Net Zero: Are local authorities being forced by the government to take actions into their own hands? And, if so, what should they do about it?

August 20, 2021

Working with and speaking to many local authorities, it is clear that there is huge ambition to show leadership on decarbonisation and take the action we need to avert a climate disaster. More than a third of local authorities (38%) have now committed to decarbonising their areas as early as 2030 - twenty years earlier than the national objective. These local authorities are ready and willing to take action, with a real appetite and energy to deliver positive change.

However, while central government is making positive noises on climate change, there is currently a huge gulf between the ambition of local authorities to take decisive, accelerated action and the tools, policies and funding available to do so.

If we are going to facilitate the scale and urgency of action required, something needs to change and change fast. Below is my summary of the key issues and suggestions for local authorities to take matters into their own hands.

Why local authorities are in such a difficult situation with Net Zero - and where central government is failing to help

These are difficult times for many, but local authorities are bearing the brunt on multiple fronts right now. After years of austerity, they are now at the centre of pandemic recovery and the associated economic impacts. Prior to the pandemic, councils had already dealt with a £15 billion reduction to core government funding between 2010 and 2020. Today, demands on tight funds have never been higher - with revenue down and the needs of communities and businesses more acute than ever.

Despite this challenging backdrop, there are some great success stories of local authorities taking bold action, doing great work and trying to innovate to unlock key decarbonisation barriers. But privately, many will also admit that they don’t know where the money, skills or tools, let alone political support, are going to come from to deliver the scale of change required.

To deliver Net Zero, national policy ultimately needs to be translated into local delivery. Local authorities are absolutely crucial to this. Not just in areas where they have pre-existing powers and responsibilities - such as transport, social housing, planning and waste - but also through their unrivalled position to provide direction and oversight, catalyse and coordinate local action, unlock investment and to innovate and scale. It is essential that government recognises the critical role of local authorities in delivering Net Zero and empowers them to do so through a productive partnership. Unfortunately, government engagement with local authorities feels uncoordinated and in some cases is actively conflicting with their Net Zero ambitions. As a result, the ideal structures to support a productive partnership seem some way off. As I see it, local authorities face three core problems:

The three blockers stopping local authorities from acting quickly enough on Net Zero

1) Erosion of power is limiting change

Local authority action plans to deliver Net Zero are severely inhibited by the current lack of powers to enforce the changes necessary:

  • In planning, for example, powers have been progressively weakened. The national emphasis on housing delivery, has created a landscape where developers can effectively circumvent attempts to push for more sustainable approaches – a situation which has been made more uncertain by the proposed planning reforms.
  • In transport, while there are some funds for sustainable transport, local authorities have limited powers to stop undesirable road-based transport schemes. In general it is also difficult to introduce deterrents to private car use that could make a genuine difference to modal shift. Additionally, it is near impossible to truly mitigate the negative transport impacts of new developments without more integrated planning powers (see previous point).
  • On funding, an area where, to support Net Zero, local authorities desperately need more freedom to innovate. Moves such as the Local Authorities (Investment and Borrowing) Bill show that despite everything that has happened, some would prefer local authorities to be subjected to still further funding and investment restrictions!

This is just a handful of the day-to-day issues. But the result is local authorities with a genuine aspiration to lead, are blocked because they lack the powers necessary to do so.

2) Lack of funding and limited funding certainty

Delivering Net Zero will require a long-term, multi-year funded plan across a range of areas. Without knowing how much funding is available, it is effectively impossible for local authorities to make meaningful plans, let alone implement those plans. While there are a range of current funding streams that could be targeted more effectively to supporting Net Zero, a recent report by the National Audit Office confirms that neither MHCLG nor HM Treasury have assessed how the funding that central government provides to local government links with Net Zero.

Competitive funding is also a huge burden for local authorities - one that creates significant uncertainty and delivery risks, as it is time-consuming and resource-intensive with no guarantee of success. It also means that some local authorities with the greatest need may not be able to bid. The process may also bias those local authorities that have had previous successes who may continue to win funding because of additional resources in their team and stronger story to ‘pitch’.

Given that Net Zero will ultimately need to be achieved everywhere and given how much funding has already been cut, it makes little sense for local authorities to spend so much additional time and energy competing for necessary funds from government.

