UK government criticised for work with local councils on 'net zero' climate aim

Extinction Rebellion protesters in Parliament Square, London

Extinction Rebellion protesters in central London last year calling for more from central government to tackle the climate crisis - Credit: PA

The UK government has been rapped by the National Audit Office (NAO) for not doing enough work with local authorities to meet pledges to hit the "net zero" target and become a carbon neutral society by 2050. 

The NAO report highlights "serious weaknesses" in the way central government departments have worked with councils on how to meet that target.

The report also includes complaints from some local authorities who have said they find it "hard to engage" with the government on the topic. 

Muswell Hill XR activists stop traffic in the Broadway. Picture: Sam Volpe

XR protesters in Muswell Hill in 2020 - Credit: Archant

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO said: "There are serious weaknesses in government's approach to working with local authorities on net zero, stemming from a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities and piecemeal funding.

"This hampers local authorities' ability to plan effectively for the long term, build skills and capacity, and prioritise effort.


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Cllr Adam Harrison, Camden's climate chief, said: "From Camden's perspective, we have long pointed out that there is a massive opportunity gap between what we would like to do as a council to reduce carbon and what we are enabled to do given the lack of financial support and powers from the government.

“Our general funding has been cut 50% over the last decade with no let-up in sight. The other funding the government makes available does, as the NAO points out, tend to be piecemeal. This includes funding for homeowners, which also tends to be hit-and-miss and confusing to apply for."

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He said the government needed to build on the "political lead" it took over enabling safe travel during Covid, and now "do the same across the board" to boost decarbonisation.

His Haringey counterpart Cllr Mike Hakata said: "The government’s response to the global coronavirus pandemic proves that they can mobilise resources to meet an international crisis.

“Their financial and statutory support though in tackling climate change – which is also a global catastrophic emergency – could, and should, have been so much greater."

Cllr Hakata said the town hall needed "urgent financial support" to reach their goals, and also needed laws to change so that planning and environmental regulations supported eco-homes and the protection and expansion of biodiversity."

He said Haringey was "not sitting around waiting" and citing work already begun to retrofit council properties and "transform" local transport infrastructure - but added: "We’ll only be able to truly transform at the speed needed when central government steps in."

In north London, each local authority has its own climate targets - Camden's is to hit net zero by 2030. 

In, Haringey the aim is to hit net zero in the borough by 2041, but for the council's own operations to be carbon neutral by 2027.

And in Barnet, its Local Plan features commitments to meet the mayor of London's city-wide 2050 target. Barnet is one of few London councils not to declare a climate emergency, though in June Cllr Peter Zinkin (Con, Childs Hill) said that the town hall had "many policies that relate to climate change, and that will be pulled together in the sustainability policy that is being prepared".

In Westminster, the aim is to be a carbon-neutral council by 2030 and for the borough as a whole to follow by 2040.

Mr Davies added: ""Government's efforts to improve its approach to local action on net zero have been understandably slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is now great urgency to make progress."

A Government spokesperson said a forthcoming "Net Zero Strategy" would set out how it would work with local councils on the issue. 

The spokesperson said "modernising the planning system" was part of its work in this area, so that it "better reflects our commitment to nature and tackling climate change".

They added: “We have already provided significant funding for councils to eliminate their contribution to climate change, including through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme and the Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery Scheme.”

More local reaction to the NAO report will be added to this piece during Friday. To share your opinions, write to letters@hamhigh.co.uk and sam.volpe@Archant.co.uk

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