Skip to content
Search
Type
Infrastructure blog

What powers do UK local authorities have to deliver net zero?

Date
14 February 2024

Local action is crucial to achieving the UK’s net zero targets, but current policy holds authorities back, writes Zoe Roberts.

What powers do UK local authorities have to deliver net zero?
Devolved transport powers and funding reform can drive a shift to public and active transport. Image credit: Shutterstock

Just over a year ago, Mission Zero, the landmark report by former MP Chris Skidmore, called infrastructure “the key to unlocking net zero” in the UK.

The report emphasised the importance of local action, but said that the planning system undermined local authorities and called for reform.

UK100 is a network of local leaders who have pledged to lead a rapid transition to net zero.

Last year, our Powers in Place report examined what capabilities local authorities had to do this – and what barriers were holding them back.

So, a year on from the Skidmore review, what still needs to change?

Local authorities are crucial to net zero infrastructure

Local authorities have a crucial role in designing infrastructure for net zero.

Housing, energy resources, travel patterns, and transport infrastructure varies across the country. As do the ways we decarbonise how we travel, heat our homes, and power our economy.

Powers in Place examines local authorities’ capacity to deliver net zero across transport, energy, buildings, and waste, and explores gaps and barriers to effectively using these powers.

It finds that local authorities are held back by:

  • A lack of a defined role in net zero delivery
  • A policy and strategy framework that fails to enable and support local delivery
  • Conflicting remits of public agencies, which prevent ambitious authorities from delivering their aims
  • Insufficient and competitively allocated funding that’s rarely long-term

The report makes three key recommendations to enable local net zero delivery:

  1. The UK government should introduce a Net Zero Local Powers Bill to permit and require local authorities to deliver an effective pathway to net zero.
  2. A local-national net zero delivery framework should be co-designed between local authorities and the UK government, overseen by a national net zero delivery unit.
  3. Ministers should end competitive short-term funding and replace it with strategic, needs-based, long-term funding.

Local authorities’ role in designing infrastructure for net zero

Transport

Surface transport is the UK’s highest-emitting sector, contributing 23% of total UK emissions in 2022.

Local delivery of net zero requires the transformation of our transport infrastructure.

Developing a seamless electric vehicle charging network and creating new infrastructure, such as separate cycle lanes, bus lanes, clean air zones, and low-traffic neighbourhoods, can drive a shift to public and active transport.

Some of the challenges to decarbonising transport include:

  • Local and combined authorities often have to bid for funds using the government’s WebTAG guidance. This assigns economic value to speeding up traffic, which directly conflicts with the need to reduce carbon and means active travel schemes struggle to get funding.
  • London is the only area of the UK with full control over their local transport network. Elsewhere, local authorities have limited powers to set routes and fares and integrate timetables between different modes of transport.
  • 56% of small towns across the north-east and south-west of England have become transport deserts as there aren’t enough people to make a bus service profitable for operators.

UK100 member Waltham Forest’s Mini-Holland project is making it safer to walk and cycle through pedestrian-only areas, traffic reduction, and cycle infrastructure.

This was only possible because in London, transport funding is devolved to the mayor of London.

Powers in Place recommends that the government:

  • Devolves local authority transport funding, with funds allocated non-competitively on the basis of local transport plans.
  • Devolve the powers for local leaders to develop a London-style integrated, reliable, affordable, and simpler to use regional public transport network.
  • Reduces the high costs of connecting EV charging networks to the grid and includes every local and regional authority in designing and shaping the charging infrastructure across its area.

Energy

The electricity supply accounted for 11% of UK emissions in 2022.

Building more low-carbon energy infrastructure and decarbonising heat is the backbone of the transition to net zero across all sectors.

It’s most effective to take a place-based approach in which local energy systems leverage local resources.

These differ across the country in availability, such as tidal energy and warm water in old mine shafts which can be used to heat homes, and in intensity, such as wind and solar.

Local authorities can play a role in developing smart local energy systems (SLES). These integrate heat, power, transport, and storage locally for efficient use of available energy to balance supply and demand.

This can be done through local area energy plans (LAEP), which is a datadriven approach to defining the most suitable decarbonisation pathways for local areas.

But local authorities face a number of barriers:

  • Local authorities have no statutory duties on energy, meaning their involvement in energy system planning is piecemeal.
  • LAEPs are highly valuable for integrated, place-based energy planning, but under-valued by the government, with no formal place in the energy system.
  • Lack of consistency in the government’s national energy and heat policy.

How can local area energy plans succeed?

UK100 member Greater Manchester’s Local Energy Market is developing a smart local energy system across the 10 boroughs, which have each completed their own LAEP.

It balances a mix of local renewable energy supply, demand reduction, different heat supply technologies and EV charging infrastructure suitable for each locality.

Powers in Place recommends that the government:

  • Develops a national framework for LAEPs and gives them a formal role within the energy system.
  • Provides non-competitive and long-term funding and resources for LAEPs to be developed and then implemented, including significant capacity building within local authorities.
  • Require all planning decisions to be compatible with meeting our net zero target. This must include giving local authorities the power to refuse consent for fossil fuel extraction or carbon-intensive energy infrastructure.

Key actors in net zero

Local authorities are key actors in delivering a place-based transition to net zero, which tailors the decarbonisation pathway to local needs and opportunities.

However, this will only happen if powers are supported by enough resources and capacity building.

And, these efforts must be underpinned by national policies that recognise the essential role of local authorities in achieving our climate change target.

Learn more

Read UK100’s Powers in Place report to find out how local authorities are delivering net zero, and what powers and resources are needed to accelerate this.


*The ICE welcomes guests to share their views about infrastructure policy issues on the Infrastructure Blog. These views are the views of the individual.

If you're interested in writing for the Infrastructure Blog, please email [email protected]. The ICE reserves the right not to publish articles that have been submitted.

  • Zoe Roberts, freelancer, previously at UK100