Making local authority energy ambition a reality

17 Jun 2020

Last week’s newsletter featured reflections from Caroline Kuzemko and Jess Britton on local authority sustainable energy capacities, building on their 2020 ERSS publication.

Their analysis rightly points out that some local authorities are progressing with local energy developments, despite limited powers and resources. Conclusions emphasised the value of in-house energy expertise and systems for sharing knowledge between authorities; the authors also suggest the need for more coordination between local and central governments, including on a new local statutory duty to develop sustainable energy.

Lack of such supportive public policy to date has resulted in considerable variability in UK local authority engagement. Our UKERC3 project, joint funded by ETI, analysed ‘energy leaders’ and laggards (see our 2020 paper in Energy Policy).

Big ambitions, little follow-through

Only a minority of councils managed to develop a strategic local energy programme, despite widespread ambition. Projects tend to stall because energy is a discretionary area of local services, and hence thinly resourced in many councils; in others, skilled staff have been redeployed or lost jobs, because of continuing reductions in local budgets.

Our case studies of 40 of the more active local authorities (Local Energy in UK Energy Systems) showed the skills, ingenuity, and improvisation brought to bear on embedding energy services into local plans and capital investment programmes.

Accumulated expertise

Valuable local expertise has consequently accumulated, particularly in relation to investments in low carbon heat and energy efficiency in buildings. A notable example is Aberdeen Heat and Power Ltd, a not-for-profit energy company set up by Aberdeen City Council in 2002 to provide affordable warmth for low-income households. The business has continually extended district heating networks across the city. It now supplies a mix of public and private enterprises, winning awards for its development and operation of heat networks.

Pockets of progress

Other innovative local energy developments are in place around Britain, often acting on the hardest decarbonisation targets for central governments to tackle: energy efficiency and heating systems in buildings, and transport – which require local-scale action (CCC, 2019; IEA, 2019). All of these developments demonstrate the integrated sustainability value of local energy systems, optimising heat, power, transport, and storage at a local-scale while reducing overall demand.

Key factors behind these distinctive pockets of progress are:

  • enduring local political commitment, ideally combined with community action;
  • officer skill and endurance in identifying and advocating the synergies between local energy, fair work, welfare and carbon reductions;
  • council willingness to use European (and now UK) regional investment funds to develop the expertise to accelerate and scale up local energy investments;
  • and finance director willingness to integrate energy into local capital investment programmes with benefits for council revenues.

Transforming UK economy and society to net zero carbon by 2050 can be significantly eased by building on these local initiatives. The majority of UK local authorities have already recognised the urgent need for action, through Climate Emergency declarations and ambitions for Net Zero Carbon Localities.

Local political statements are a springboard for action, but fulfilling them requires central government support through new policy mandates, combined with devolution of powers and resources.

Clear direction needed

To date UK government has not provided clear strategic direction for English local government to contribute to energy decarbonisation; the situation differs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with some divergence in policies, and opportunities for mutual learning.

Calls for a green economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic are also a moment of opportunity for a renewed social contract through macro-economic models and fiscal policies which treat local public services as assets rather than liabilities.

So what is needed now to make local authority energy ambition a reality? We have updated and extended our Local Energy in UK Energy Systems research (UKERC and ETI) in a forthcoming EnergyREV report Net Zero Localities: Ambition & Value in UK Local Authority Investment.

The multiple societal benefits from investing in UK localities and regions to meet net-zero carbon objectives are evident. Transformation will not however occur without supportive policy to ensure the move from just a few local authority ‘energy leaders’ to many.


Based on our research, we conclude that the following are necessary for making local authority energy ambition a reality:

  1. Establish a long-term policy mandate for net-zero carbon localities. UK, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish Governments can convert local authority ambition into action. Explicit policy for net-zero localities will establish the principles for coordination between UK and devolved national, regional, and local governments. Critically this will help to reduce uncertainties for businesses, investors, and communities.
  2. Institutionalise local net-zero carbon planning and priorities for implementation through statutory powers and devolved resources to secure long term benefits from investment, and coordinated local and national government action.
  3. Build capacity for integrated local programmes through investing in local authority net-zero teams. Provide long-term public funding for technical assistance and development capital to implement area-wide net-zero carbon plans. Combine projects into local programmes to attract finance on affordable terms. Back this up with regional and national coordination and support functions.
  4. Evaluate all local and regional public expenditure against net-zero principles. This requires new metrics to normalise and institutionalise governance for net-zero carbon across local authority finance, land use planning, services, and spending.
  5. Use government economic recovery strategies post-Covid to drive investment in net zero carbon localities. This brings benefits from inward investment for high-value local jobs, reskilling, supply chain innovations, improved housing, and a just transition.

The few local authorities making headway have been breaking the rules of centralised political control and liberalised markets, with committed local politicians and officials driving social innovation in local energy systems. It’s now time to change the rules.

Read more:

Tingey, M. and Webb, J. (forthcoming). Net Zero Localities: Ambition & Value in UK Local Authority Investment. Glasgow: EnergyREV.

Tingey, M. and Webb, J. (2020) Governance institutions and prospects for local energy innovation: laggards and leaders among UK local authorities, Energy Policy, Vol 138 (111211)

Webb, J., Tingey, M. and Hawkey, D. (2017) What We Know about Local Authority Engagement in UK Energy Systems: Ambitions, Activities, Business Structures & Ways Forward. London, UKERC and Loughborough, ETI