Why the government shouldn’t ignore the role of local authorities in decarbonisation

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) progress report last week rightly expressed its disappointment that a number of government strategies have been continuously delayed, among them the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the Treasury’s final Net Zero Review. These will all be important as part of the expected overarching Net Zero Strategy which will set the pace for how the government plans to reach its economic goal of net zero carbon by 2050. The CCC hopes that the strategy will address the current significant shortfall in policies and ambition.

But a new briefing published today by a coalition of local government, environmental and academic groups, highlights that the UK will need to include local authorities much more centrally in its plans for achieving carbon reductions, highlighting that national government will not be able to do it alone.

A priority recommendation of the CCC’s report is that local authorities need more government support, through increased resourcing and guidance, among other things. A successful decarbonisation strategy will rely heavily on the efforts of those people working locally on the ground, and gaining the agreement of the communities they serve.

To date, progress has been far too slow. The CCC makes it clear that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is not fully supporting local government in taking climate action. As set out in its briefing, the coalition  demonstrates why the Net Zero Strategy could be pivotal in providing new impetus and direction for national government in supporting local leaders to address the climate emergency.

A place-based solution is often best
Many sectors which have to cut emissions have strong local and behavioural dimensions. They depend on having the right infrastructure and systems in place, for example traffic reduction and the transformation of heating. Approaches to change depend heavily on the local context, such as the economic circumstances of the region, existing housing stock and traffic infrastructure and whether it is urban or rural.

By partnering with local businesses and engaging directly with their communities, local authorities are much better placed than national government to communicate and deliver these climate policies. What’s more, people tend to trust local councils much more than national government. Recent Local Government Association’s research found that 70 per cent of local residents trusted their local authorities, compared to under 20 per cent trusting central government.

Some local authorities are already demonstrating the effectiveness of a place-based approach. Waltham Forest in London has invested heavily in improving cycle lanes and pathways to encourage active travel, with the result that local residents are cycling and walking an extra 41 minutes each week on average. The council has also reported improved life expectancies for children born since the work started, and over 15,000 people have taken up cycle training. These positive changes could only have been achieved by local authority leadership, and it is place-based schemes like this which will be necessary to change travelling habits and cut car use.

Local Authorities can target green economic growth
Similarly, local authorities can provide targeted support where it is needed in the switch to the green economy. This will be particularly important in the recovery from Covid-19, where reskilling employees of carbon intensive industries for the low carbon economy will have the added benefit of reducing unemployment as the high carbon economy shrinks. This will particularly benefit those areas hardest hit by the pandemic. For example, Green Alliance’s recent research with WPI Economics showed the opportunities for jobs in nature restoration to fill labour gaps in areas which currently face some of the most severe employment challenges.

A fair strategy needs local authority help
A successful transition to a net zero economy has to be fair to all to be acceptable. Local Authorities know their areas well and have a direct relationship with households. This puts them at the forefront of making sure no one is left behind. For instance, for home energy efficiency improvements, they can ensure those living in fuel poverty are supported. This also helps to reduce local inequality and improve health outcomes.

One excellent example of this is Leeds City Council’s renovation of the publicly owned Holtdale Estate to reduce fuel poverty, improve health and wellbeing and save households money. They expect this project to cut energy bills by 70 per cent and improve energy efficiency to EPC C and above. Likewise, in London, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the West London Alliance have set up Green Skills Academies to build up their local supply chains, support residents who are unemployed and raise awareness around green jobs.

Policy and funding contradictions have to be addressed
Local areas continually struggle with the government’s current siloed approach to the climate crisis. To change this, the Net Zero Strategy must set out how government departments and their agencies should align to remove the contradictions in policies and funding programmes. This is illustrated by the new planning proposals with their heavy focus on speed and numbers in house building, making it very difficult for local authorities to carefully plan low carbon housing appropriate for their areas. Or the £27 billion road building programme, which will interfere with and hamper local plans to change the way people travel.

The coalition supports the CCC’s recommendation for an overarching framework to help local authorities tackle the climate crisis in their own areas, in support of national goals. This should be created jointly between central government and local leaders to set out the expectations on each side, and it should be backed up by sufficient, long term funding and resources to make it happen.

Recognising local authorities as key partners in the Net Zero Strategy is produced jointly by a group of local government, environmental and research organisations. The group includes Green Alliance, ADEPT, Ashden, Friends of the Earth, the Grantham Institute, Greenpeace, LEDNET, Place-based Climate Action Network and Solace, with support from the Local Government Association and London Councils.

One comment

  • Good points but these ideas all need tome, effort and cash. Local authorities have been systematically starved of the latter.

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