Why councils need to be at the vanguard of net zero

By Ann McGauran | 15 August 2023

The Climate Change Committee’s report to Parliament earlier this summer emphasises the pivotal role local authorities play in the transition to net zero.

Crucially, it says the Local Net Zero Forum should develop an agreed framework setting out what aspects of net zero central and local government are responsible for and how these will be co-ordinated. The report notes that timing on this is slipping. It should have happened in 2022.

Time is of course not on the side of humanity when it comes to the climate emergency, with July confirmed as the global hottest month on record. But there is a more positive story emerging about the determination of many in local government to find innovative ways to build a greener, more sustainable future.

Hounslow LBC is leading on the Green Economy Action Plan – one of the seven climate programmes delivered by London Councils. It sets out how councils across the capital can double the size of their green economy by 2030. The council’s chief executive Niall Bolger spoke about this work at a 3Ci London regional investors event, including trialling the borough’s Net Zero Neighbourhood model. This aims to develop a replicable funding and delivery model for creating low carbon energy communities on a street-by-street or neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis across the borough and London.

Speaking to The MJ, Mr Bolger underlines the high degree of dedication across the council to reach its net zero carbon target by 2030, with a further ambition to deliver a 50% emissions reduction by 2026. There is also a focus on doubling the number of green training and employment opportunities across London.

He says: ‘The scale of what needs to be done is enormous, but the opportunity is enormous too. There is an unequivocal commitment from our members to tackle the climate emergency in Hounslow.

‘It’s weaved through all of our corporate plans and policies, it’s a key plank of our overall corporate strategy, it’s underpinned by a five-year finance strategy as well as a significant investment in additional capacity for the council as well.’

The council has a climate emergency team and is investing in capacity, for example in ecological assessment, and its planning teams are being reshaped so they can take forward the borough’s ambition to progress a new framework for low carbon development.

Hounslow’s housebuilding programme is now going to be exclusively low or zero carbon development, ‘and we have got quite an ambitious programme of delivery against that, where this administration is going to be building or purchasing 1,000 new homes which is in addition to our track record already of building 4,700 in the last administration’.

The council was also one of the first in London to adopt a green infrastructure plan, investing significant money to improve sustainable urban drainage. He says the total cost of Hounslow’s own emissions in terms of achieving its net zero ambitions by 2030 through its own operations will be £200m. ‘So we’ve already secured and invested £48m against that programme and there’s a further £152m that we need to secure and find and members are determined that we do it.’

While he admits this will be tough, he believes ‘it is also achievable within the resources that we have available, but it is not available for every borough’.

‘We are quite fortunate in terms of our relatively buoyant financial position – in terms of our reserves and our capital programme, for example.’

The seven London-wide programmes are beginning to take off, and he says one project, Retrofit London, is ‘probably going to be the biggest intervention in London’s housing market ever’. The estimate is that it will cost £98bn to transition the capital’s housing stock from the current energy performance to EPCB. ‘That’s going to require a whole-city, whole-system approach to make that happen, and that £98bn is clearly not going to only come from the public purse’.

He estimates the overall net zero transition requirement for local government for places across the UK is ‘in excess of £1trn’. The hugely positive news is he knows from working with the financial sector that they have allocated about a trillion for that investment.

There are limiting factors of course, including a variation in the capability and capacity of local authorities to deliver across the UK, and ‘whether we have investment grade projects which we can bring to market’.

Excitingly, having worked on the Net Zero Neighbourhood model with funding from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), Hounslow is the accountable body for DESNZ for the development of the outline business case for delivering the model for the UK.

All of those involved in the battle for net zero will need to take a bit more risk, he believes.

He adds: ‘We have to contribute collaboratively and in a blended manner for investment with the private sector in the net zero transition, and generate the opportunities that represents in terms of economic transition as well.’

His final point, ‘and it is in no way a political point – is it requires courageous political leadership because it’s going to be challenging ways of behaviour and ways of living.

‘That’s why local government is so central, and that’s why it needs to be in the vanguard of driving this with local communities and local people.’

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