Are local authorities equipped to reach net zero?

Are local authorities equipped to reach net zero?

“Only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in this decade can prevent climate breakdown” – Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor.

This Inquiry could not be more timely or important. Before the last election, I set up scientific briefings for MPs calling for a step change in policy and thinking in the face of the climate emergency. Two clear messages emerged:

  1. UK climate targets will not be met without more radically decentralised resource allocation and responsibilities, and
  2. It is far from clear that local government (currently) has the retained skills, competences and delivery mechanisms able to meet net-zero undertakings.

The IPCC warning that current climate disruption represents ‘a code red for humanity’ adds an urgency to the scale of changes parliament has to embrace.

The starting point

  • Britain has to cut its carbon emissions by 10%/year throughout the coming decades to meet its climate targets; a task made all the more difficult by already baked-in changes to UK weather patterns.
  • Although 200+ local authorities in Britain have declared a climate emergency, no local authority has the integrated plans, resources or powers to deliver local ‘net-zero’ commitments.
  • Meeting UK net-zero targets requires a more integrated ‘systems’ approach to policy making and a fundamental change in the relationship between central and local government. However,
  • Britain does not have to reinvent the wheel to meet its net-zero commitments. It could do so by adopting some of the ‘best practice’ approaches to (devolved) carbon-reduction programmes already operating elsewhere.

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This submission outlines some of the best approaches the UK might draw on.

A ‘code red’ response

Climate physics is already redefining market economics. To meet net-zero undertakings, Britain requires new policy benchmarks at both a national and local level. For local authorities, cutting (direct and indirect) consumption of fossil fuels by 10%/year will require new powers and new duties. These include –

  • A practical framework for annual carbon budgeting,
  • Planning and development powers that make net-zero obligations non-negotiable,
  • A (maximum) 10 year framework set on all carbon-payback/offsetting programmes,
  • Access to net-zero funding streams, and
  • The duty to prioritise more circular/carbon-reducing economics.

Current obstacles

As the NAO report of December 20201 pointed out, there is no single blockage point in local authority abilities to deliver net-zero targets. Financial constraints are a major factor, but by no means the only one. A lack of overarching powers and duties to reduce carbon emissions plays heavily into the tokenism of policy declarations. So too does a lack of clear leadership (at both political and officer levels) and the consequential pursuit of frequently contradictory policies.

The UK also has a track record of pursuing convoluted delivery mechanisms, often derailing the best intentioned of policies. Central government (of all persuasions) has consistently failed to adopt more effective intervention measures already working successfully in other countries. (A number of these form part of the examples and recommendations in this submission).

To simplify matters, I have followed the NAO policy framework, looking at the roles of transport, planning, housing and recycling/waste services in the delivery of net-zero targets. More recent climate change analysis (and UK experience) requires the addition of food, flood, drought/heat and energy security dimensions to the net-zero challenges local authorities must address.

In each case there is a (positive) jobs/skills dimension the Committee may wish to explore separately. For the purposes of this Inquiry, however, I want to focus on policy changes needed to make local authorities key drivers of a transformative UK carbon-reductions programme.

1. Transport

The current UK investment programme for roads is completely at odds with an annual 10% reduction in carbon emissions. It needs to be refocused towards more localised, integrated (low carbon) transport systems.

Covid (and associated lockdowns) played a massive part in the CCC figures detailing reductions in UK emissions from surface transport and aviation. However, as the latest figures for used-car sales demonstrate2, such reductions are unlikely to last without a fundamental rethink of transport priorities. This is where local (and central) government net-zero policies must be realigned.

  1. Local Government and Net Zero in England, Dec 2020, https://www.nao.org.uk/report/local-government-and-net-zero-in-england/
  2. BBC News: ‘Second-hand car sales soar amid shortage of new models’, 10 Aug 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ business-58150025

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UK local authorities currently lack the strategic focus and resources of cities like Paris, where the Mayor is already re-shaping transport priorities, including –

  • A 50% cut in on-street parking places (from 140,000 to 70,000)
  • An all electric taxi fleet by the end of 2021
  • Excluding diesel cars by 2024
  • No fossil fuel vehicles in the city post-2030, and
  • The creation of 50km of cyclist/safe pedestrian routes.

