The UK has led the world in introducing a legally binding target on climate change: to reach Net Zero by 2050…. and crucially to secure a 68% reduction in emissions by 2030. However, recent UK Government analysis tells us that we have achieved just a 39% reduction so far… with six years until 2030. While the UK’s Clean Air Plan originally launched in 2019 and recently updated has turned out to be far from the ‘world-leading plan to tackle air pollution’ it was originally launched as.
Meanwhile, local action in towns and cities across England are making significant impact despite increasingly facing: ‘Kafkaesque’ barriers to delivery - such as counterintuitive planning rules and a myriad of competitive funding pots.
… and recently - a new challenge is growing - that of small and vocal opposition - backed by some in UK Government - to bold and ambitious initiatives such as ULEZ. Fuelled by conspiracy theories and misinformation - some local leaders across the country have faced abuse and even death threats – all because of efforts to tackle our air pollution public health emergency and our climate emergency.
Despite this, many courageous local leaders have increased their resolve to deliver Clean Air and Net Zero – with many of them committing to reduce emissions ahead of national targets. Over 340 have signed Climate Emergency Declarations, frequently aiming for Net Zero by 2030 and 108 have signed up to the UK100 network of local leaders committed to ambitious Net Zero and Clean Air action.
And… at UK100 we supported 21 local and combined authorities in responding to the Government’s 2021 consultation on air quality targets - stating that they wanted to go further and faster and were committed to achieving World Health Organisation targets ahead of the UK Government's proposed target.
Sadly, the conclusion is clear: despite progress, the UK Government has failed to reform a local authority structure that is not fit for Net Zero or for clean air — local leaders are still waiting for powers and resources to deliver the full extent of their ambitions.
That doesn’t mean local authorities are standing still, though. Our members in major urban areas such as here in London, are developing robust, science-based plans for delivery across all areas of climate and clean air emissions. Smaller and more rural authorities such as my hometown of Bath have integrated climate change into their innovative planning policies…. just an example of the many innovative solutions that are being taken forward in communities across the UK.
The UK government has set itself a mission that, by 2030, every part of England that wants a devolution deal will have one, with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution, and with a simplified, long-term funding settlement, as we’ve seen with the trailblazer deals for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. It is vital that new devolution deals are designed to enable efficient and effective local delivery of clean air and Net Zero to enable coherent systems-wide transformation.
What local authorities can and cannot do is determined then — in part — by the structures of national governments but also by the legal framework of duties, powers and policies.
Our Powers in Place report identifies the specific areas where there are gaps in powers and resources needed to support and enable the essential ambitious local action to reach Net Zero nationally.
We currently have a situation where local powers to achieve Clean Air and Net Zero are theoretical rather than actual. Local authorities are achieving enormous change despite, not because of, the regulatory framework and the reluctance to resource them adequately. Not only has a reduction in local authority funding in England over more than a decade impacted capability and capacity at the local level, but there is also a problem with national government frameworks limiting the ability of local authorities to use their powers effectively. This needs to change.
Clean air and Net Zero cannot be achieved by Whitehall alone — or by any national government alone. Local authorities have a track record of success in delivering tailored and ambitious approaches that secure the support of families and communities. Creating a framework that presumes in favour of Clean air and Net Zero action at a local level will accelerate delivery through a collaborative, place-based approach.
In London, the ULEZ scheme is doing just that. And in an age where misinformation is on the rise and traffic reduction measures are attracting negative media coverage and the attention of US conspiracy theorists - speaking out in support of such schemes - and in favour of ambitious local action for clean air and for Net Zero - has never been more important.
While the UK Government believes that they are doing all they can to reduce emissions — this is not what we are hearing from local leaders. There are structural issues we are no closer to fixing. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero does not know many Net Zero grants there are, local authorities aren’t sure what the priorities should be, and the UK government isn't measuring whether local governments are delivering Net Zero. Often, councils in England view Westminster as a blocker against climate policy — and there is no better example than on air quality.
London has a world-leading ambition to improve air quality - saving lives and reducing emissions. But the UK Government has not helped this ambition, they refused to give money to the scrappage scheme, and recently a group of MPs recently introduced a bill to remove the Mayor’s power to expand ULEZ. The UK Government's approach to ULEZ is the exact opposite of what local authorities need - scant funding, a lack of local powers and an absence — in England — of the partnership that is needed between national and local government.
Local governments know what will work for their community and their community can tell them what they think at the ballot box. To deliver clean air and Net Zero governments must: simplify the funding landscape, put in place a policy framework to deliver action, and structures that measure and support progress.
If you take one thing away from today, make it this - we all have a need now more than ever to work together, support each other and continue to deliver courageous local action to meet Net Zero and deliver clean air.