CLIMATE CHANGE

Time to unleash the potential of local authorities on net zero

If Westminster will not provide national leadership on net zero, it should empower ambitious local authorities to forge ahead, says Chris Skidmore MP.

As the minister who helped enshrine the UK's net zero target in law, I have seen first-hand the vital role that councils play in climate action. With the Prime Minister wavering on the UK's ambitions, from biodiversity net gain to energy efficiency, now is the perfect time to spotlight the work of local leaders.

Local authorities are achieving enormous progress in cutting emissions, often surpassing national efforts. However, while they need more support from central government to fulfil their ambitions, in some cases, they just need Whitehall to get out of the way. And that's where the new report, The Future Is Local, comes in.

When I produced the Independent Net Zero Review, Mission Zero, which called for a 'local big bang' on net zero, I set out my plan to form a new coalition specifically to advance in greater policy detail on the missions set out. The Mission Zero Coalition and Local Mission Zero Network was born.

The timing could not be more important. We are working to ensure that ahead of the next General Election, we drive home to all political parties the need for further policy reform and innovation in order to deliver not merely net zero by 2050, but critically the 2030 target of 68% emissions reduction.

With the Local Mission Zero Network, which has produced The Future is Local report, we collaborated with stakeholders across local government, including UK100, whose Powers in Place research has been influential, to explore why net zero is too important to be left in the hands of central government politicians. We found that despite having many powers and capabilities, councils often face byzantine barriers in the form of disjointed policies and short-term, competitive funding streams.

The report sets out over 30 recommendations to accelerate local delivery, from consolidated funding to planning reforms.

Lack of funding is one of the biggest obstacles holding councils back. The competitive scramble for small pots of short-term finance wastes millions in bidding costs and prevents strategic thinking. Simplification is vital for giving local authorities longer-term certainty, while also enabling effective public-private partnerships that can unlock inward investment.

The report also recommends guaranteeing funding for every local authority to develop their own Local Area Energy Plan (LAEP) with a governance framework to ensure collaboration on consistent, comparable plans. Given the low costs involved for authorities, nationwide LAEPs would provide invaluable planning tools.

On planning, reforms are urgently needed so developments are not blocked for exceeding national standards on issues like energy efficiency. Councils need confidence that planning will assist, not hinder, their net zero plans. Viability assessments should actively prioritise sustainable schemes rather than thwarting them.

We also need a fairer framework for community benefits when new energy infrastructure is built, ensuring local people feel listened to and see tangible payback in their area. The Local Mission Zero Network will soon publish a further report on consent, benefit-sharing and empowering communities.

Underpinning all of this must be the new Local Net Zero Charter between central and local government, setting out their respective net zero duties and incentives. With shared responsibility and accountability, a clearer divide of powers and improved coordination, we can accelerate the transition.

Stronger platforms to share best practice, benchmark progress and upskill are also key. Skills shortages and lack of expertise are major barriers for many councils, but trailblazers have valuable learning to cascade. This is why I want to see representatives from each of the Net Zero Hubs on the Local Net Zero Forum.

On trailblazers, it is no accident that the report is titled ‘The Future Is Local'. I remember using the phrase when I was energy minister in 2019 but could have hardly imagined the scale of local innovation I would see when I toured the country four years on. 

The report contains countless local delivery case studies. From public engagement programmes such as Oh Yes Zero in Hull to Bristol's public-private City Leap initiative, which is set to attract £1 billion of investment in clean energy infrastructure over 20 years. In fact, the report calls on the Chancellor to announce in the next Spending Review the establishment of new Net Zero City Leaps, using the Bristol template to scale this model to other cities and regions across the country.

But net zero will not be achieved on the backs of trailblazers alone nor is anyone saying it will be easy. Costs exist, and councils face difficult trade-offs on priorities with ever-stretched budgets. But the price of delay and inaction is far higher, and will fall hardest on the most vulnerable. And we will not deliver net zero without local leaders, even if they are undervalued by some in Whitehall.

Whitehall should allow every local leader champing at the bit to press ahead with net zero. Councils face enough barriers without central government actively hindering them. If Westminster will not provide national leadership, it should empower ambitious local authorities to forge ahead. The government's Net Zero Strategy said councils have influence over more than 80% of emissions. With adequate resources and powers, they can take us a long way to net zero.

Our report provides solutions to empower councils through simplified funding, strengthened planning, skills sharing and better data. But fundamentally we need a new partnership between local and national government, recognising their mutual dependence and aligning incentives.

There has never been a greater need for local leadership than on climate change. That is why we're growing the Local Mission Zero Network. Next year will be a crucial year for Net Zero. Now is the time to unleash the potential of local authorities. With a supportive national framework, their ambition can drive a pragmatic cost-effective transition that boosts growth and benefits every community. 

Chris Skidmore MP is Net Zero Tsar and chair of the Local Mission Zero Network

Local leaders interested in joining the Local Mission Zero Network can find out more here: missionzerocoalition.com/get-involved or bit.ly/LocalMissionZeroNetwork

This is an abbreviated version of the speech Chris Skidmore gave at the launch of the report The Future is Local

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