Local elections taking place on 4 May risk being overshadowed by the UK General Elections on 8 June. But engaging and turning up for local elections is vital for good governance as local authorities are responsible for anything from education and social care to housing and leisure services. Most importantly as far as Scottish Environment LINK members concerned, local authorities are a key actor when it comes to environmental protection and pursuing sustainability.
So it is with some concern that we note a decreased turn out rate for local elections but also shrinking budgets for local authorities. This is not a sustainable practice. Citizen engagement at the local level and mobilisation to ensure local authorities are adequately resourced should be a key concern for all.
LINK members would therefore like to use the opportunity of the upcoming local elections to highlight some key pitfalls of the current trend of decreasing budgets for local councils in the face of increasing responsibilities. Our members reiterate their commitment to engage, where possible, with local authorities and hope to renew this engagement following the May elections.
For Scottish Environment LINK members, cuts in local budgets can be particularly damaging to Scotland’s environmental ambitions: faced with smaller budgets local councils will prioritise services considered essential. This means that some environmental provisions might be side-lined which in the long term leads to higher costs. More restrictive budgets also means that access to personnel or experts will be limited. This can further damage our environment, since environmental protection relies on the generation of science-based policy and experience. Moreover, there is less room for councils to pursue innovative projects to further a transition to a more sustainable society, such as decarbonising heat or encouraging the uptake of green vehicles through public procurement.
Scottish Environment LINK members would like to highlight three areas of particular concern.
The first is biodiversity. Scotland is home to many unique species which contribute to the resilience of our ecosystem and the natural beauty of our environment. Legislation at global, European and Scottish level mandates it should be protected. But a range of responsibilities falls with local authorities. One such crucial responsibility is the “biodiversity duty” –the responsibility to conserve biodiversity and report how this is done. This duty also covers climate change. It is therefore a critical element to ensuring progress on halting biodiversity loss, in line with international targets, is made on the ground. But shrinking budgets is having a serious effect on the ability of councils to respond to the biodiversity duty in a meaningful way. Dedicated Biodiversity Officers are not being replaced which has an inevitable knock-on effect to the ambition, insight and impact of Local Biodiversity Action Plans. Can we afford to neglect this when Scotland’s Biodiversity Intactness Index is the 36th worst of 215 countries measured?
The second issue refers to our land. Scotland’s Land Use Strategy aims to develop a regulatory framework that promotes the responsible stewardship, sustainable use and multiple benefits of land, including respect for the full range of interests in the land, both public and private. To achieve that the Strategy recognises the contribution of local plans and partnerships. Indeed, progress has been made in this respect with two Regional Land Use Pilot projects in Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders. But this piecemeal approach will not deliver for the sustainable management of our land. What is needed is a robust roll-out of Regional Land Use Frameworks that can cater to the specificities of geography, landscape and communities while also enjoying national support particularly in terms of funding.
The third issue relates to our marine environment and the sustainable management of our seas, an ambition which is to be met through the adoption of Regional Marine Plans. Regional Marine Plans aim to provide a much-needed planning framework by setting the foundations for coordinating all marine sectors and activities with an overarching duty to deliver sustainable development. For these to be successful, they need to involve relevant stakeholders in a transparent and inclusive way while also involving experts to ensure that plans are in line with available science and evidence. As with Regional Land Use Frameworks, while adapted for local needs, these initiatives need to be properly resources in terms of funding and expertise and need to be able to tap into best practice to create successful plans.