20 June 2024

NextGov: Saving the local-national climate covenant

NextGov: Saving the local-national climate covenant image
Image: chayanuphol / Shutterstock.com.

Christopher Hammond, former council leader and chief executive of UK100, discusses how the next government should help local authorities along the road to net zero.

As we approach the upcoming general election, it should be clear that the path to a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous UK runs through town halls. Local authorities have consistently shown ambition and leadership on climate action, but they want to see a sea change in the local-national climate covenant.

UK100, the UK's only cross-party network of local authority climate leaders, recently conducted a survey of our members which revealed overwhelming support for a major power shift from central to local government. A staggering 84% of respondents view July 4 as the last chance to keep local net zero delivery on track, with 88% backing a new statutory net zero duty for councils – if it comes with the necessary funding and powers.

The message is clear: the next government must put local climate action at the heart of its devolution agenda. This means introducing a landmark devolution bill with climate at its core, including a net zero duty for councils and a shift towards place-based, long-term funding.

One of the biggest barriers holding back progress is the fragmented, short-term nature of the current funding landscape. More than nine in 10 UK100 members found the current system too complicated, and a major barrier to long-term planning. Local authorities have wasted over £130m since 2019 alone on the bidding process for funding pots from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) alone.

To unlock the full potential of local delivery, we need to move away from this inefficient, centralised model and give councils the resources to invest in multi-year programmes tailored to their areas. The pork barrel politics and competitive nature of local funding must end.

Another key pillar must be establishing a cross-departmental Local Net Zero Delivery Authority, based in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), to coordinate delivery, define roles, provide feedback on spending mechanisms and ensure local authorities’ statutory role in the transition. More than 81% of survey respondents backed our call for a Local Net Zero Delivery Authority to coordinate action across Whitehall and provide oversight and support to councils.

Nowhere is the need for change clearer than in the push for clean, affordable local energy and warm, efficient homes.

On energy, the lack of government support in England for Local Area Energy Planning (LAEP) – a critical tool for identifying the most cost-effective decarbonisation pathways – is stifling progress. While Wales is rolling out LAEPs nationwide, there is no central support for councils in England to do the same. While 75% of UK100 members believe a LAEP would help assist them in planning for decarbonised, resilient and renewable energy in their area, less than 16% have developed one. The next government should provide resources for every local authority to develop a LAEP as part of a national framework, which could, as part of a place-based approach to net zero, unlock more regional growth, bolster energy security and deliver savings of up to £140bn.

Tackling the UK's notoriously draughty housing stock is another area where local authorities' efforts are being hampered by disjointed, short-term policy. While trailblazing authorities like Wiltshire and Greater Manchester Combined Authority are forging ahead with ambitious retrofit programmes, the current funding landscape means it will take decades to upgrade every home at the current pace.

Reforming the planning system to support the delivery of net zero homes and local energy security by unlocking renewable energy infrastructure, retracting regressive restrictions on local house building standards, and creating a joined-up, long-term energy efficiency fund based on local need would empower councils to accelerate delivery of the warmer homes and lower bills communities desperately need.

Overcoming all these challenges will require a genuine partnership between local leaders and the next government.

But councils also have a vital role to play in building resilience against the alarming rise of climate misinformation which threatens to derail critical local measures — and has been amplified by some national politicians. Many authorities are finding success with participatory engagement like citizens' assemblies, giving residents a meaningful say in shaping local plans.

The next government should ensure successful community engagement in place-based climate programmes by supporting local authority-led deliberative processes and launching a national energy advice and information programme to support the transition.

The upcoming election is a watershed moment for local climate action. For too long, governments of all stripes have overlooked the immense potential of local authorities to drive the transition from the bottom up. Now, with the UK's climate targets hanging in the balance, empowering local leadership is not only good policy — it's good politics.

As the recent local election results show, voters are hungry for ambitious action that delivers cleaner, safer and more prosperous communities. From Cornwall to Camden, local climate champions are winning. It's time for national parties to follow their lead.

If the parties vying for Number 10 want to keep the UK’s climate promises, the path forward is clear: make local delivery the lynchpin of a transformative devolution settlement. With the right powers, funding and framework in place, local authorities can accelerate the UK's transition to net zero while delivering the benefits of good jobs, lower bills and healthier communities.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Without a power shift from Whitehall to town halls, the UK's climate targets will quickly move out of reach. The next government must seize this moment to unleash the full potential of local climate leadership. There is no time to waste.

For more on what local government stakeholders want from the next government, check out the following articles from our NextGov series:

NextGov: What the next government should do for children’s services

NextGov: Scrapping the two-child benefit cap

NextGov: Revitalising local democracy

UNISON: To whoever forms the next government…

NextGov: Boosting social mobility

NextGov: What the next government should do for public EV charging

Sign up for more NextGov insights here.

Fixing the broken retrofit system image

Fixing the broken retrofit system

Ian Preston, Centre for Sustainable Energy, argues the retrofit system is broken and offers lessons for the Local Authority Retrofit Scheme.
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