3) Lack of clarity and consistency

Local authorities have taken huge initiative in responding to the climate emergency. But the reality is, in the absence of co-ordinated engagement from government, different authorities have taken different approaches. While there is little consistency in local authorities’ reporting on Net Zero (the National Audit Office also notes this point), there are huge opportunities to learn from each other and for successful analysis to be streamlined and applied across the whole sector.

While there are variations within the share of emissions from the main sectors, we know that every local authority will ultimately have to address carbon emissions from domestic properties, carbon emissions from businesses and carbon emissions from transport within their region. They are also going to have to consider the impact of all those changes on their electrical network and on how energy is generated to ensure it is also zero carbon. All this will need to be considered and framed in a way that will actually enhance the lives of citizens within their region.

So whilst all places will be different (see our work for the RTPI on place-based decarbonisation here), the challenges, the processes and the learnings will be highly transferable. Government needs to embrace the ambition of local authorities and work out how it can facilitate adoption of best practice by working more closely with the sector.

But obviously, there is no guarantee that government will change its stance. We therefore think there are some clear things that local authorities can do today, to start taking matters into their own hands.

What should local authorities do to tackle government inertia on Net Zero?

Our manifesto for local authorities committed to making decarbonisation happen more quickly and effectively is as follows:

1) Present a united voice

Firstly, local authorities should group together on climate change and build strength in numbers. Those who have declared a 2030 climate target have a natural bold alliance. They just need a forum for sharing, governance and messaging, that can make their united voice heard. Obviously, there are a number of existing forums: C40 (for larger cities),, 100 Resilient Cities, UK100, LGA and so on, but there is a real opportunity for carbon leaders across the UK to mobilise to provide a platform for greater knowledge sharing and a stronger voice to demand the changes needed.

2) Establish a reporting and data standard

Whilst every local authority is different, there are some very clear similarities about what data they need and what actions they will need to take. Carbon reporting standards will be critical in helping to measure impact consistently and will also help influence supply chains. Data and analysis are regularly drawn from national datasets, augmented with local data where this is available. So working together, local authorities will be able to pool these resources and analyses, strengthening understanding across all disciplines.

3) Agree collective action

Too often, local authorities are competing. There are lots of areas where collective action could help avoid that competition and help everyone move faster. For example, working together, local authorities could make a huge impact on private vehicle demand, using levers they already have at their disposal such as car park pricing. A collective group of local authorities could send important signals to the market, to support the shift to electric vehicles and alleviate congestion. A “minimum parking tariff” for diesel or petrol vehicles, for example, could work like the national minimum wage, going a long way to creating the incentive for change. Many other areas of collective action, such as on procurement, could also have significant impact.

4) Sell culture change together

There's a big, big cultural shift that needs to occur and, in part, it's a cultural shift that requires a collective vision of what a zero carbon world will look like. In order to encourage the kind of behavioural changes that will be required, promotion of lower-impact lifestyles will be necessary. This is not an easy challenge and individual local authorities might struggle to have sufficient impact on their own. But those authorities that have committed to delivering Net Zero by 2030 already have a strong collective vision for what that future will look like and how it could benefit all parts of society. By working together and pooling resources, local authorities can articulate a positive and shared representation of the benefits of a Net Zero future, to sell and encourage change more widely.

5) Stand up and speak truth to the government

Beyond the more practical steps outlined above, we believe another and possibly even more crucial role exists for local authorities committed to decarbonisation - standing up to the government and pushing them to go further. It is understandably difficult for local authorities to rock the boat when they are dependent on the government for funding, but collectively they should have the authority and strength in numbers to do this. When there is a gap between the government’s words and their actions, this group should call them out. When better support is required for local delivery, this group should make the reasons why clear. And when more powers would make a meaningful difference to hitting carbon reduction targets, this group should campaign for them in the media.

Final thoughts...

Local authorities are facing pressures like never before, yet they are organisations showing huge ambition and leadership to deliver Net Zero and help avert our climate emergency. However, the tools, funding and powers from government are currently limiting the action that they are ultimately able to take. Working together, local authorities can leverage their impact while putting real pressure on the government to enable the changes they need most.

If you are involved with a local authority trying to deliver Net Zero, City Science has a number of resources that could make a difference. Send me a message if you'd like to know more.

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