Only in London (via congestion charging) and Nottingham (the workplace parking levy) are there examples of local authorities with powers, duties or resources to deliver modal shifts in transport priorities. This cannot be done on a piecemeal basis.

Numerous local authorities have invested in cleaner public transport vehicles. Bristol deserves particular credit for its ‘Biobus’ initiative; taking some of the city’s sewage waste and converting it into biogas. The gas then powers a local (number 2!) bus service. Undertaken in conjunction with the water authority, it replicates what all Swedish municipal authorities are required to do, by law.

The restoration of good quality, public transport networks (and priorities) plays an important part in delivering modal shifts. In Copenhagen, almost 50% of the City’s travel to work/study is now by bike, bus or on foot; the consequence of shifting transport priorities away from cars. It also delivers CO2 reductions.

The Committee should note, however, that public transport systems per se do not deliver the carbon reductions now needed. Worldwide, there are 98 towns or cities operating forms of completely free transport systems; with Luxembourg being the first country to do so. Whilst boosting mobility patterns amongst non-car users, none of these schemes have delivered radical carbon reductions (or air quality improvements). It remains to be seen whether Newcastle’s imaginative ‘15 minute city’ plans will carry the implementation resources to deliver it. For UK towns and cities to do so comprehensively they need the same overarching powers and resources that the likes of Paris or Copenhagen can deploy.

Norway has addressed carbon reductions more directly, using municipalities to drive the shift into cleaner transport. Public sector car-loan schemes are now restricted to EV purchases; with local authorities also setting the pace in the development of whole-area, re-charging infrastructures.

The overarching point is simple: there is no single, ‘magic bullet’ solution to local authority abilities to deliver the annual 10% carbon reductions in transport emissions Britain requires. A coordinated change in ‘systems thinking’ is what’s needed.

One important caveat for the Committee to register, however, is that UK local authorities have a collective blind-spot over airport expansions. As a recent BBC survey3 pointed out, even the most progressive authorities want their net-zero projections to exclude expansion plans for their local airport. It’s like athletes calling for some drugs to be banned, but not theirs.

2. Planning

There is a compelling case for stronger UK planning powers rather than weaker ones. This is where carbon reductions can be baked-in to development thinking. France requires all new buildings to have either solar

  1. BBC News: ‘Council policies often inconsistent with climate goals’, 12 Aug 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ science-environment-58102578

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or nature roofs. In California all new apartment blocks must all have solar roofs. In Denmark and the Netherlands, planning regulations now preclude new developments from being connected to the gas grid; forcing the pace of carbon reductions and the pursuit of clean heat strategies.

One consequence is that, in the Netherlands, towns such as Heerlen that are close to disused coal mines are tapping into hot water trapped inside the former galleries. Then, using heat pumps, the water temperature is boosted to provide zero-carbon heating for the whole town. In Drammen (Norway) they are doing the same; using smart technologies to draw heat from fjords, then using it as renewable heat in homes and businesses.

Britain doesn’t have fjords, but it does have 25,000 disused mine-shafts. Moreover, 1 in 4 of the population live within supply-system reach of them.

What stands in the way of radically decarbonising UK heating systems is the absence of local powers (and duties) to deliver them.

In fact, most local authorities are fearful of using planning powers to drive climate/carbon reduction programmes. My own local authority in Nottingham is as good an example as any to highlight the contradictory position most authorities are put in. Ahead of government plans to raise energy performance standards for new buildings, the City has been inundated with development applications for buildings that will become part of the climate problem, not the solution. Council Officers (and Members) insist they do not have the powers to set passive-haus or energy-plus construction standards.

Moreover, Officers are reluctant to attach climate-impact ‘measurement’ requirements to major planning applications, for fear of deterring developers (or failing to meet government ‘new build’ targets).

