Nick Forbes
Cllr. Nick Forbes Newcastle City Council
Newcastle
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The wolves of climate change are at our door - not in 2050, not in 2030, but right now. We must take urgent, meaningful action and councils have to be at the forefront of delivering the Net Zero agenda.

Time and again - particularly during the pandemic - we have shown both individually and collectively that given the resources we can deliver, at pace, the change our residents and communities need.

Authorities like Newcastle already have the plans for how we can achieve what is necessary to decarbonise, pivot to a new greener economy, and improve the lives of those we serve. And as we approach COP26, we hope that central Government will listen to local government, giving us the powers, the funding and the regulatory framework for greater collaboration and the creation of good, well paid jobs.

I would describe myself as a climate change activist, not because I go on lots of marches but because what I'm trying to do in my city is ensure that Net Zero consideration permeates every area.

Of course, that is not easy, and there are major issues that need to be addressed - particularly a lack of national evidence base, local government’s lack of the necessary powers to take the initiative, difficulties in bidding for or leveraging the money we need, and consideration of how we give confidence to both businesses and householders to join us on this journey.

Clearly lots of people have lots of ideas about what single issue, if it was pursued, would have significant impact, and that can derail all else.

“I would describe myself as a climate change activist, not because I go on lots of marches but because what I'm trying to do in my city is ensure that Net Zero consideration permeates every area.”

But local government is working on a whole range of projects, and our Climate Change Task Force in Newcastle is not alone in identifying, on a local level, what we can do to achieve the fastest reductions in carbon, over the shortest period of time, for the resources available.

We then need the powers - particularly in terms of planning - that will allow us to intervene in each of those areas to make positive differences in terms of carbon output. And with that in place we're going to need access to a lot of money.

It's frustrating that at the moment we have a very centralised system of funding and for any of these activities there's lots of different streams for different elements. Clearly, we can't have 10 years’ worth of funding now for all the projects that we need, but in my city alone we've got something like 70 or 80 individual projects right now that we know will reduce carbon but we haven't yet got the funding for, and we’re having to go through endless rounds of national competition.

“I think it would be far better for government funding to be devoted to us at a local level, so we just get on and do what we know needs to be done.”

It's a bit like having a jigsaw where you have to go to a different shop to buy every bit before you can put it together. It's quite time consuming, quite inefficient, and fails to provide confidence for businesses as it leads to a stop-start approach.

I think it would be far better for government funding to be devoted to us at a local level, so we just get on and do what we know needs to be done. However, this can't all come from the public purse. Our back of the envelope calculation is that we're going to need £5 billion to take Newcastle only halfway to our Net Zero targets.

We're therefore going to have to find new ways of leveraging private finance and also invent new financial instruments to be able to handle that kind of magnitude of financial risk. Part of that could be where combined authorities can really come into their own, by borrowing at scale to fund investments that their constituent councils might find risky individually.

Also, we need to see some really practical things - not least an extension of the powers of local government to regulate green businesses, giving householders the confidence that they are not being exploited.

All of this is absolutely what we need to be doing right now. This is not a passing phase, but something that we have to tackle head on. With COP26 just weeks away the time for “huff and puff” is over – central Government needs to empower local authorities to lead the way.

Cllr Nick Forbes is Leader of Newcastle City Council, one of nearly 50 UK local authorities (and 46 UK100 members) who have signed up to the Race to Zero campaign.