UK Government failing to support local councils on road to net-zero, MPs warn
Despite numerous warnings that the UK will not meet its net-zero target without better supporting local low-carbon transitions for buildings and transport, little has been done by the Government in recent months to engage councils.
That is according to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which has today (29 October) released a major report as part of its ongoing inquiry into how local government can enable the net-zero transition.
The report expresses disappointment that the Net-Zero Strategy included no time-bound, numerical commitments to increase funding levels for local authorities. Published last week, the Strategy is described by the Government as a roadmap for “transforming every sector of the UK and global economy”. However, it contains no sector-specific decarbonisation targets and, while decisions are made on major local projects including carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) clusters and nuclear plants, there is no mention of local plans for decarbonising other high-emitting sectors such as road transport.
Similarly, this week’s Budget and Autumn Statement allocated sizeable chunks of funding to selected transport networks and manufacturing hubs. But this was done in what some green groups and civil society organisations have called a piecemeal manner.
The Committee’s overarching call to action is for the Government to produce a long-term funding plan for local authority climate action, to support policy frameworks like the Net-Zero Strategy and give cash-strapped councils the confidence they need to invest in projects like electric vehicle (EV) charging networks, active transport networks and district heat networks.
The plan, the report argues, should also come with a net-zero delivery framework, outlining which roles and responsibilities sit with the central Government and which sit with local authorities. This framework should also provide best-practice advice on how councils can help to deliver a just transition for their local communities. Work on both the funding plan and delivery framework should be undertaken collaboratively and begin immediately, according to the Committee.
Committee chair Clive Betts MP said: “Local councils will have a critical role to play in efforts to achieve the 2050 ‘net zero’ target, building public confidence in climate action, and ensuring a just transition.
“The Government must learn the lessons of past failed, nationally delivered, ‘green’ schemes. Schemes should be delivered in partnership with local councils who are trusted by their communities and who can provide the organisation, advice and promotion which will be vital in raising people’s understanding about the changes taking place.”
Other organisations have made warnings similar to those included in today’s report in recent months. July saw the National Audit Office (NAO) publishing a report documenting “serious weaknesses” in the central Government’s approach to engaging local councils on net-zero, with many councils struggling to secure funding or access support with target-setting. Then, in September, the County Councils Network warned that the Government is failing to sufficiently support local climate action outside of cities.
Spotlight on heat and housing
The report identifies the need for net-zero to be integrated into the planning system, recommending net-zero is given a central role in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This would help to ensure that future developments are net-zero ready, beyond the requirements of developers to comply with the Future Homes Standard.
Proper net-zero integration in the NPPF, the report argues, would also ensure that all housing developments and employment hubs are properly serviced by public and active transport networks. Aside from ensuring that homes are low-carbon in operation, they should not lock residents into car dependency, in other words.
The report also argues that consultations on the Future Homes Standard should take place in 2022 rather than 2023, as currently planned, as this will give developers time to prepare and may enable implementation before 2025.
Additionally, there is the acknowledgement that delivering low-carbon new homes will not be enough, given that most of the UK housing standing today will still be used in 2050.
Betts summarised: “Moving to lower or zero emissions from new homes is important. But to reach net-zero, it’s crucial that insulation is improved in existing homes and that householders are offered viable choices and incentives to replace their gas boilers and decarbonise their heating. The Government’s current approach, and lack of incentives to do otherwise, risks a large number of existing gas boilers simply being replaced with new gas boilers.”
To this latter point, the report states that the boiler scrappage scheme proposed in the Heat and Buildings Strategy will not support lower-income homes, as the upfront cost of a heat pump will still be higher than a gas boiler, and costs pushed higher still by the practicalities of installation and operation.
Several other influential organisations have pointed out the fact that the scrappage scheme will only help 30,000 households over a three-year period, despite the Government promising 800,000 heat pump installations by 2028.
Moreover, as other groups have done, the Committee is calling for more clarity on how private sector investment for retrofitting will be garnered, given that the Heat and Buildings Strategy earmarks less than £2bn of the £9.2bn promised in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto. Additionally recommended are lower VAT, stamp duty and council tax, for energy-efficient measures and homes.