Protecting the environment is now at the top of the bill for council candidates
Green issues, once considered a minority concern for many, are now high on the agenda for councils.
Looking after the environment is a big feature on many of the parties’ manifestos for the 2012 elections, from how they can drastically cut carbon emissions to making sure the streets are clear of dog mess.
Local authorities are under pressure to raise recycling levels, improve energy efficiency in their buildings, clean up the air their residents breathe and protect valuable areas of green space.
Dan Barlow, director of public policy at WWF Scotland, says that although councils have made great strides in tackling environment issues, there is still some way to go.
He said greater integration was needed between the environmental issues and what are considered to be more traditional parts of local authority budgets – but bringing the two closer together would bring about a greater benefit to everyone.
More work on issues like energy effi ciency in homes and offi ces, promoting the move to a green economy, and even converting council fl eets to electric cars, he claims, would not only cut CO2, but create the knock-on effect of boosting employment, cutting council tax and improving people’s quality of life.
He explains to Holyrood: “We have made a lot of progress over the last decade, but we are still a long way from successfully integrating the environment into other areas of policy.
“Looking at the manifestos at the moment there are some that manage this, but others are still quite patchy in how the environment is factored into what [parties] are trying to achieve.” Long term benefits, he says, would not just be making council “greener”. Making homes or businesses more energy efficient, either by encouraging the installation of insulation, or ensuring new homes lose as little heat as possible, could create the benefit of keeping fuel bills lower.
Encouraging people to cycle to work – and building better bike lanes for them to do it in – could make people healthier and reduce long-term health bills.
And promoting a green economy could also lead to more job opportunities, reducing unemployment in the council area.
He says: “Local authorities can do a lot to bring these things together. They are still regarded as a trusted source of opinion and advice. They are looked to for leadership by their residents and have a very important role.
“There has to be a joined-up approach at a national and local level.” There are already tough targets for councils on how much rubbish should be buried in the ground and how much should be recycled and whoever takes control of Scotland’s 32 councils will face even stricter limits.
In the first six months of 2011, 1.4 million tonnes of household rubbish was produced and more than half of it, 619,000 tonnes, was buried in landfi ll. The tax for this is already £48 per tonne, and is set to nearly double next year Under the Scottish Government’s new zero waste regulations, which are currently going through parliament, this is going to have to reduce dramatically.
Schemes for collecting waste vary from council to council. Many of them have already switched to fortnightly collections and a variety of different bins for recyclable materials. But to reach the next stage the incoming parties will have to be even more creative in how they bring the level of black bag waste down. The Greens have even proposed “Rapid Response Squads” to deal with overflowing recycling containers.
The future of bin collections and street cleaning reached boiling point in Edinburgh, sparking a row over whether the city council’s refuse collections and cleaning services should be privatised to save £70m a year – plans that were eventually rejected.
Alongside tackling the mountains of waste thrown out every year, councils also face the tough task of reducing carbon emissions in their areas.
Parties have proposed insulation schemes for homes and offices and said they will ensure that any new housing stock meets even higher standards to stop heat – and CO2 – being lost through inefficiency.
This is not just limited to buildings – councils are having to consider both carbon emissions and other noxious gases released in traffic. This has led to the establishment of low emission zones and schemes to get more people onto public transport.
Labour’s plan for Glasgow, for example, is to make the city the “most sustainable in Europe” over the next 20 years, creating a Glasgow Energy Trust to lower its CO2 emissions, and meanwhile the Lib Dems in Edinburgh have vowed to introduce measures such as the use of energy efficient lighting and smart metering.
Planning, often supposed to be a non-partisan topic when up for discussion by councillors, is nevertheless an important topic for voters.
Housing developments and the building of wind turbines are particular subjects which have sparked outrage from pressure groups and are popular subjects on the doorstep.
The Conservatives across Scotland have said they want to take a stand on planning. Their council candidates are calling for a reform of the planning system that would see councils who reject applications – particularly for wind turbines – far less likely to have their decisions overturned by the Scottish Government.
Major reforms of the planning system have been made, but it has led to complaints from some local authorities that they have less power to decide on important subjects. Decisions can be overturned on appeal and some authorities have expressed concerns that democratic decisions made by locally based politicians are being ignored.
There is growing pressure on greenfield sites, particularly around city boundaries as more space is needed for housing – so how councils go about protecting our green spaces is also a top talking point.
Nowhere in Scotland has there been a greater example of this than in Aberdeen, where a planning issue over the future of the city’s Union Terrace Gardens has already seen residents come out in record numbers for a referendum. The votes may have been cast, but the aftermath has seen the polarised debate spill over into the elections as well.
People living in the city went to the polls earlier this year to say whether the Victorian gardens in the heart of Aberdeen should be redeveloped.
Labour – which has always objected to the plans to raise the sunken gardens – says that despite the public voting narrowly in favour of the proposals, it will overturn them if it is voted in.
But maybe above all how the local area looks is going to win or lose votes. Authorities that have let the grass grow long or cut back on flowerbeds to save money may find it goes against them.
Many parties have included promises to improve or maintain street cleaning, whether that be clearing rubbish or fly-tipping from the streets, or entering “In Bloom” contests.
The age-old issue of dog mess on the street is not being ignored: the SNP in Glasgow, for example, has pledged to keep tough action on owners who allow their dogs to foul pavements a “priority”.
And the Green Party’s manifesto has outlined plans to tackle neighbourhood issues like dog mess and fly-tipping by enhancing environmental warden services.