For local communities (and climate campaigners) the planning process is convoluted and obscure at the best of times. Campaigners in Nottingham produced a simplified ‘Nottingham Benchmark’ reporting framework (see Appendix) that would enable more open scrutiny of the climate impact of development proposals. Officers have resisted this for fear of discouraging investment. For climate campaigners and local communities, however, this is likely to result in ‘disinvestment’ campaigns, targeting those behind the finance of developments they see as adding to the climate crisis rather than reducing it.

The tragedy of central government forcing local government to pursue conventional development goals is that it will also set local authorities at odds with their local communities; pitting climate goals against council duties in a lose-lose scenario.

Local authorities do not currently form a ‘priority access group’ influencing government approaches to climate targets and planning obligations. But if the government wants national carbon-reduction targets to be met, it has to give local authorities the powers and duties to enshrine these in local planning policies.

3. Energy

This is the obvious starting point to look for radical carbon reductions. In the production of UK electricity, over 50% of the energy from gas, and around two thirds of the energy from nuclear and coal, is lost at the power station as waste heat. This compares with a 1% loss in electricity generation from renewables. A further 10% of losses occur within the distribution system. The good news is that in 2020, for the first time, electricity generated from renewables exceeded that from non-renewables.4

  1. UK energy statistics: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/ file/1006701/DUKES_2021_Chapter_5_Electricity.pdf

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The difficulty in tapping into the massive carbon savings that are possible here is that it involves disrupting the UK’s highly centralised energy system. Other countries, with more ‘distributed’ energy systems (of both generation and supply) have been better placed to make use of the clean technology opportunities now presenting themselves. It is also where UK local authorities have the potential to make far greater contributions to net-zero targets.

Germany, with a more federal structure, has almost 200 local energy companies. Although there is some variation in how these are structured, there is little difference in the support received from all political

parties . This is augmented by national

programmes promoting the installation of

renewable energy systems in homes, factories

and farms; so much so, that solar roofs are now a feature of most village roofscapes as much as in towns and cities.

The same applies in Denmark, where the entire country operates within decentralised energy systems. These comprise of 3 major municipal companies and almost 70 co-operatives, largely made up of adjoining localities.

In Denmark, each local energy system also has combined heat and power responsibilities.

What marks the biggest difference with the UK, however, is that both countries offer a (commercially advantageous) ‘right of local supply’. This does not exist in the UK.

Whilst their European counterparts thrive, the UK has seen a number of spectacular failures in local energy companies. This has little to do with ‘local authority incompetence’. The problem has been that, in the UK, local energy companies have been little more than collective purchasing vehicles. Elsewhere, local energy systems incorporate all aspects of generation, storage and supply. Households, communities, schools and businesses become producer/consumers in the local energy system; with vested interests in generating clean energy as well as consuming it.

This is particularly important to net-zero implications for local business and commercial sectors in the UK. Recent research shows that nearly 90% of businesses have no idea of their carbon footprint and 22% don’t even know the meaning of ‘net zero’.5 Local authorities, who would be best placed to help with the cultural (and practical) shift into net-zero economics, have neither the levers nor the resources to drive this change.

In Germany, 1in 6 companies generate renewable energy from their workplace; selling electricity surpluses into the local grid at advantageous local prices. The UK has not followed suit mainly because of a rigid/rigged energy system, designed more to protect existing ‘cartel’ interests than climate ones.

The smart technologies already shaping the next energy era will deliver the bulk of CO2 savings within more localised (and integrated) energy systems. Given new powers and duties, this is where UK local authorities could offer real leadership.

Some 200 years ago, local authorities were the main founders and owners of the municipal utility companies (gas, water and electricity) the industrial Revolution was built around. Today’s smart, clean technologies, all delivering rapid CO2 reductions, offer the same transformative prospects. Extending the model into heat and transport would take tomorrow’s integrated (local) energy systems to their next stage.

Already, the Netherlands and Norway (above) offer examples of renewable heat being incorporated into local energy planning. With 50% of domestic CO2 emissions coming from heat, local authorities have to play a much bigger part in reconfigured energy systems to deliver the scale of carbon reductions Britain needs.

