Cities and local governments are key players for more than just SDG11

Measuring Up 2.0 chapter leads, Allan Macleod and Sean Fox, share their latest research which highlights the challenges and opportunities for local action on the Global Goals.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 sets out an ambition to achieve sustainable cities and communities through inclusive planning and development. By international standards, the UK should be well-placed to deliver on this Goal. However, given that the majority of the UK population live in urban areas, and that cities across the country are growing, delivery of all 17 SDGs hinges on what happens in cities. We need local action on all the Goals to achieve the Global Goals.

Local governments and local organisations are key to ensuring that when action is taken it is appropriate, well targeted, and effective. City leaders across the public, non-profit, and private sectors are better placed to understand local sustainability challenges and act to address them. However, UK cities are struggling to take meaningful action for a variety of reasons, highlighted in a recent report on Bristol’s progress in achieving the SDGs.

This report, produced through a partnership between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council, explored the challenges local authorities face in accelerating action based on research conducted among a sample of six Core Cities. It highlights both the constraints on local action to tackle SDG 11, as well as creative partnerships that have emerged to progress the Goals. Among the constraints, three stand out.

First, piecemeal devolution has created myriad overlapping government structures. Any given city—or functional urban region—often contains multiple local authorities, a regional authority, and unique service jurisdictions. In Bristol, for example, the City Council local authority area only contains about 70% of the total population of the Bristol Built-Up Area, and less than half of the city-region population of 1.1 million. But critical social, economic, and environmental challenges do not disappear at the edge of local authority borders. The local authorities within the city region are interdependent with one another. This jurisdictional complexity makes coordinated action on the SDGs challenging.

Second, cities across the UK have been confronted by an unstable fiscal context. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (now known as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) estimates that national funding for local authorities fell by 49.1% in real terms between 2011 and 2018. As the austerity programme was spatially blind to the varying socio-economic conditions of each local authority, its effects have been experienced unevenly.

However, limited funding is not the only fiscal challenge. Our research revealed widespread frustration with the way critical resources – particularly for investment – are allocated through competitive, time-bound, and ringfenced funding mechanisms. Councils are required to bid for funding from Westminster or negotiate a deal to address critical local priorities, which one policy officer deemed a “waste of time and resources,” especially for unsuccessful bids and negotiations. The increasing reliance on “bidding and deal-making rather than capacity building” for local government in the UK undermines the strategic planning that sustainable local development demands.

Finally, access to the data required to report on the SDGs remains problematic. Not all relevant data is held by the ONS. Some government departments do not share data or do not geographically disaggregate data to the level required for local monitoring. These local data deficits can make targeted interventions by local authorities difficult to justify, deliver, and monitor.

However, in many cities local cross-sectoral partnerships have emerged to tackle key challenges. One reason Bristol has been able to take more action on the SDGs than many other UK local authorities is the development of a coordinator role within the Council, initially funded by the University of Bristol but now institutionalised within the City Office. This has ensured sustained capacity for cross-sectoral dialogue locally, and capacity for national and international engagements related to the SDGs. As a result, Bristol has launched initiatives like Period Friendly Bristol, tackling citywide period poverty (SDG 5) and its collaborative Climate and Ecological Emergency approaches (SDG 13, SDG 14, SDG 15). Glasgow and Liverpool, two of the other main UK cities that have taken direct action on the SDGs, have had similar experiences. These initiatives work to harness the power of collective will for change but require involvement from a wide cross section of society to be effective.

The UK’s ability to support achievement of the SDGs globally will require ambitious local action. Despite some efforts to bring resources and decision-making power closer to citizens and local leaders through devolution, UK cities face considerable constraints. Creative cross-sectoral partnerships have emerged in some places to overcome these constraints, but ultimately local authorities need to be recognised as central actors in driving sustainable development and granted the resources and powers to accelerate action.

Allan Macleod is the Operations and Stakeholder Engagement Manager and SDG Coordinator at the Bristol City Office. He coordinates work with businesses, civil society and public sector organisations on the SDGs in Bristol and supports advocacy for local government voices in SDG decision making nationally and internationally.

Sean Fox is an Associate Professor in Global Development at the University of Bristol and a Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute whose research explores the causes and consequences of global urbanization, the political economy of urban governance, and sustainable city futures.

Read more about Bristol’s work towards the SDGs here: and their research into the UK’s progress towards SDG 11 in our Measuring Up 2.0 report here: