Levelling Up White Paper: Government accused of ‘sidelining’ net-zero in new plans for regional economies

UPDATED: The UK Government has promised to bring public transport networks outside of London "much closer" to the Capital's standard this decade as part of its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. However, the general concensus is that net-zero opportunities have been missed. 

Levelling Up White Paper: Government accused of ‘sidelining’ net-zero in new plans for regional economies

Pictured: A local bus route in Birmingham

The full White Paper documents were published this afternoon (2 February), after the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) issued a statement and a summary of the White Paper’s 12 key focus areas (called ‘Missions’) this morning.

As expected, the statement and summary are headlined by a commitment to deliver system change across the UK, closing economic discrepancies between and within regions. There is also a focus on educational discrepancies and differences in healthcare and crime rates, as well as access to things like high-speed internet and quality housing.

Headline commitments include boosting public investment in R&D in the Midlands, North, South West, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by 40% this decade; providing £2.6bn to local authorities and ensuring that each UK region is host to a “globally competitive city”.

These commitments are welcome, given that, last November, the National Audit Office criticized the Government for having a “limited” understanding of how to deliver levelling up effectively.

The statement from the DHLUC in the morning made no mention of net-zero, green jobs or the climate crisis. The full White Paper, however, mentions “net-zero” more than 60 times. It provides maps of emissions across the UK and of the likely future clean technology hubs outside of what the Government calls the “Greater South East”.  These include locations for wind farms, heat pump manufacturing, nuclear plants, electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing, carbon capture and storage (CCS) arrays. 

Alongside the maps, the document acknowledges that: “The net-zero transition could create huge opportunities for many of the UK’s left-behind places, but also poses risks for them which, if unmanaged, could be damaging.” 

It adds: “Parts of the UK that need to undergo the largest transition lie outside the South East, often in some of the least well-performing areas of the UK… more than one in every two jobs in carbon-intensive industries are in the Midlands, the North and Scotland.

“While the transition to net-zero will be disruptive for these places, it could also be transformative. The green industrial revolution will require signifcant investment in new infrastructure and production processes using new technologies. This could average £50 to £60bn of capital investment per year by the late 2020s and into the 2030s.” 

Detailed in the documents are three new ‘Innovation Accelerator’ programmes focused on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow City-Region specifically. Collectively, the schemes will get £100m of funding from Government coffers. Greater Manchester’s scheme will focus on materials innovation and healthcare; the focus in the West Midlands will be mobility and public health, and Glasgow will be supported to accelerate work in manufacturing-related innovations. 

Each region will develop and deliver R&D cluster plans, which must be drawn up in a multi-stakeholder approach through consortiums that represent academia and the private and public sectors. Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be jointly responsible for overseeing the day-to-day of the Accelerators. 

Nonetheless, the full documents dedicate just three pages exclusively to net-zero – two of which are entirely picture-based. Labour has criticised the Conservatives for seemingly failing to detail any new green economy funding beyond previous commitments. 

Public transport

One of the twelve Missions is ensuring that local public transport connectivity across the UK will be “significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing”. Given that transport is the UK’s highest-emitting sector, this commitment ties to the need for modal shift in the net-zero transition. 

In 2020, the Ten-Point Plan promised £5bn for active travel and public transport, with £2bn going to the former and £3bn going to the latter. The Government subsequently published its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which contained new commitments on low-carbon HGVs and aviation but little new information on buses and rail.

The Government has repeatedly been accused of focusing too much on individual EV ownership and not enough on high-quality local public transport in its plans for meeting net-zero, with critics including the think tanks Green Alliance and the IPPR.

The Levelling Up White Paper reiterates the Ten-Point Plan funding commitment and several schemes already underway, including the West Midlands’ ‘Sprint’ project, which is delivering a bus rapid transit system, and Coventry’s very light rail scheme.

It also new improvements in bus speeds, services and ticketing as part of priority schemes in West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, as well as reduced ticket prices in places including Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Luton, Derbyshire, Warrington. 

But it would appear that no new funding has been announced, beyond that already confirmed in the National Bus Strategy, City-Region Sustainable Transport Settlements and Integrated Rail Plan – all announced in 2020 and 2021. 

Spotlight on housing

The UK’s poor-quality housing stock has long been a challenge in furthering both the environmental sustainability and social sustainability agenda, with issues including energy inefficiency, fuel poverty and poor health all being systemically interlinked.

Detailed in the DLUHC’s statement are plans to effectively end Government funding for homes in London and the South East, so that construction in “Maximum Affordability Areas” will receive more support. Only 20% of funding, going forward, will be spent outside of these areas.

There are also plans to develop and implement a ‘Decent Homes Standard’ for all privately-rented homes in the UK, which should help improve public health and reduce energy and water wastage.

The documents state; “In 2020, 16% or 4 million homes failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard, down from 30% or 6.7 million homes in 2009. These improvements mean more people are living in homes which are safe, warm and meet a basic standard of decency. Despite this progress, there is more to do.” 

For social housing, a new Social Housing Regulation Bill will be brought forward this calendar year. And, to help renters into homeownership, a new £1.5bn pot will be launched.

No new funding has been announced for retrofitting homes, or ensuring that new builds are more environmentally sustainable. 

Green economy reaction 

Reacting to the plans, WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns Katie White said: “We are facing a climate and nature catastrophe and to improve the health, wealth and wellbeing of all we should be pulling every lever to accelerate the transition to net-zero. This needs to be at the heart of UK government policies, yet it has been sidelined in the white paper.  

“If this Government wants its promise to create meaningful opportunities for communities across the UK to be taken seriously, then climate and nature goals must be front and centre of both public and private investment to level up the UK. Investing in the green transition will not only save money down the line, but communities across the UK will see direct benefits now – from well-paid green jobs, many in previously overlooked communities, to improved public transport and warmer homes.” 

Ashden’s chief executive Harriet Lamb said: “We are pleased to see the emphasis on skills and devolution but then really surprised and disappointed to see the absence of green skills and commitments connected to net -zero. This White Paper – only 3 short months after COP26 – was a badly needed chance to kickstart a green industrial revolution throughout the UK and it looks like it has been missed.”

Ashden’s cities manager Cara Jenkinson added: “The Government could have used this chance to kickstart a green industrial revolution throughout the UK and but it has not. We really don’t have time to watch our leaders miss opportunities like this. 

“As highlighted in a new report ‘Road to Zero Carbon: council actions on green jobs and skills’ report published today by Friends of the Earth and Ashden, councils have a deep understanding of local needs and challenges which puts them in a unique position to bring employers and colleges together to deliver local green jobs quickly. But without a long-term funding commitment from the Government to support this work, together with a genuine devolution of power, the green skills revolution will be patchy, with many parts of the country left behind.”

The Aldersgate Group’s executive director Nick Molho said: “The Government’s 12 missions to level up the UK set a welcome ambition to spread economic opportunities, high-quality education and a good quality of life across the country. A rapid transition to a net-zero emissions economy is going to be absolutely essential to deliver these goals in practice.

“Growing investment in renewable energy, building insulation, EVs, public transport and low-carbon industrial clusters holds the key to creating jobs, improving productivity, driving private investment and skilling up the workforce across the country. If the Government is serious about its Levelling Up ambitions, it must proceed at pace with the implementation of its Net Zero Strategy.”

The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology’s (REA) chief executive Nina Skorupska said the organisation is “disappointed that net-zero did not play a much greater role” in the White Paper, and hopes all measures included are subjected to net-zero stress testing. 

Skorupska said: “With the right support, the renewable energy and clean technology sector could provide the catalyst to the Government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs and generating billions in new investment across every region and country across the UK.

“We are already seeing the renewable energy sector driving regeneration in Humberside, but I want to see this success replicated on a much wider scale. But we wouldn’t have to wait to see the benefits of this approach. Amid a worsening cost of living crisis – driven in part by volatile fossil fuel prices – the need to accelerate the energy transition has never been greater. It is clear that the best way to protect households from rising energy bills is to expand the installation of domestic renewable and cleantech systems, insulate homes as quickly as possible, and deliver new housing stock which is fit for a Net Zero future. 

“I hope that the Government looks to reassess its position, place net-zero at the heart of its ‘levelling up’ agenda, and build a more equitable, more sustainable and more prosperous economy.”


UKSIF’s chief executive James Alexander said: “We are hugely disappointed to see the UK’s net-zero and sustainability ambitions overlooked in the White Paper with no references made within any of the 12 ‘Levelling-Up Missions.’ The links between the UK’s 2050 net-zero objective and levelling-up are very clear to us, and we believe one cannot be achieved at the expense of the other. Creating an economy that can build the sustainable industries of the future in those parts of this country that need this investment the most will be critical to progressing both agendas.


“We also would like to have seen recognition given to the importance of promoting a just transition for those left-behind communities as we move towards a greener economy over time, and the part it can play in helping achieve levelling-up across the country in practice. We continue to support a ‘Just Transition Commission’ to help define a common language and begin work on ‘Just Transition roadmaps’ to analyse those sectors where jobs are most at risk and of the reskilling interventions needed.”


Sarah George

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