  1. ‘Carbon footprint ignored by 89% of British businesses’, https://www.futurenetzero.com/2021/08/10/carbon-footprint-ignored-by-89-of-british-businesses/

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4. Housing

The easiest and most obvious way to cut carbon emissions by 10%/year is to use/waste less energy. Rapid improvement in the energy performance of Britain’s existing 25m homes (and our diverse array of offices and workplaces) is the best way of doing so.

Local authorities will make their own representations about the limitations they face in delivering, requiring and facilitating rapid carbon reductions (energy saving) in these sectors. The disastrous collapse of the government’s Green Deal programme was merely the latest in a long line of central government policy failures. These have been failures of all political persuasions. Labour made similar errors in turning its Warm Front programme into a private (for profit) debacle instead of expanding its experimental Warm Zones programme – which offered integrated, whole-area programmes; most of which were local authority led.

The Committee should look at two aspects of structural misjudgments Britain has consistently made, then consider approaches elsewhere that have given local authorities much stronger roles to play.

  1. Taxation: The UK Treasury has always been a major obstacle in the development of coherent climate policies. Ongoing examples include –
    • charging VAT on energy efficiency improvements in existing properties (where the overwhelming amount of emissions arise) but not on new build
    • taxing energy saving more heavily than energy use, and
    • having low rates of taxation on fossil fuel heating but much higher ones on clean/renewable energy,
    • turning the Feed in Tariff (FITs) programme from something funded from general taxation (with European style ‘degression’ rates) into a fixed budget programme where (paradoxically) ‘success became the guarantee of failure’, and
    • applying inordinately complex delivery mechanisms.

All of Britain’s incentives/disincentives have been skewed in the wrong direction. In contrast, Britain should look at more effective European approaches, beginning with Germany’s approach to the roll-out of their Energiewende programme. This saw the German KfW Development Bank train High St banks to fast-track clean-energy (and energy efficiency) loans/grants. Critically, however, it also gave a key role to local authorities in (first) giving approval to proposals and subsequently in the verification of standards of compliance. The KfW also underwrote guarantees for bank loans and grants. The result was a rapidly expanding programme with strong local authority verification processes. This delivered a huge level of community engagement, along with the provision of associated education and training programmes. In some areas, local authorities were able to use additional powers to make landlords responsible for energy bills in rented properties, if they chose not to improve. Successive UK governments have been reluctant to devolve such powers and duties to local authorities. As a result, UK policy outcomes have been piecemeal, cumbersome and under-resourced.

  1. Local authority finance: We should recall that, some 200 years ago, Britain’s original energy companies were primarily municipal ones; financed through the issuing of municipal bonds. The profits mage by such companies also paid for most of the Victorian legacy of parks, libraries, swimming baths and museums developed across the land. The UK should revisit the case for local authority Green Infrastructure bonds, underpinning (and de-risking) these through a succession of government Green ISA’s. The final section that follows (on ‘circular economics’) focusses on the scope for reducing carbon emissions even further by shifting government policies in favour of a more localised economics. One element of this involves the introduction of carbon border taxation or carbon mileage tax. The income raised by such levies should then be redirected to support local authority programmes; in turn delivering the annual carbon reductions central government must soon mandate.

5. Circular economics

Post-Brexit, Britain faces the prospect of a 20% increase in food prices this winter (mainly due to labour shortages and trade disruption). In addition, turbulent weather events (disrupting food security and supply systems) and the need to radically reduce the carbon footprint of food/product miles, are behind the shift towards more localised, circular economics.

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At one stage ‘Slow Food’/Slow Town movements in Italy, France and parts of North America were seen as idiosyncratic features of local food cultures. Today they are beginning to emerge as key elements in local ‘food security’ planning. The Liège City and province of eastern Belgium has spent the last 10 years developing plans for a more sustainable local food system. Entitled the ‘Liège ‘Food Land’ Belt’, it aims to supply 50% of the area’s food needs over the coming decades. The local authority is the key driver in a process that involves

The Metropolitan Area of Dijon (France) aims to become a demonstration site for sustainable agriculture by 2030. The local authority is promoting a “new model of agri-ecological production with high environmental performance and the virtuous sharing of resources between the city and the rural areas. The intention is to transform the agri-food system at a local level. In Austria, the City Council in Vienna is using a designated budget to increase the uptake of healthy, locally produced food (particularly is schools and kindergarten).

