The Dangers of Divided Responsibility

The rhetoric around climate change has shifted substantially in the last 5 years. There is a new urgency to declare it an emergency, to draw attention to global warming and its impacts, and to set ambitious emission reduction targets. International organisations, multinational corporations, networks of activists, national governments, local stakeholders; the majority from all sectors are singing from the same hymn sheet.

This shift is great news, but the challenges of transforming policy into action and rhetoric into reality are immense. Concerted efforts are required, not just voices in harmony. And yet, speaking together is much easier than working together.

A major reason that ambitious action is so difficult is that the responsibility for achieving the desired outcomes is divided and subdivided. Individuals are not only unsure what they can do personally, but even within organisations or government bodies, policy- and decision-makers are too often confused about their roles and responsibilities. Where do they fit in relation to the roles and responsibilities of others, and whose resources are available to do what? The result is often inefficiency if not inertia.

Let me use surface transport in England as an example. (I’m talking about England only – if you add in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s even more complicated!)

Most funding for transport comes from the central government, but Ministers and civil servants have very little responsibility for detailed planning and implementation. For national or strategic infrastructure, arms-length companies such as Highways England and Network Rail were established to get such things done. Meanwhile, the responsibility for local roads lies with local city and county governments, usually using monies distributed by or sometimes bid for from central government. However, to make things more confusing, in many parts of England there are two tiers of local government – county and district or city and borough. The county or city is the local transport authority, but the district is responsible for land use planning.

I (and I am not alone) have argued in past blogs that land use planning, the density of housing and the location of employment and amenities have an integral role to play in reducing the need to travel and changing how people travel, thereby reducing carbon emissions from private vehicles. Place-making determines whether people have space to walk and cycle, and where they can walk and cycle to. Yet different people in different levels and departments of government are planning where housing and services are located than those planning the infrastructure for people to walk and cycle on.

Density and the relative locations of where people live, work and play also influence the viability of public and shared transport. Yet the responsibility for providing those transport services often lies with private operators, who may negotiate with the higher tier local transport authority (e.g. the county), or even the national governments when it comes to rail operators, for the provision of infrastructure, financial support, and favourable policies. Funding for public transport operations or revenue spend is also quite separate from any budgets for building infrastructure and capital projects, and as it is rarely permitted to mix these resources, so the interactions between the outcomes of capital and revenue investment is rarely accounted for in advance.

Meanwhile, another source of transport funding at the local level can be gathered from fees, fines and permits for parking on- and off-street. Yet those charges are usually collected by the district or borough level of government, even though other local roads and transport matters are managed at city or county level. So even the responsibility to put in electric vehicle charge points, for example, is divided between levels of government. And I haven’t even started writing about the movement of goods by private fleets or the roles of private utility companies providing electricity and other services under the roads.

Confused? You’re not alone. Nonetheless, we must find ways to transform the rhetoric into reality – for sustainable surface transport and all the other sectors where ambitions for an equitable, vibrant and zero-carbon world could otherwise be derailed by divided responsibility.

Time is of the essence

Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters Around you have grown
And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ – Bob Dylan, 1964

He wasn’t talking about climate change, but the lyrics fit today’s challenges more literally those in the 1960’s. Time is of the essence.

Yet time is a tricky concept. From children to philosophers, we grapple with its relativity and its measured pace, its fluidity and its standardisation.

When I started my PhD, I could conceive of the brevity of three years more easily than colleagues for whom it was a larger fraction of their lives. And yet, I understood that it was long enough to require intermediate deadlines and effort if I was to keep up with professional networks. It was also long enough to not be distracted by thinking about what I might do next, at least for a while.

Now that I have months, rather than years left, the pressure is mounting to bring all my research together into a coherent thesis, whilst still juggling balls of family, publications, job applications, professional commitments and more. And the urgency I feel every school holidays as my work becomes the interruption rather than the main event seems less likely to dissipate this time within a handful or two of child-free week-days.

Thus, three years has slipped by, as I expected it would. But I feel prepared for the next challenge, able to swim, not sink, partly because I know time is of the essence, and I can manage it accordingly.

