The journey to COP26: how can devolution drive decarbonisation across local government?

4 min read

Devolution is expected to be a key topic in the upcoming Autumn Statement as well as a likely point of discussion during this year's Conference of the Parties. As part of our Journey to COP26 series, Lesha Chetty, Local Government Sector Lead at Mace, looks at the prospect from a national perspective and examines the opportunities of devolution in driving decarbonisation across local governments. From improving the ability to deliver green infrastructure to enabling authorities to better rationalise their estates, there are a wealth of possibilities available.

Over spring and summer 2021 the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (formerly the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) has engaged with county authorities as part of its plan to offer devolution deals across the UK.

Devolution, the delegation of powers from central to local governments, is hoped to accelerate the levelling up agenda. Once the Levelling Up white paper is released, anticipated to also be included in the Autumn Budget announcement on 27 October, the Government will prioritise councils for pilot deals moving into 2022.

For the public sector, the question becomes what benefits can be gained from these new powers.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge that devolution can help tackle is achieving net zero by 2050. According to the National Audit Office around 91% of local authorities have adopted at least one commitment to decarbonise their activities or local area. However, the NAO found that central government has yet to provide sufficient expectations or guidance on how best to achieve these goals. Without the power to direct significant decarbonisation efforts, and the need to secure long term strategic funding options through non-government organisations like Salix, there is a risk that this lack of direction can scupper carbon cutting initiatives.

There is therefore a huge opportunity for authorities to use new powers gained through devolution to drive the decarbonisation agenda. It can empower local authorities to make decisions that better target smaller carbon reduction projects, more funding and resource to drive green infrastructure, as well as opportunities for nearby councils to pool their resources to rationalise their estates in the most efficient way.

Here are three potential outcomes of devolution to help drive the green agenda across our range of councils.

Targeted, local decarbonisation opportunities

Away from major national carbon cutting projects, councils with greater power and autonomy could commit to smaller green schemes within their own boundaries. This could include supporting residents with insulating or retrofitting their properties, rewilding suitable sites including brownfield land, or even investing in local renewable energy production. Authorities like Hampshire County Council are already jumping on this opportunity, targeting local schools and corporate buildings to improve energy efficiency.

These smaller developments can result in overall net gains for achieving net zero, which could become more achievable with the additional powers granted by devolution.

Drive green infrastructure

Alongside carbon cutting initiatives, local authorities could also improve the local services and infrastructure in their regions to deliver cleaner, greener travel. From improving electric vehicle infrastructure, replacing diesel buses with hydrogen or electric buses, to even deploying low carbon transport experiments like electric scooters in Bristol and Bath, there are  interesting opportunities presented by devolved powers.

This is especially important in the context of the wider levelling up agenda. Looking to the councils in the north of the UK, there’s a real chance to level the playing field and create far better transport services in historically deprived areas. Aside from meeting decarbonisation commitments, this opens new social mobility opportunities in these areas such as increasing access to employment opportunities.

With the possibility of devolution of power to bring regional carbon budgets and targets associated with the new powers, this could significantly change local infrastructure across the north.

More strategic rationalisation of estates

Increasing county and borough councils’ autonomy through County deals can also help them make smarter green decisions when it comes to their existing buildings and estates.

It’s common for related county, borough and district councils to each have competing priorities, with varying responsibilities to local residents, businesses, neighbouring councils and national government. This can lead to disagreements about how to use existing assets. For instance, while a district council might want to turn a disused building into a community centre, a borough council might want to create additional office space to serve businesses outside of the area.

However, if councils are granted greater powers to optimise their estates as they choose, there are opportunities to pool assets from councils across boundaries to benefit net zero ambitions. When understood in the wider context of assets across a county, perhaps that disused building could be better insulated and become multi-use, reducing the need for additional construction to meet public need. Otherwise perhaps it could be demolished if the needs of competing councils can be met across other parts of the estate.

Devolution is an exciting prospect to drive the green agenda across the UK and one that could be adapted to support other nations in the years to come. While plans are still being finalised between DLUHC and local authorities, the opportunity to accelerate decarbonisation through the dissemination of power should not be overlooked as we inch closer to 2050.