‘Serious weaknesses’ in UK Government’s plans for engaging local councils on net-zero, report warns

The CCC estimates that UK councils will be able to influence one-third of the emissions generated in their local areas through partnerships and place-shaping

In a new report from the NAO, published today (16 July), it is revealed that 91% of the UK’s local authorities have set at least one climate commitment, with more than one-third (38%) committing to reach net-zero for their operations or local area by 2030.

But their ability to deliver against these goals could be hampered by a lack of clarity and support from Whitehall departments.

On the clarity side of things, the report states that most local authorities would support the introduction of mandates for net-zero targets from councils. This should come with additional guidance on how to communicate targets and accelerate decarbonisation, the NAO’s consultations with city, town and regional leaders found.

The report additionally urges departments to close green policy gaps as soon as possible, giving local authorities confidence in the direction of travel in terms of timings and technologies for the UK’s highest-emitting sectors. It cites a stock-take from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) which found 45 policy areas that are likely to impact the local response to the climate crisis. The Ministry warned of a potential “significant risk” of inconsistent goals and messaging.

This call to action follows on from the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) latest progress report to Parliament. Published in June, the progress report warned that the Government has “no coherent plan” for reducing emissions this decade and pressed Ministers to ensure that the Net-Zero Strategy is ready before COP26 as promised. Several policy packages that will inform the Strategy, including the Heat & Buildings Strategy and Hydrogen Strategy, have not yet been released.

In terms of funding, the NAO report welcomes an increase in grant funding for local authorities’ decarbonisation initiatives from £74m in 2019-2020 to £1.2bn in 2020-2021. But it warns that funding “remains fragmented”, leaving many councils unsure of how best to access support and risking a piecemeal response.

Another concern from the NAO is the fact that local authorities have received very different amounts from these funds, Its analysis found that 17 local authority areas received £20m or more each, while 37 received less than £2m each. The report touts the recent opening of the UK’s post-Brexit National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) as an opportunity to scale-up funding and remediate these issues, provided that the NIB receives more clarity on prioritising support for local authorities.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “There are serious weaknesses in Government’s approach to working with local authorities on net-zero, stemming from a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities and piecemeal funding. This hampers local authorities’ ability to plan effectively for the long term, build skills and capacity, and prioritise effort.

“The Government’s efforts to improve its approach to local action on net-zero have been understandably slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is now great urgency to make progress.”

‘Power shift’

The NAO report comes in the same week that 32 mayors and council leaders from across the UK co-signed a new communique urging the Government to grant them additional funding and powers to transition to net-zero across sectors including energy, transport and the built environment.

Convened by UK100 and published today (13 July), the communique argues the case for a new ‘Net Zero Local Powers Bill’ that would require local authorities to report on their emissions and would provide them with new powers to roll out projects designed to reduce emissions in line with net-zero.

Supporters of the initiative include London Mayor Sadiq Khan, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, Liverpool Mayor Stever Rotherham and Glasgow City Council leader Cllr Susan Aitken.

Sarah George

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