Government's ‘top down-approach’ to net zero 'holding back progress'

Government needs to give mayoral authorities powers to deliver net zero goals, think tank says
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By Tevye Markson

02 Feb 2023

The government’s top-down approach to net zero is hampering local efforts to deliver national climate change goals, the Institute for Government has warned.

The think tank argues that England’s mayoral authorities could contribute significantly to efforts to decarbonise the UK economy, but currently have no formal role in the government’s net zero strategy, in its new report Net zero and devolution: The role of England’s mayors in the climate transition.

In 2019, the UK government committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But the IfG said to achieve this, the government needs to give mayoral authorities more powers and resources, including long-term funding, transport powers like those London has, and a seat next to ministers on a new net-zero delivery board. 

The report also calls for better data sharing between devolved mayoral authorities and government and an end to policy churn.

England’s mayors currently have “no formal role in the UK’s net-zero strategy, receive little funding to work specifically on net zero objectives, and have little clarity about long-term funding in key areas like housing and transport”, the report said.

“At the same time, stop-start policymaking in Whitehall has undermined consumer confidence and business investment,” it added.

“Mayors in England’s city regions see net zero as a core part of their mission. They have the local knowledge and the ability to think strategically at a regional level. The government now needs to give them the tools and funding so they can deliver their ambitious emission reduction goals,” said Alex Nice, co-author of the report.

The criticism comes after a government watchdog warned last month that the current pace and scale of action to improve the environment in England will not deliver the changes necessary to achieve government's ambition to leave a better environment for the next generation.

Opportunity to mayoral authorities’ potential

Mayoral authorities can be "trailblazers" in tackling climate change by taking a strategic approach at a regional level to some of the most challenging parts of the net-zero strategy, such as retrofitting homes, promoting low-carbon travel, and ensuring workers have the skills to meet the needs of the green economy, the report said.

But the UK government’s net-zero strategy, published in October 2021, made only passing references to the role of devolved mayoral authorities, the IfG said. It has called for regional and local government should be placed at heart of the new strategy.

The current strategy set out a series of long-term regulatory targets that will guide the transition in areas including energy, transport and heating. However, due to gaps in detail on the policies needed to meet these targets and how they would be delivered, the High Court ruled in July 2022 that the strategy was in breach of the 2008 Climate Change Act.  The government has until March to remedy this by publishing an updated strategy.

The IfG said this provides an opportunity to involve mayoral authorities more, including creating a net-zero delivery board – made up of ministers, mayors, industry and local representatives – to act as a high level forum to help government deliver the policies set out in the strategy.

Government ‘needs to think long term’

The report also calls for the government to focus on long-term impact, by giving mayoral authorities more control over funding and sticking to policies.

Funding to mayoral combined authorities is often linked to delivery of specific projects, giving mayors little flexibility in how they allocate resources. The funding is often short term and allocated through competitive bidding processes, which makes long-term planning difficult, the report argues.

In the 2022 Autumn Statement, chancellor Jeremy Hunt said Greater Manchester and the West Midlands could be offered “single departmental-style settlements” at the next spending review as part of their ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals.

The report says long-term net zero delivery funding should be given to all mayoral devolved authorities who seek it.

Additionally, fragmented grants for retrofitting homes should be merged into a multi-year funding pot that mayoral authorities can administer in co-ordination with local authorities, the report argues. It says most successful international examples of retrofit programmes have not used this grant-based approach. The government’s commitment to “explore” changing the system before the next spending review is not “urgent” enough, the report adds.

The report also calls for a consistent net-zero policy framework, which it says would need to be supported by credible targets and the aforementioned long-term funding, and an end to policy churn

“Stop-start policy making at a national level and short-term funding has made it harder for mayors to bring their transport, spatial and skills plans into a coherent overall strategy for low-carbon growth,” the report said. “It has also undermined business confidence, making it harder to build local supply chains.”

Previous research by the Institute for Government identified regular policy churn as one of the biggest complaints of businesses regarding the government’s net zero strategy.

London powers for all

The report also outlined the big impact giving mayoral authorities more power over transport could have, by replicating London powers.

Almost half of commuter journeys in London are taken by public transport, compared to less than 25% in most other UK cities.

“Closing this gap would make a large contribution to decarbonising the transport sector”, the report said.

To do this, the report suggests consolidating all transport funding into a long-term block grant, giving city regions the flexibility to set their spending priorities and shift funds easily between them.

The government has committed to moving towards a "London model" of transport funding for devolved mayoral authorities, but the IfG said it needs to get there faster.

Data sharing is 'poor'

The IfG also raised concern about “poor” dating sharing between central and local government.

Devolved mayoral authorities and local authorities collate a large volume of data on areas like housing conditions, supply-chain bottlenecks and skills shortages but this data is currently not well utilised in Whitehall, the report said.

A failure to engage with local authorities on policy design has contributed to recent failures, such as the Green Homes Grant which was described by the Public Accounts Committee as a “slam dunk fail”.

The government’s levelling up white paper proposed several institutional changes to improve data sharing between devolved subnational government and Whitehall, including the creation of an Office for Local Government and regional levelling up directors – senior civil servants which act as a bridge between central and regional government.

These changes should be implemented and used to improve net zero data exchange, the report said

A BEIS spokesperson said: “The UK is leading the world on tackling climate change while also developing green jobs for the future – we’ve cut emissions by over 44% between 1990 and 2019 while growing our economy by 76%, and our policies have supported 68,000 green jobs since late 2020.

“Last year, the government appointed Chris Skidmore to chair an independent review of its approach to meeting its net zero 2050 target, to ensure we deliver our commitment to reach net zero in a way that is pro-business and pro-growth. The government will carefully consider the recommendations proposed and respond to the review later in the year.”

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