Last year saw significant progress at the national level for net zero delivery policy in the run-up to COP26. This included a net zero strategy, a review into the costs of net zero, and a heat and buildings strategy. It might be tempting to think that the policy work is done and the focus for 2022 can turn to delivery. In many areas, such as the deployment of renewable electricity, this is correct. However, the UK government must address one key gap to successfully deliver on net zero targets – the need for a local delivery policy framework.
The detailed decisions on planning, investment, local growth strategies and the built environment – necessary in every part of the country to reach net zero – cannot be taken in Whitehall. And the behaviour changes that individuals and communities will need to adopt must be developed collaboratively, not imposed from above.
City leaders across the UK have already shown leadership on climate action. It is now time to go further. Our core cities are the natural starting point for the pivot from national ambition to local delivery. Much as place-based approaches are proven effective ways to address issues around productivity and social deprivation, the government should be doing much more to encourage and enable joined-up, locally adaptable approaches to the energy transition.
To take one key example, a mass transformation in the way people use energy to heat their homes and fuel their cars must be well underway by the end of this decade. The current approach to driving this change involves a series of fiscal and regulatory measures, set by central government and augmented by a variety of initiatives pursued locally. The diversity of circumstances across the country means that local delivery strategies will be key. However, there is no policy framework to ensure appropriate actions are planned, decisions taken, and measures implemented efficiently and effectively. Indeed, there is no clarity over where public sector action is needed to reinforce market-based initiatives.
The variability in the capacity and capabilities of private and public actors from place to place leads to a postcode lottery, with many communities unable to benefit from clean energy opportunities. This patchwork of solutions is high cost, unlikely to deliver the ultimate net zero goal, and inconsistent with the government’s levelling up commitment.
Four out of five local authorities have net zero delivery plans, but with huge variations in sophistication, scope, deliverability, and attractiveness to investors. This means 20% of local authorities have no plan at all. Critically, no-one is responsible for producing co-ordinated regional spatial plans that ensure local deployment and social initiatives march in-step with energy network developments.
The government must find a way to ensure all local environments are decarbonised in line with net zero targets, and that local actions link efficiently with regional and national infrastructure such as energy networks. This might be achieved through structured support to local areas, but could require new statutory mandates. For example, mandates could be placed on local authorities to establish net zero delivery plans as part of a co-ordinated regional spatial plan. Energy regulator Ofgem and network operators could also be mandated to develop regional spatial plans and deliver the required network infrastructure.
As the UK’s primary centres of innovation, growth and existing climate leadership, our core cities should be at the forefront of whatever new model the government opts for. City leaders regularly convene local industry and business leaders, public agencies and other economic and community actors to tackle complex problems. Convening and collaboration across sectors will be essential to securing the local buy-in and financial investment needed for long-term, deep decarbonisation. The UK Cities Climate Investment Commission was set up to address the essential need for local areas to develop robust business cases and investment plans to tap into available finance – a framework to enable detailed local planning and delivery will help by reducing the uncertainties and problems of scale that frequently hold projects back today.
However, the government must recognise that nationwide, local authorities are already operating under tight budget constraints. They need additional resources and dedicated expertise. A ‘one-stop-shop’ should be created, which provides the technical and financial advice that local authorities need to fulfil new duties. This would avoid costly consultancy spending and also ensure that a consistent set of technology and behavioural assumptions would be used across all regional planning processes. Monitoring progress would enable lessons to be learnt and rapidly shared with all stakeholders. This would avoid replicating mistakes and allow authorities to focus innovation investments on solving challenges that repeatedly arise.
High-level political attention has inevitably moved beyond COP26 and the UK’s net zero ambitions. However, the government cannot assume that net zero has been sorted. It must recognise the need to address the critical issue of practical, local delivery.
This is where the net zero agenda will connect directly with people’s lives, and significant progress in 2022 is essential. To make this progress quickly, central government must look to empower the UK’s leading cities to deliver on their shared climate ambitions.