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Taking stock of the role for local action on clean energy in the UK’s decarbonisation efforts

01 October, 2019

Mags Tingey

Janette Webb

Reading time: 8 minutes

Mags Tingey and Jan Webb reflect on the UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee’s report – Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets – and the significance of its recommendations for local action on clean energy.

In August 2019, the UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee published its report Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets. Its wide-ranging review of issues facing the transformation of energy systems concludes with 65 recommendations.

We particularly welcome the focus on heat and energy efficiency, and recommendations for local action, especially the role of local authorities (see in particular Sections 6 and 7 and recommendations 12, 38, 39, 54, 58, 59). This material addresses questions examined in the CREDS Policy & Governance theme.

Statutory responsibilities and resourcing for local energy

The report recommends introducing a local statutory duty for carbon planning and reporting, combined with access to finance:

Recommendation 54. Local authorities have a vital role to play in the UK’s decarbonisation. Many local authorities are pursuing emissions reductions projects, but the capacity and capability for decarbonisation at the local level varies. The Government should introduce a statutory duty on local authorities in England and Wales, by Green Week 2020, to develop emissions reduction plans in line with the national targets set by the Climate Change Act 2008, and to report periodically on progress made against these plans. In preparation for this new obligation, the Government should establish centralised support to help local authorities develop decarbonisation strategies and deliver initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It should also support local authorities’ access to low-cost, long-term finance in order to enable the delivery of such strategies. The Government should adopt UK100’s proposals for ‘Clean Energy Action Partnerships’. (Paragraph 223)

This recommendation reinforces our research findings on sustainable heating and energy efficiency (Hawkey et al., 2016; 2018; Webb et al., 2017a; 2017b) which indicate the wide ranging ambition of local authorities combined with lack of capacity to implement clean energy plans. UK – and devolved national – Governments could address this by introducing a statutory power, with commensurate resourcing, for energy planning and implementation.

The recommendation also emphasises the value of local authorities’ contribution to a net-zero emissions energy system, rather than the more common, indirect approach which urges local governments to consider what local energy strategy can do to serve their existing priorities.

Why statutory local energy powers?

Statutory powers, with associated resources, are significant in the UK’s centralised governance systems, because they are the main instrument of institutional change and capacity building.

Back in 2012 the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) also proposed UK Government introduce a duty for local authorities to “develop and implement low-carbon plans” (CCC, 2012, p. 9), but there is still no statutory requirement to act on clean energy. City-region devolution has also perpetuated centralised strategic control through “austerity localism” – delegation of decisions about which local services are reduced or withdrawn (Blanco et al., 2014; O’Brien and Pike, 2018). This limits local discretionary action, and erodes capacities for ‘optional’ energy initiatives.

Local authorities have nevertheless made political commitments to act; more than 90 have stated their intention to achieve 100% clean energy in their area by 2050 (UK100, 2019), and 205 (about half) have declared a ‘climate emergency’ (Climate Emergency Network, 2019). What is missing are clear routes to implementing such political commitments.

Legislative and statutory powers work to open up such routes. Climate legislation has already facilitated local planning and projects, especially in Scotland (Heidrich et al., 2016; 2013) where the Climate Change Act (2009) requires all public bodies to act in the way best calculated to contribute to emissions reduction targets.

Scottish social housing standards and continuing public funding for area-based energy efficiency programmes have also resulted in more consistent progress on energy efficiency than in England, where all public funding for domestic energy efficiency ended in 2011 after election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government (Webb, 2019).

Principles for statutory local energy powers – doing more than ticking a box

Statutory powers need to be coupled with commensurate financial and policy support.

Introducing, or withdrawing, statutory powers can be politically controversial. There are differing views about whether such powers hinder local discretion, reinforcing ‘red tape’. It is therefore critical that any new local energy powers establish two-way coordination between national and local energy system planning and development.

To avoid the risk of a statutory energy power becoming a ‘box ticking’ exercise, and causing local authorities to look for the lowest cost route to compliance, new resources and tools are essential. As Section 7 of the Select Committee Report states, new legal, political and financial capacities are needed by local authorities to develop local energy plans, assess finance options, and to create clarity on their role and responsibilities. Such resources are needed to establish legitimacy of local energy governance, drive structural change and create a coherent problem-owner for local clean energy planning and implementation.

Learning from live proposals in Scotland

In 2015, Scottish Government defined energy efficiency of the building stock as a national infrastructure priority, and new local powers are being debated.

Proposals include a statutory duty for local authorities to develop comprehensive area-based Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies with a 20 year implementation plan for upgrading all buildings and decarbonising heat (Scottish Government, 2019; 2018; 2017).

Currently being piloted across Scotland, there is universal support among officers for such a duty, but concerns include the necessity for: additional technical and project management skills and resources; clear financing strategies; accurate data on energy use; a platform for data sharing, and effective national-local coordination, accountability and review (Wade et al., 2019).

At political level, the cross-scale and cross-party negotiation is challenging, but pilot projects are providing effective foundations for workable policy.

The role of heat and energy efficiency policy in creating the conditions for local action

As the Select Committee Report states, there is desperate need for clear, long-term heat and energy efficiency policy across the UK (see recommendations 35-46 on decarbonising heating).

Local authority local energy projects are also usually reliant on a component of government funding and policy support. Critically, when programmes are cut short, this has downgraded and stalled local energy initiatives. Many of the problems cited in the report, and recommendations to address them – such as (re-)introducing a new zero carbon homes policy (recommendation 38) – directly respond to issues raised by local authority officers we have interviewed. Officers perceived the unplanned changes in zero-carbon homes, energy company obligation funding eligibility and planning policies as ‘policy roll-backs’, combining to undermine heat and energy efficiency programmes (see e.g. Webb et al., 2017a, p.12-14).

UK energy policy support mechanisms and incentives, whilst instrumental in opening up opportunities, have not been designed to create systematic capacities for local authorities to shape innovation at meso-scale. Frequent changes have channelled most activity into one-off limited initiatives.

More coherent and consistent policy is needed to ensure that appropriate local energy powers are introduced and contribute materially to UK decarbonisation goals.

What next?

Whilst the report’s recommendations about local energy are very welcome, many questions are unanswered. How will local authorities be involved in planning the detail of a new statutory energy power? How will learning from Scottish pilots and proposals be implemented? How will policy and financial resources be managed and coordinated?


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