Power struggle: Central government and local authorities

23rd September 2021


Devolving power from central government to local authorities will be critical for the UK as it looks to deliver on its environmental targets. Chris Seekings reports

From decarbonising transport to retrofitting homes, local authorities are on the frontline of tackling climate change as the UK aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. They possess an intimate understanding of the specific challenges facing their areas, as well as the jobs, training and infrastructure that will be required at a local level.

“Fundamentally, the transition to net zero is a place-based transition,” says Rupert George, director of communications and campaigns at the UK100 network of local leaders. “A huge amount of what needs to take place needs to happen in people’s homes, on the roads, and in other areas where local authorities have some agency, so they have a critical role to play in what is going to be a massive transition.”

Indeed, the National Audit Office, which scrutinises public spending for parliament, said last December that the most efficient and cost-effective way to meet the UK’s climate change targets would be to give local governments a bigger role. However, despite being uniquely placed to develop tailored strategies and policies, local leaders remain frustrated by central government as it continues to hoard power.

Fundamentally flawed

Some are concerned that the UK will miss its environmental targets unless government develops a credible delivery framework. “The government has a number of levers under its control, but when it comes to implementing them, it really isn’t in a position to change anything,” says Richard Clewer, leader of Wiltshire Council. “Its job is to legislate, so it’s reliant on industries like the energy generation sector, or local governments, to deliver that legislation on the ground.”

National environmental policies can be largely irrelevant for areas such as his, he adds. “A lot of government policy is geared around solutions for urban areas, particularly transport. Buses and public transport are great, but 50% of people in Wiltshire live in rural areas where bus services on main routes are at best occasional, and there is no commercial way for them to work.”

Equally, when Wiltshire Council was given government money to spend on cycling schemes, the public was up in arms, arguing that it could have been spent better elsewhere and that the schemes were only beneficial for a small number of people. “The government likes simple, single policies, but when you translate that into local authorities, you end up with complexity based on the nature of the authorities – and that happens in urban areas as well.”

The recently-axed Green Homes Grant – which offered homeowners £5,000 to install insulation or double glazing – is another example of how environmental policies can be flawed in their delivery. “It was well intentioned, but the delivery mechanism and administration just didn’t work because it was organised by central government,” Clewer says.

“Retrofitting of housing is complex. Skills need to be built up on the ground in each area through local government and further education providers, and you also need to let people know about trusted traders to kickstart the scheme and get them to understand what they can do to their properties. Central government just isn’t in a position to do that.”

Relinquishing power

Councils in both rural and urban areas are struggling to make the changes needed. “We understand our home in a way that someone whose only knowledge of our city comes from looking at stats on a screen never will,” explains Helen Hayden, executive member for infrastructure and climate at Leeds City Council. “That's why we’ve lobbied for additional devolved powers so we can make some of the changes that people have been desperate to see for years.”

UK100 published a report earlier this year outlining the powers that councils need to deliver on their net-zero targets. They include powers to set local standards on energy and carbon dioxide emissions, to refuse consent for fossil fuel extraction, to charge for residual waste, and to require developers to submit carbon data from buildings, among other things. “There are a huge number of powers that local authorities find are barriers to net zero,” George says. “That includes everything from not being able to stop the building of new homes that will need to be retrofitted, to limitations on how they feed sustainable energy into the grid.”

The Future Homes Standard will ensure all new homes produce 75%-80% less carbon emissions than current regulations require, but it does not come into force until 2025, and local leaders know action must go further and faster.

“I would love all of our new housing to be zero-carbon, but government policy says that building regulation must set the standards, so there are areas where we are waiting for government to catch up,” Clewer explains.

UK100 has called for the government to engage with local authorities to ensure that a ‘Net Zero Delivery Framework’ is included in its upcoming Net Zero Strategy, and that the UK Infrastructure Bank has a net-zero mandate.

