Joining the dots

By Ann McGauran | 24 October 2021

There are only a couple of games in town right now for local government leadership. The first, this week's Spending Review, will be rapidly followed by the second - the global COP26 summit in Glasgow on climate change. The third, expected next week, is the Prime Minister’s ‘big idea’ White Paper on levelling up, with a focus on devolution and investment.

But despite the pressure on the UK Government to be brave with its ambitions for net zero, little that was new in terms of policy emerged in the three documents it published last week – the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, the Heat and Buildings Strategy and the response to the Committee on Climate Change’s 2021 progress report.

Do they leave local government any clearer on their role in helping deliver net zero carbon emissions? On the Government’s ambition of achieving net zero by 2050, chief executive of APSE (the Association for Public Service Excellence) Paul O’Brien says in The MJ this week that the announcements still raised ‘a number of unanswered questions as to how the programme will be funded and a concern that yet again local government’s ability to play a key role in delivering such an important policy agenda, has been underplayed’.

Officials said about £26bn of funding towards the green plans would come from the public sector from 2021-2025. According to Mr O’Brien, much more funding will be needed ‘given the scale of what needs to happen, in the coming decades’.

Last week New Local published its own report Communities vs Climate Change: the power of local action, showing that councils have direct powers over a third of local carbon emissions. It said local government will have to reach out to the communities they serve if they want to make an impact beyond this and achieve net zero in their areas. It is notable that the glaring need for behaviour change messages is largely swerved in all three government papers.

There is a worry, expressed by deputy director of New Local Jessica Studdert, that central Government risks putting climate change, devolution and levelling up in policy silos, and not seeing devolution as a way of both getting to net zero and transitioning equitably to a green economy.

Speaking ahead of the Spending Review, she also highlighted to The MJ what she sees as ‘high rhetoric and under-commitments on funding’. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is said to be concerned about the costs of funding the transition. She said it feels like the Government is, ‘to use a  green pun, recycling existing funding streams rather than creating new ones that are sorely needed’. The Treasury has warned that taxes might need to rise to support the move.

So what are the key takeaway points from the strategies? The tone set by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the foreward to the Net Zero Strategy is that we can just carry on as we are, ‘without so much as a hair shirt in sight’. The line is maintained that indefinite and continued economic growth is both desirable and possible, there are underpinning assumptions partly based on untried technology such as hydrogen, micro nuclear and carbon capture and storage, and in contradiction to reports from the Office for Budget Responsibility and others, the public is being promised that achieving net zero will not involve additional cost.

And yet, the span of influence of local authorities is specifically mentioned, with the recognition that of all UK emissions,‘82% are within the scope of influence of local authorities’. There is acknowledgement of the key role played by local government and local  leaders,  and 2022 will bring a strategic framework to 2030 to provide a co-ordinated approach to delivering against climate and biodiversity targets.

There is £1.4bn in funding for decarbonisation of the public estate, and households will get grants to put in low-carbon heat pumps as part of a £3.9bn plan. But there has been a watering down around the requirements for gas boilers, where the former target to mandate has been reduced to simply an ambition to remove gas boilers from sale by 2035. A new £450m residential boiler upgrade scheme will tackle around 90,000 homes, but the target is 600,000 homes per year by 2028. Think tank Localis, in a report published last week, warned that the ‘huge’ variations in property costs when incentivising home owners and landlords to retrofit houses to meet national net zero targets risks worsening economic inequality.

In a statement for The MJ, strategic director of Local Partnerships Jo Wall said:  ‘It is encouraging that central government has acknowledged the extent of influence that local authorities have in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. There is still further work to be done to define the role for local government in many areas, but this should be viewed as a promising starting point.’

 The statement added: ‘It’s also fair to say that local authorities have not been resting on their laurels since so many made declarations of climate emergency. Through our work with local authorities and our sponsorship of The MJ award for leadership in responding to the climate emergency, we can see the ambition and drive there is in the sector. Local authorities also seem more comfortable than central government with the need for behavioural change and we can see councils starting to work with their communities on this through local citizens’ panels and climate assemblies.’

Engaging with communities as a way of nudging and pushing for behavioural change is of course something local government working with partners are extremely well placed to do. For example, a report published this month by Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design includes the example of a grant-funded experiment aimed at promoting action to reduce air pollution involving residents of Tower Hamlets and neighbouring areas in East London. Run by Umbrellium, it looked at whether collective environmental assessment and action facilitated by an SMS-based social platform could sustain behaviour change.  The experimental groups performed better than the control group in terms of variety of actions undertaken, adherence to the action and overall calculated impact.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling on the Government to use the Spending Review to start work with councils and businesses on a national fiscal and policy framework to address the climate emergency. A new report commissioned by the LGA, Delivering Net Zero, sets out how councils can retrofit 3.49m homes with energy efficiency measures by 2030 – 2.34m more than under the current plan.

Returning to Ms Studdert, she argued that the Government is in danger of not joining the dots between the policies it says it wants to turbo-charge. ‘It’s a feature of how the system works. Central government always seems to put these things into different policy boxes. Climate change over there, devolution over here, and then the Spending Review that may just cut across everything and ultimately may not give councils the resources they need to deliver any of these wider aspirations.’

She added: ‘The key thing that we were really looking at is that devolution and climate change need to stop being seen as separate policy issues, and instead devolution needs to be seen much more as a route to net zero and a route to both mitigating the effects of climate change but also enabling an equitable transition to a green economy.’

And she warned that ‘there risks being winners and losers from the transition [to net zero]’. She emphasised the tough choices and trade-offs ahead, including the creation of green jobs while people will lose employment because of the move away from carbon-intensive industries. That shift, with its huge implications for the success of the levelling up agenda, needs to be ‘purposely navigated’ and the reality is that impacts are going to fall differently in different areas. The chancellor is expected to announce a multi-billion pound skills revolution this week, but when it emerges, will it do what Ms Studdert said is needed and devolve skills and employment support to local areas, giving them ‘real levers to invest in their local economic reality’?

It’s crucial, she believes, to understand that building legitimacy, taking people with you, understanding why changes are happening and working with them to create the best solutions ‘can’t be done from on high and can’t just be legislated for - you really do need that empowered local democratic space.’

Opinion - It is the right time to invest in all our futures

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