the effects of climate change – helping protect them should come under the Adaptation heading.

-          The introduction of a Social Value Policy to ensure that social, economic and environmental benefits are taken into account when awarding contracts is a good thing, providing delivery of the promised benefits is monitored and there is adequate contractual provision to manage failed delivery where needed.