“What we need is long-term sustained funding – not money that needs to be spent by next year”

Fighting for funding

In 2018/19, local authorities in England received 31% of their funding from government grants, 52% from council tax and 17% from retained business rates. However, central government grants were cut by 38% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2018/19, reducing overall spending power by around 18%. The situation has been made worse by rising inflation during the COVID-19 pandemic – and local authorities were already struggling to deliver key services. “We have been under the cosh for more than 10 years,” says Sally Longford, deputy leader of Nottingham City Council. “We face huge funding challenges because of grant cuts, which does not help long-term planning for environmental improvements. The situation is not sustainable, as a greater and greater proportion of our funding has to be channelled into safeguarding children and adult social care.”

Local authorities are waiting for the outcome of the government’s Fair Funding Review, delayed due to the pandemic. Many hope it will spell the end of the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) – responsible for a large chunk of council funding, but seen as outdated.

“The current funding formula means that local authorities like Leeds can receive additional RSG funding if we build more roads – likely increasing the number of car journeys – but would not receive additional funding for schemes that help incentivise walking, cycling and public transport,” explains Hayden. “It is determined using a nearly decade-old formula that should be reviewed to ensure it is aligned with the UK’s net-zero strategies and legally binding carbon reduction targets.”

Although councils are in urgent need of adequate funding now, they also need reassurance that money will be available in the coming decades as they look to decarbonise. “What we desperately need from government is long-term sustained funding – not money that needs to be spent by next year, but money to be spent over the next 15 years to provide the subsidies for adapting housing, for example,” Clewer says. “There are areas of the housing sector that are going to find it very hard to switch to zero carbon, particularly when you are looking at the ‘fabric first’ approach. Colleges and companies need to know there is a constant stream of work coming, so apprentices can be trained up to deliver.”

Graphic

Leading the charge

Despite the challenges facing councils, they are still managing to implement a range of successful environmental initiatives – even during COVID-19.

Traffic calming and road closure schemes are in place across Nottingham to encourage more walking and cycling, 130 public EV charging points have been installed, and 30% of the council’s fleet are now ultra-low EVs. Nottingham City Council, meanwhile, has bought two of the world’s first original equipment manufacturer fully electric refuse collection vehicles to support its aim of being carbon neutral by 2028.

“The pandemic has seen communities work and develop closer together and appreciate the environment and the people close to them,” says Longford. “We have seen huge increases in the use of our green spaces, and more volunteering, cycling and walking, and this has led to a wide support for our ambition to make the city carbon neutral 22 years ahead of the government’s UK target.”

Leeds City Council has delivered a £40m district heating network that provides affordable, waste-powered heat and hot water to nearly 2,000 properties, enabling the development of a low-carbon city centre for decades to come. Retrofitting of housing is also set to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 5,000 tonnes and support more than 1,800 jobs. “In every region, local authorities have made serious commitments to net zero and signified intent to go even further,” says Hayden. “Responding to the pandemic has proved the vital importance of local and national governments working together, and highlighted how complex challenges cannot be effectively solved with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”

Wiltshire Council has cut emissions by 80% during the past four years and is on track to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. However, Clewer says he “cannot map a route under the current policy frameworks” for decarbonising the whole county in that time. “We will not hit zero carbon in the UK without every council, and we won’t do that without government coming up with policies that work for rural areas.” He believes devolution could ease the political unrest seen in recent years. “The more people can trust local elected authorities to come up with solutions that work for them, the more involved they’ll feel. People love complaining about their councils, but for the most part they do trust them. That can’t be said for central government.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has showed local authorities’ capacity to deliver in difficult circumstances, with many setting up testing stations and vaccination centres almost overnight. It is now time for central government to place more trust in councils as they tackle another emergency. “Local authorities are uniquely positioned at the heart of the community, and have the power to influence awareness and involvement from their residents, businesses and visitors, and develop on-the-ground actions to make a real and lasting difference,” says Longford. “They have the pulse of their communities in a way that the national government does not.”

Image credit | iStock

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