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Key Cities: How do we solve the UK’s climate crisis? Look to our local authorities


As well as providing a range of vital services for their communities, local authorities have for years been leading the charge against society’s greatest long-term challenge – climate change. 

As the world looks set to pass the 1.5C warming threshold in five years’ time, city and town halls across the country have consistently created meaningful climate policies that benefit people and planet. But if such activity is to be long-lasting and truly impactful, it needs the support and commitment of central government. Unfortunately, this has been lacking in recent years. 

Consequently, we at Key Cities, the national network of 27 urban centres across the UK with a collective population of more than six million people, believe it is time Westminster adopts a different approach.

Our new report,Levelling Up, Emissions Down, produced in collaboration with Metro Dynamics and Opergy, illustrates how our cities are driving positive climate action, despite what many regard as a significant disconnect between local action and national policy.

Launched at the recent UK Real Estate Investment and Infrastructure Forum (UKREiiF), the report highlights the work being done by local authorities to achieve net zero. Beyond having strategies and action plans in place, many are reducing carbon though ingenious partnerships and technical innovations. 

Take Newport City Council, which has partnered with a local community organisation to generate 100% renewable energy by installing solar panels across 27 sites. Lancaster City Council has created a data dashboard charting how energy is consumed across the authority that can be used to inform decisions about local services. Doncaster Council is establishing one of the UK’s first regional hydrogen logistics systems.

However, all of this has been achieved in spite of government policy. The report lays bare how progress is being hindered by a lack of powers, clarity, capacity and funding. 

First and foremost, local authorities need more power to develop and implement initiatives themselves. Councils know their communities and businesses better than those in Westminster, so they should be the ones to drive change. The government’s own Net Zero Review highlighted that significant action is required if we are to meet national and local net zero targets. This will require devolution going further and deeper. 

Of course, both national and local climate goals could be achieved more quickly if there was also a clearer vision around what local authorities are able and expected to do in combatting climate change. And, of course, it would be a massive boost to their efforts if there was more funding available.

As well as confirming the funding shortfall, the Levelling Up, Emissions Down report found that local authorities’ capacity to scale up work around net zero, including developing business cases for investment, is lower than many would like. A shortage of green skills across what is an otherwise burgeoning part of the economy is another hurdle to overcome.

Meanwhile, the role of local authorities in delivering net zero is not being articulated properly, leading to varying levels of coverage across different local authorities, making it harder to identify dedicated funds for investment. 

Political challenges also sit large when tackling climate change. Measures to promote active travel, cycle lanes, or limit car use often run into opposition and can be difficult to implement. And when resources are limited, making the case for net zero in the face of social and economic deprivation can be a tough call.

So, what do Key Cities’ members want? The report spells out what is required. It specifically calls on the government to define the role of local authorities in terms of achieving net zero, and to provide more long-term devolved funding with net zero powers to local areas. These should cover services such as the installation of EV charging infrastructure and building retrofits. Westminster should also create a monitoring framework for accountability. 

Ministers must invest in capacity and specialist skills by offering targeted support to train and develop staff across local authorities, building on the Green Jobs Taskforce and providing additional specialist capacity through combined authorities or net zero energy hubs.

And new regulations should be established within an investment ecosystem. Distribution Network Operators should be required to align their plans with local development plans, alongside an upgrade of the grid to handle increased renewable energy generation. 

Through this report, we aim to show that local authorities must be at the centre of efforts to address the climate crisis. By giving them the right tools, resources and powers, the government can help Key Cities accelerate their progress towards net zero and serve as a model for other areas in the UK. 

As we look to reach net zero and level up communities across the country, we urge those in Westminster to empower local authorities so that they can better serve their people and the planet.

Cllr John Merry is Chair of Key Cities and Deputy Mayor of Salford City Council. Key Cities is sponsoring the IED’s 40th Anniversary Awards Dinner, which follows the IED Annual Conference on 7th November. Tickets are available to IED members and non-members here.