The net-zero governance gap

15th January 2024


The reality of delivering net zero is that we need solutions tailored to specific areas. Peter Gudde explores models that local authorities could adopt

Introduction

Local councils face a triple bind when it comes to playing their part in net zero. Since 2010, they have seen 60% of central government funding withdrawn[i], leading to what has been described as ‘austerity localism’[ii]. During the same period, local government has been heavily constrained through ‘neoliberal governance reforms’[iii], which have centralised authority away from the regions to central government. The third material issue concerns the lack of a governance framework or relevant models within which to base their delivery plans or martial local stakeholders.

Central government does not endorse a governance model and expects local areas to produce their own net-zero solutions. Appropriate governance has, however, been seen as essential – for example, in Regen’s 2021 report – ‘to create the buy-in and participation necessary to make a net-zero energy system a reality’[iv]. English devolution is focusing on larger conurbations, with net zero a likely addition to their devolution deals as they undergo a refresh. The devolution process is being extended into the shires through county deals, where two-tier administration predominates. However, the process is protracted and lacks full coverage across England.

Government-funded research through Innovate UK provides valuable insights into the so- called non-technical barriers to net zero. Its 2021 report defines three high-level governance models; centrally led, locally led or a hybrid of both[v]. The current Net Zero Living pathfinder programme builds on this, with projects exploring solutions to develop stronger relationships between local stakeholders to improve net-zero delivery.

Addressing these organisational challenges is crucial, yet there is little detail on what ‘good governance’ looks like at local level. Nor is there the tailored support needed to help local authorities assess their own arrangements and learn from real-world examples to avoid hard-coding sub-optimal arrangements – or, even worse, doing nothing.

So, what is the net-zero governance gap? As key players in local net zero delivery, what can local authorities learn from other models of governance? What should areas with multiple layers of public administration prioritise given that resources are scarce and a national mandate for local net zero absent?

The current governance gap

The roots of local net-zero governance extend back over three decades, with local government an active participant in tackling climate change under various mandatory and voluntary initiatives. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Local Agenda 21 led to the formation of new partnerships and forums, or the repurposing of existing ones, as mainly flexible affiliations between different parts of local society.

Local Area Energy Planning is the latest manifestation in the timeline of initiatives stimulating public administrations to establish relationships and transactional arrangements in the absence of any governance model. The Energy Systems Catapult model for different parts of society to engage in locational energy system change, spatial planning and decarbonisation suggests that many areas have a long way to go[i].

The reality of delivering net zero is that we need solutions tailored to specific areas – one size does not fit all. The key reasons are demographics and economic disparities, the resources available, an area’s ambition to act and the varied dynamic spanning politics within and between local councils and central government.

What can we learn from other governance models?

To help unpick what makes good governance, we identified over 50 different governance arrangements operating across the UK, from which we selected 19 examples for closer attention. We categorised them by sector to derive eight models.

Table 1 Eight models of governance

Model

Examples

Key features

Integrated care system

North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Partnership

Multiple stakeholders, commissioning of local services, strategic board and plan

Formal local authority-led

South & East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership’s joint decision-making arrangement

Legally binding joint decision and working arrangement

Informal local authority-led

Multiple examples across the UK

Non-legally binding local authority agreements, each LA answerable to democratically elected members, some sharing of resources

Public-private partnership

Cambridgeshire – Bouygues; Bristol City Leap programme with Vattenfall and Ameresco

Contract based on successful tendering for services

Multi-sector

Energy Capital (West Midlands), Manchester Climate Change Partnership

Non-legally binding, cross-sectoral agreement, high-level leadership

Project delivery

Low Carbon Oxford

Single purpose, funding-led, time-limited

Community-led

Low-Carbon Hub, Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-operative

Locally led, community interest, infrequent although variable public sector involvement

Free trade

Freeports, investment zones

Single purpose, commercially driven, some cross-sector involvement

We also looked at ways to assess governance arrangements. We took 10 methodologies across the disciplines of climate change, energy, health, finance and culture. From these, we derived 43 different characteristics, grouped into seven principles based on their themes.

Fig 1: Assessment criteria for governance frameworks

Each characteristic was assessed across the eight models, using the same challenge question – ‘How well does the framework deliver on ….?’. We rated each model using the 0-10 Likert scale, with 0 representing ‘Not well at all’ and 10 ‘Very well’. This process revealed those models most likely to return strong positive characteristics, and where one model outscores the others.


Fig 2: Plot showing the highest-scoring characteristics by governance model

We also aggregated the scoring to see where any of the models outperformed across one or more of the seven principles.

