City deals & climate action

14 June, 2021

Dan Van der Horst

Reading time: 7 minutes

As local government bodies declare a Climate Emergency, what are the drivers and mechanisms for climate action? Dan van der Horst and Connor Smith investigate.

In the United Kingdom, research suggests that progress concerning the imperative of climate action is too slow, with the government’s own advisors criticising the inadequate headway made by successive governments in Westminster.

In the face of this deficiency, attention is increasingly turning to subnational institutions and actors, particularly local authorities, and the role(s) that they may be able to play in innovating and pursuing climate action even if central government is less ambitious in that respect. By the end of 2020, 319 out of 404, pdf (43 pages, 4.6 MB) local governments and eight combined authorities had declared a Climate Emergency, demonstrating (at least in discourse) their commitment to driving climate action locally. With these developments in mind, identifying and, more importantly, understanding variation in subnational actions, ambitions, and strategies, could provide valuable insights concerning the drivers and mechanisms at play in stimulating climate action at local and regional scales. Considering this broader objective, our working paper (the focus of this blog) investigates the City Deals initiative because it provides a suitable basis for comparative analysis in that central government had a set approach to striking these ‘deals’ but left room for local and regional institutions and actors to negotiate distinctive plans for their respective areas.

Key findings: Climate action and subnational governance

Our findings show significant diversity with some Deals showing strong engagement with climate action and others failing to mention it. Overall, the City Deals constitute a missed opportunity to embed climate action ambitions at local and regional levels, for climate change mitigation, but even more so for climate change adaptation, which was prioritised by only one of the 35 Deals (Greater Brighton). Furthermore, in regions where climate action was found to be a priority, evidence suggests that scope was restricted to specific projects (e.g. low-carbon pilots, energy efficiency retrofits) as opposed to a more holistic, embedded, climate action ethos.

With regards to understanding the diverse responses to climate action, 19 of the 35 regions were found to prioritise mitigation and (with the exception of the Cardiff Capital region) they contextualised their climate action ambitions as being aided or driven by one or more of the following six recurring factors:

  • overcoming barriers or tackling issues
  • building on past projects or current initiatives
  • taking advantage of geographical specificities/ natural resources
  • leveraging, or building upon, existing material assets
  • leveraging strong partnership with, or existing investment by, private sector
  • leveraging existing knowledge-based assets.

In Deals where climate change mitigation is fundamental or important, the most common factor is building on past projects or current initiatives (cited by 9 out of 11 Deals), followed by taking advantage of geographical specificities or natural resources (cited by 6 out of 11). In Deals where climate change mitigation features less prominently, overcoming barriers or tackling issues is by far the single most important factor (cited by 6 out of 8). It could be argued that most factors relate to existing assets and therefore represent continuity in regional policy making, whilst overcoming barriers or tackling issues is more problem-driven and could potentially represent a more disruptive approach or innovative policy within the regional context. On the other hand, the Deals that include multiple factors, have the potential to represent more joined up thinking.

Table 1: Six key factors behind the climate action ambitions found in the City Deals.
Region Building on past projects or current initiatives Taking advantage of geog. specificities/ natural resources Leveraging, or building upon, existing material assets Leveraging strong partnership with, or existing investment by, private sector Overcoming barriers (e.g. to growth) or tackling issues (e.g. fuel poverty) Leveraging existing knowledge based assets
Deals where climate change mitigation is fundamental or important to strategy
Birmingham x
Manchester x x x x x
Liverpool x x
Leeds x
Newcastle x x x x x
Nottingham x x
Stoke-on-Trent x x
Tees Valley x x x
Stirling & Clackmannanshire x x
Tay Cities x x x
Swansea x x x
Deals where climate change mitigation featured but was not fundamental or important to strategy
Sheffield x
Greater Brighton x x
Plymouth & the South West x
Hull & Humber x x
Greater Cambridge x
Inverness & Highlands x
Edinburgh & South East x
Cardiff Capital Region

Key findings: Energy demand solutions

Energy efficient housing constitutes the most prevalent energy demand solution within the Deal texts; this takes the form of both housing retrofit (e.g. Manchester and Birmingham), in addition to new-build housing (e.g. Swansea and Inverness/Highland). However, findings suggest that – more often than not – there is a disconnect between housing and climate action ambitions at subnational levels, even when both constitute local/regional priorities independently. Throughout the City Deals as a whole, considerations related to economic growth generating potential and numbers of homes built often receive prominence over that of carbon emission reduction potential and quality of homes built. Whilst the City Deals were not explicitly designed to drive climate action at local levels, in light of national and international climate commitments the delivery of new homes with low energy efficiency standards (i.e. not exceeding the legal minimum) constitutes a missed opportunity to leverage effective energy demand solutions through the City Deal policy and is likely to result in greater costs (environmental, social and economic) in the long-run. This phenomenon can exist because of weak national legislation regarding energy efficiency standards of new built homes, but it takes more than a comparative desk study to unpack all the issues at play here. It could be that greater regional ambitions for climate action were thwarted by lack of capacity or in the context of funding limitations, had to be traded-off against other thematic priorities. Further investigation which seeks to explore these trends in greater detail could provide valuable insight.

To conclude…

In summary, whilst the City Deal was not originally designed to prioritise climate action, it is important to note that during the last decade this policy did not seek to remedy this omission. This could be seen as a clear failure in joined-up policy making in central government, since the City Deal was a substantive policy, developed at a time when the UK already had legally binding emission reduction targets and the importance climate change adaptation and mitigation were already well understood by scientific and policy expert communities. The fact that some City Deals did embrace climate action and others did not, suggests strongly that (notwithstanding the lack of central government push) there was important scope for more local ambition. We observed strong variation with regards to climate action and the fact that many City Deals did not capitalise on this opportunity, would seem to represent evidence of policy failure at the local/regional level. Going beyond the methodological restrictions of this desk-based comparative policy document analysis, follow-up research is needed to shed more light on those policy failures, not only to understand why opportunities were missed in the past, but also to try to remedy existing strategies and (where still possible) find out how to adopt some of the good practices found in some of the deals, into the existing plans of others. Having shared our findings in this working paper, we welcome constructive feedback, scrutiny and further discussion on these matters at this crucial time when climate action needs to be accelerated at both the national and the local level.

The findings from the working paper are discussed and disseminated in collaboration with LGiU, the non-partisan Local Authority membership organisation that works with members and other stakeholders to drive forward ideas and solutions needed to provide sustainable public services in the future. Further insights from this research will be explored in a series of LGiU blogs in the run-up to COP26 which will be available on the LGiU website.

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