The Net Zero Strategy and local government: do commitments meet calls for change?

27 Oct 2021

With the start of the Glasgow COP just days away, there is a great deal of attention focused on whether the UK will open COP26 with a credible strategy in place to deliver decarbonisation targets through to 2050. An abundance of key Government documents, aiming to put this strategy in place, were published on 19th October – including the long-awaited Net Zero and Heat and Buildings Strategies. Whilst both documents contain a wide range of commitments and policy announcements we focus here on the role of local governments, evaluating the extent to which commitments in the new strategies align with recent studies on local net zero needs.

Place based solutions

Local and regional governments lack the formal status of negotiating parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but have a vital role to play in informing and delivering climate action on the ground. It is increasingly clear that many of the critical actions needed to deliver net zero are place-based; these include the development of smart, local energy systems which incorporate demand reduction, decarbonised heat and transport, and flexible system operation. Often the best combination of actions is highly dependent on context, based on existing infrastructure, opportunities and local priorities.

In the UK there is currently significant investment and experimentation in the scope for local energy systems. Both the Net Zero Strategy and the Heat and Buildings Strategy assert the importance of local approaches to net zero, with the Net Zero strategy incorporating a section on ‘local climate action’ which reiterates the ‘essential role’ devolved and local government play in meeting national net zero ambitions. It identifies the key priorities for supporting local action on net zero as:

  • Setting clearer expectations for local places;
  • Providing resources for local places;
  • Building capacity and capability at the local level.

But to what extent are these priorities and the associated commitments in line with other analysis of local needs to accelerate net zero delivery?

Analysis of role of local government

Recognising the importance of place-based climate action a number of organisations have recently published analyses of the role of local government. In July 2021 the National Audit Office, at the request of the Environmental Audit Committee, published its report on the role of local government in net zero. The report concluded that there are ‘serious weaknesses in central government’s approach to working with local authorities on decarbonisation’ and set out a range of recommendations.

Six further reports published since July 2020 (the Climate Change Committee, Regen, Green Alliance, EnergyRev, Energy Systems Catapult and UK100) considered the local government role and offered proposals about the reforms necessary to enable local areas to fully contribute to decarbonisation. Comparing the findings of these reports reveals a high level of agreement between studies, with five main points of accord relating to the need for 1) a local net zero framework, 2) a local net zero statutory duty, 3) reporting standards, 4) reform of funding, and 5) planning reforms. These common themes are outlined in table 1. There is, of course, a great deal of further analysis and detailed recommendations associated with each report, however the consensus on the core structures required to facilitate local action is clear. Below we review the commitments in the Net Zero Strategy against the five recurring themes in these studies.

Net Zero Strategy vs key analytical themes

A local net zero framework

  • The Net Zero Strategy recognises concerns about the central-local relationship on net zero delivery and commits to setting clearer expectations on how central and local governments interact. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will take overall responsibility for improving coordination with local government and other local actors on net zero. A Local Net Zero Forum will be established to bring together national and local government senior officials to discuss policy and delivery options on net zero.
  • These commitments largely meet calls in the reviewed reports for a Net Zero delivery framework which clarifies the role of local governments.

A net zero statutory duty

  • The Government does not ‘believe that a new general statutory requirement is needed’, suggesting that the legal powers, assets and funding available to devolved, local and regional authorities already enables them to drive local progress towards net zero.
  • The UK100 Power Shift report sets out the range of general powers and funding mechanisms that can be used by local government to address climate change, however all the reports emphasised that there is no overarching duty to act on net zero. Calls for a clear local government net zero framework were combined with a recommendation for a new statutory duty for local government to set targets and plan for area-wide carbon reductions.

Reporting standards

  • The Net Zero Strategy did not discuss the topic of local reporting. However a number of the studies recommend that local net zero reporting guidance should be developed and methodologies standardised.

Reform funding

  • The Government has committed to explore how they ‘could simplify and consolidate funds which target net zero initiatives at the local level’. There is a commitment to continue the Local Net Zero Programme, including the continuation of the Local Net Zero Hubs (previously known as the local energy hubs) across England. Investment such as the Levelling Up Fund, the Towns Fund, the Community Renewal Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund will embed a net zero principle and the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) will offer loans to local authorities for projects of at least £5 million. The UKIB will also develop an expert advisory service to help local authorities develop and finance projects, although no timescale is stated for this.
  • These commitments go some way to meet the calls across reports to reform local funding for net zero, however beyond a commitment to ‘explore’ simplification and ‘over time’ develop an advisory service there no limited detail provided on process or timescales. Continued support for the Local Net Zero Hubs reflects recommendations in the reports.

Planning reform

  • The Net Zero Strategy states that reforms of the planning framework will include reviewing the National Planning Policy Framework to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible. It also indicates that BEIS and Ofgem are reviewing the opportunities and challenges of local area energy mapping and planning (LAEMP) and considering policy options.
  • All the reports emphasised that planning reforms are central to many local net zero roles, including enabling local government to align planning decisions with net zero targets and devolving strategic ‘London style’ transport powers to other regions. There was support for a national framework for local area energy planning.

Overall the net zero strategy suggests some progress for the local government role in net zero. Formalisation of BEIS responsibility to lead coordination with local government, together with continuing support for the Local Net Zero Hubs, are important steps. However much remains uncertain, and subject to action in the coming months, as Government sets out its plans relating to central and local government interaction on net zero; the simplification of local net zero funds; its position on local area energy mapping and planning, and the very significant task of reforming spatial planning.

Additionally, local government is a devolved power, providing scope for divergence in approach between England and the devolved nations. Within UKERC we are investigating the development of local and regional energy systems in Great Britain, examining the interactions between policy frameworks across England, Scotland and Wales and local approaches to energy system decarbonisation. We will be sharing our findings here as the research progresses.