In Barcelona, the local authority is turning the disused rooftops of municipal buildings and schools to promote the development of rooftop gardens for local food production. Berlin is part of a network of German local authorities promoting hydroponic agriculture within existing shops and re-purposed buildings. In Montréal, Lufa Farms have been helped to develop a series of rooftop farms, now providing over 20,000 food trolleys per week of vegetables, all year round.

The UK does have a series of local (and localising) food initiatives, with Scotland the Bread6 deserving a particular mention for tackling the complex problem of sustainable local grain production.

The critical point, however, is that UK government policies give no strategic role to local authorities to deliver CO2 reductions (and food security) through localised food systems.

Such powers and duties will become critical elements in meeting UK carbon reduction targets. With local food systems able to cut ‘food miles’ by up to 90%, such carbon savings must form part of the wider remit of local authority, net-zero strategies.

Circularity, however, isn’t confined to food. Denmark’sState of Green’ uses localities to apply the same thinking to recycling and re-use policies. These include

  • Insulation products from waste and porcelain; reusing the 30% of Danish waste that comes from its construction sector,
  • Circular subscription markets; focussed on good quality children’s clothing. Families ‘rent’ up to 20 clothing items, returning and replacing them as children grow. So far this helped reduce textile waste by 75-80%, and

  1. https://scotlandthebread.org/

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  • Cleaning and recycling bricks (without chemical use), cutting the energy used in supplying new bricks by 95% and saving Denmark an estimated 1 tonne of CO2 for every 2,000 bricks recycled7.

In each case, local authorities have the key coordinating role; bringing together business innovators and community partners to deliver a new, climate-based, politics of place.

6. Greening Everything

None of us can duck Sir Patrick Vallance’s warning that we need for urgent, systemic change to avoid climate breakdown. What I would ask is that, in addressing this ‘urgency’ the Committee does not overlook ‘beauty’. In the difficult times ahead we will need things to be uplifted by. Communities that are active parts of transformative change are energised by hope and beauty. Local authorities have a key part to play here too.

This can be as simple and uplifting as Rotherham’s ‘River of Flowers’ programme that has turned the central reservations of arterial roads into sanctuaries for insects, pollinators and wild flowers. The city has deservedly won awards for something as transformative as it is simple. It could be replicated by local authorities across the land.

On a more demanding scale, the Committee needs to look at the Mayor of Paris’ programme already creating 100 hectares of vertical gardens in the City. It mirrors similar ‘bosco verticale’ projects in Milan and in Barcelona.

Such programmes require greater powers and resources than most UK local authorities possess. The importance of addressing this is twofold. Towns and cities across Britain will face periods of extreme heat in coming years. These will exacerbate the ‘heat island’ effects in town and city centres.

Concrete is cruel and unforgiving. Not only does it account for more CO2 emissions than aviation and shipping combined, it can turn city centres into unliveable spaces. Local authorities need fresh powers and resources to put nature (and breathing spaces) back into their urban centres.

The non-monetary value of doing so needs to be embedded in the ‘how’ of local authority (and local community) programmes of transformative change.

Local authorities are likely to embrace calls for greater devolved powers and resources to meet today’s climate challenge (and the urgency of carbon reductions). What I hope they have the humility to accept is that, currently, few (if any) local authorities have the skill sets to deliver the changes now needed. New partnerships – with universities, local communities, commerce and central government – will all be needed if we are to avoid living from one environmental crisis to the next.

Alan Simpson

August 2021

(Alan Simpson is a former Advisor to the Shadow Chancellor and was an MP from 1992-2010. He currently acts as an independent advisor on climate policy.)

  1. See ‘Rescuing the Green New Deal’, Alan Simpson, March 2021, www.spokesmanbookshop.com

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Appendix

The Nottingham Benchmark:

A recommended ‘climate impact’ assessment summary for all major planning applications

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