What we found

The multi-sector model scored highest across more characteristics than the other models (n=8), followed by the integrated care systems (n=5) and community-led (n=4) models. The multi-sector and integrated care systems models each scored strongly across the principle relating to being strategic (n=7, x ̅=7.86), while the community-led model scored highly across the enabling principle (n=7, x ̅ =8.14).

The community-led model outscored all other models for adding value, being placed-based, sharing, inclusive and altruistic. The integrated care systems model scored highest for flexibility, addressing conflict and creating common ground. The multi-sector model outscored others in the characteristics of balanced priorities, authoritative, skilled, efficient, adaptive, fast-paced and scalable. The formal local authority-led model scored highest for clarity of purpose, while the informal local authority-led model ranked highest for taking a whole system view.

The scoring process was also applied to three county-wide partnerships, with the strongest results from the eight models overlaid to identify opportunities for local areas to learn from them. Each of the counties have climate change partnerships working within informal local authority-led governance arrangements.

Figure 3. Scoring for three area partnerships compared the strongest-scoring characteristics from the eight governance models

High levels of divergence between the local area plots and the strongest model scores suggest that each county arrangement could learn most from the community-led model with respect to the characteristics of adding value, being place-based, sharing and inclusive. The weakest characteristics of local area governance where most could be learned lie within the enabling principle (eg, being more personal, diverse, inclusive and empowering stakeholders) where the integrated care system and community models are strongest. Both models show strong characteristics that would help connect and anchor the informal, local authority-led approach observed in the three county areas to local stakeholders, whether institutional, communal or the individual citizen. This would not only help to legitimise the governance structure but potentially unlock untapped skills and capacity.


Integrated care systems are a recent incarnation of the arrangements for delivering healthcare in England introduced through the Health and Care Act 2022. The partnerships created under the model bring together NHS organisations, local authorities and others to take collective responsibility for planning services, improving health and reducing inequalities across geographical areas. The model brings together strategic multi-stakeholder representation from the health and care organisations, local authorities and others determined locally. They replaced a top-down approach to healthcare provision, structured around Strategic Health Authorities, where care provision was characterised by a compartmentalized approach.


The community-led model brings values that tend to be less well developed in the three county area approaches. One of the leading exponents, the Low-Carbon Hub, puts local power in the hands of local people to foster solutions delivered and targeted at neighbourhoods (8c).

Moving local governance forwards

Local government is wrestling with one of the biggest challenges of the age, with the leanest of resources and legal foundations. At the same time, central government sees devolution as key to addressing local governance, describing devolution deals as opportunities for ‘innovative local proposals to deliver action on climate change and the UK’s net-zero targets’ (6). However, using the devolution process alone will not deliver effective, local net-zero governance in England while it remains limited by geography, with its focus only on larger public administrations and using protracted timelines to secure agreement.

No single approach, sector or geographical scale prevails in solving the governance gap while the roles and relationships between local authorities that share the same geography vary significantly. Using insights from other models observed in other sectors must be the way ahead for hard-pressed councils, but they must act quickly to develop their own solutions while the clock ticks towards a world beyond 1.5 degrees.

Peter Gudde, MIEMA CEnv, is a doctoral researcher at the Suffolk Sustainability Institute, University of Suffolk

This article is a based on a presentation to the Royal Geographical Society-IBG conference in August 2023 and a research paper in pre-print with the journal Energy Policy.

Further reading

[1] Davis, M. (2021). Community municipal investments: Accelerating the potential of local net-zero strategies. University of Leeds. https://doi.org/10.5518/100/70

[1] Lowndes, V. and Pratchett, L. (2012). Local governance under the coalition government: austerity, localism and the big society. Local Government Studies, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp. 21-40.

[1] Tingey, M., and Webb, J. 2020. Net-zero localities: ambition and value in UK local authority investment. Energy Revolution Research Centre, Strathclyde, UK. University of Strathclyde Publishing. ISBN 978-1-909522-59-6

[1] Regen and Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks (2020). Local leadership to transform our energy system. https://www.regen.co.uk/publications/local-energy-leadership-to-transform-our-energy-system/

[1] Innovate UK, 2022. Accelerating Net-Zero Delivery. Unlocking the benefits of climate action in UK city-regions. Available via https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/IUK-090322-AcceleratingNetZeroDelivery-UnlockingBenefitsClimateActionUKCityRegions.pdf

[1] Energy Systems Catapult, 2022. Building a governance framework for coordinated Local Area Energy Planning. https://es.catapult.org.uk/report/governance-framework-for-coordinated-local-area-energy-planning/


Image credit: Shutterstock

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