Next week, in the run up to COP26, we are expecting the government to publish the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, including long awaited plans to start to wean us of gas boilers to heat our homes.
So far government plans for decarbonising society have tended to take a centralised approach; put in place the right regulations, incentives and markets and change will happen. It is our view that this approach will not work on its own. A transformation of this scale can only be achieved by a close partnership of national and local government.
The signs are that the Net Zero Strategy will accept the principle of a national/local partnership approach. We will now be urging them go faster and further in devolving net zero responsibility, powers, and funding.
The path to net zero is going to look very different in Coventry than in Cornwall. It is unlikely that the woman from Whitehall knows best how to upgrade Birmingham’s housing stock or ensure Bognor Regis has effective electric vehicles charging infrastructure. Changes that affect all our lives need to be debated and shaped where we live and those making these difficult decisions need to be held to account by local people through the democratic process. Oxford and Devon, for example, have set up local net zero citizens’ assemblies to begin that debate.
When the energy system is considered through a local lens, it become clear there are ‘levelling-up’ opportunities across the country. Local partnerships like Energy Capital in the West Midlands are supporting the development of a ‘smarter’ energy market, where homes, buildings and vehicles play an incentivised role in enabling the management of an optimised energy system. Regen has recently been working with Dorset LEP on a strategy to harness their local net zero opportunities.
One concern we often hear is that whilst some areas are leading on net zero, many lack the capacity and skills. It is undoubtedly true that local authorities are short on capacity. However, in our experience there is huge expertise across the country in our universities, businesses, and communities. What is missing is the clear national framework for local government to provide leadership to bring together the expertise in their communities.
So, what are the main elements of a more local approach to net zero? Three areas we could get started on are:
A ‘local first’ principle for net zero support schemes.
It is time to end the absurdity of local authority staff wasting their time filling in grant applications to central government, perpetuating inequalities. Let’s learn the lesson of the Green Homes Grant where the local element of the scheme is being delivered successfully whilst the national grant descended into chaos and achieved the notable trick of spending millions to reduce the amount of low carbon technologies installed. The new funding for decarbonising heating we are expecting from the Chancellor should be managed locally.
Local planning for net zero heating and EV charging
The government’s current consultation on zoning areas for heat networks is a start. However, local authorities need much clearer responsibilities to plan for and lead the transition to net zero heating and transport systems. It would be great to see requirements for Local Transport Plans to quantify carbon savings. Responsibilities need to be assigned for the delivery of local energy plans and zoning for smart heat networks, heat pumps and potentially hydrogen.
Local say over our energy infrastructure
The five yearly cycle of our energy networks submitting plans to Ofgem is currently in full swing. The pipes and the wires are critical infrastructure to achieve net zero. Yet democratically elected local leaders setting out climate emergency plans have little say in the level or direction of investment, Good intentions to collaborate are not enough, we need a statutory role for local authorities in setting the objectives for local energy network infrastructure.
A key message of the pandemic is that tackling national crises requires a national and local partnership. Devolving powers and funding for net zero is not about ministers washing their hands of responsibility, it is about a collective effort to the most important challenge in human history.
Merlin Hyman, Chief Executive of Regen and Cheryl Hiles, Director Energy Capital at West Midlands Combined Authority.