A similar challenge faces local authorities who have declared a climate emergency. The science says that a mere decade remains to change course, and in the timescale of local government, that is brief indeed. Particularly with all the political and budgetary challenges.

Yet local governments also have the power to set intermediate targets based on locally specific data and to commit to exchanging lessons learned and best practice. They too must realise that to be overwhelmed or distracted by what happens next is counterproductive. If they are prepared, if they work with their citizens and hold central government and corporations to account, then they have more power than they think. And they might find that by treating time as an essence, what they do now will make the future easier to manage.

So what sort of intermediate targets should be set? What actions taken? Local authorities can utilise new data sources to understand their carbon emissions and their future capacity as they have in the West Midlands. They might learn to think backwards from their policy position as proposed in my last blog.

True, options like regulating auto-manufacturers or changing the motor taxing regime are not within local authority’s gifts. But land use planning is, and local policy can hold developers to account. Local governments have greater influence over bus operators following the Bus Services Act. They have the powers to manage parking, which can raise funds for other transport improvements, such as filtered permeability where there are traditional street patterns and new links between cul-de-sacs for pedestrians and cyclists only.

However, their power comes from their communities, so it is time to call for people to ‘gather round’ and realise time is of an essence. It won’t be easy and if the questions are about transport and movement, then the traditional car-centric, loudest voices might dominate. Instead, if the questions are about forming a vision of the places people want to live in and the activities they want to do in those places and the solutions are framed in terms of ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, a manageable future might take shape where we can swim, not sink.


Public Health is the Purpose

The 2010-2015 UK Parliament has made many changes affecting local government in the first half of its term, but one notable (and positive!) change of 2013 went fairly unremarked other than by those affected. In the major re-structure of the National Health Service, it was not only GP practices which had to take on more responsibility. All public health functions have now transferred to Local Authorities.

Public health functions include vaccinations and the commissioning of community health services such as maternity and post-natal care. Also included are all the preventative health interventions including education and campaigns on topics such as sexual health, tobacco, alcohol, obesity and physical activity. Considering the nature of such health prevention measures, the synergy between public health functions and other local government services is manifold.

For example, social services have often had as much or more interaction with those at most risk of sexually transmitted diseases as primary care trust staff. Environmental health officers and licensing teams control the locations where alcohol and tobacco are sold, inspect food hygiene and deal with many other topics that have been the focus of years of public health campaigns. Waste collection and drainage has an important role in preventing the spread of diseases that afflict other nations with less developed infrastructure. Local Authority Planners have been at the forefront of finding new ways to tackle childhood obesity by limiting fast food outlets near schools. And transport and highways officers manage the quality of public space to make the roads safer and encourage active travel (e.g. walking and cycling). There are therefore clear benefits to public health professionals working within the same organisations as all these service deliverers.

There are also many benefits to those of us delivering these services. Public health colleagues are on hand to remind us of the interplay between lifestyle choice and quality of life, and that the purpose of all the work we are doing is to improve the wellbeing of the citizens we serve. Too often in departments such as transport, planning and licensing, statutory duties and service plan targets focus on economic and environmental concerns, allowing officers to overlook the individuals who are involved. Public health in comparison is all about improving health outcomes for individuals, particularly those known to be at risk. Social objectives are re-prioritised and more likely to be incorporated into transport, planning and climate change strategies.

The new public health teams in local authorities also have substantial information about the needs of different sectors of the population. This information can help other services appraise projects and target interventions where they will have the most impact. Such information can also support the evaluation of completed projects, supplementing the traditionally outputs-based reporting with a longer-term view of outcomes. Finally, the information and knowledge public health teams have about the communities they serve can help others in Local Authorities get to know their customers better and understand what motivates them.

Indeed, the incorporation of public health functions into local government is full of opportunities for all involved and reinforces what local government is designed to do. It is more of a return to the first principles of local governance than an introduction of a new service to deliver. After all, local government was originally formed to deal with public health issues like poor sanitation, facilities for the vulnerable, and the safe and healthy management of public spaces such as roads and parks. One could say that public health is the purpose of local government. In which case, 2013 saw Local Authorities recover their raison d’etre. Perhaps 2014 will see them make it their own.