[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2021-22, Local government and the path to net zero, HC 34, and the Government response, CP 589; Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on Local government and net zero in England, HC 304, Session 2021-22; Written evidence received by the Environmental Audit Committee in relation to local government and net zero in England, HC 497, Session 2021-22; Oral evidence taken by the Environmental Audit Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the role of local government in reaching Net Zero.
The Government ignore at their peril the vital role of local authorities in delivering net zero. The Committee on Climate Change, the National Audit Office and the independent review of net zero all agree that the UK cannot meet its net zero targets without local authorities. The CCC shows that local authorities have influence over a third of UK emissions. The net zero strategy puts the figure at 82%.
Local authorities determine what is built in our communities, how we get from place to place, how we reduce our waste, and much more. They are best placed to understand their communities and deliver policies that fit their place. Those communities are let down by a Westminster Government who prevent local authorities from decarbonising their areas according to their need. Forty per cent of people most trust their local authority to act on climate change. That is much higher than the faith they place in central Government or in business. It is time that the Government treated local authorities as equal partners and gave them the funding and powers that they need to reach net zero.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. On funding, does she agree that, as well as reversing the 13 years of serious cuts that are preventing local authorities from greening elements of their areas, we need to move away from piecemeal competitive funding for specific projects? Such funding means that local authorities cannot plan for the long term and waste a huge amount of time bidding against each other, rather than getting the funding they need to roll out now.
I totally agree. The hon. Lady pre-empts what I will say later in my speech. The competitive process wastes so much time and local resources that could be spent on delivering projects.
More than 300 local authorities have set a net zero target and declared a climate emergency, and 132 councils have net zero targets of 2030 or sooner. Liberal Democrat-run councils have had remarkable successes in implementing sustainable, green policies against a backdrop of substantial barriers; they could do so much more. My Bath and North East Somerset Council has become the first in England to adopt an energy-based net zero housing policy. That ensures that any new housing development is energy self-sufficient and puts a limit on building emissions. My council is also the first in the west of England to adopt a biodiversity net gain policy. But such brave initiatives cannot survive unless central Government are truly behind such progressive policies and support rather than undermine local authorities, particularly when it comes to planning applications that go to appeal where developers get their way and do not build the green buildings that we need.
Beyond Bath, the Liberal Democrat-run Cheltenham Borough Council has implemented a green deal that has helped local businesses to invest in solar panels and heat pumps, led by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, who, I hope, will tell us all about it once we have had a general election. In Richmond, the Liberal Democrat council has been independently recognised by CDP—a global not-for-profit charity that runs disclosure systems and is regarded as the gold standard for environmental reporting—as one of 123 cities and boroughs across the globe taking bold environmental action.
In Stockport, Liberal Democrats successfully implemented the Stockport schools climate assembly. That involved young people from several schools coming together to learn about, propose, debate and vote on climate action ideas. Their first ask was to make sustainable and biodegradable period products more available in schools. The council responded by creating a programme that delivered funding and training to implement that. Stockport Council has called on the Manchester Mayor to roll out such school climate assemblies across the region. I will go further: we should have them across the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. Manchester City Council has prioritised reducing its impact on the climate with the ambitious target of zero carbon by 2038. Even though that great work is happening, local authorities require more support. Does she agree that, for effective and efficient net zero plans to be met, the Government must make funding more certain and long term?
I absolutely agree. We need councils to spread their wings and deliver, but they cannot if they do not have the funding, which must ultimately come from central Government. Local authorities in Manchester, Bath and Brighton—wherever we are—should have the freedom and the money to make their own decisions for their local communities.
We Liberal Democrats recognise the importance of community buy-in: we need to win hearts and minds to persuade people that net zero projects are good for their communities. Only with consent from our communities can we deliver the path to net zero. That is why empowering local authorities as much as possible is so vital. More and more power and decision making has been eroded away from local government during the last decade—that must stop and be reversed.
Local authority spending power has fallen dramatically since 2015, largely because of central Government grants being cut by more than 40% over that period. Spending per person decreased in real terms for 79% of local authorities between 2015 and 2022. The less money local authorities have to spend, the less climate action they can take. Although I welcome the Government’s recent increase in local authority funding, it is far too late. UK100 has pointed out that the funding process from central Government for net zero projects is “opaque, sparse, and competitive”. Even the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has admitted that it does not know how many grants there are. The competitive tendering process whereby every local council rushes for a small amount of money is completely inadequate when it comes to the enormous task to deliver net zero.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my area, St Albans City and District Council has just won a staggering £8.5 million from a Government fund to make homes energy efficient and to reduce bills. That is the largest sum of money won by any council of our particular size, but even that will only go towards making 900 properties—about a fifth of the council’s total housing—energy efficient. Does she agree that, if councils were no longer forced to compete against each other time and again, councils such as St Albans could go further faster, because we know that our communities are champing at the bit to get this stuff done?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on getting that amount of money, which is obviously welcome but is not enough. I think the Minister will hear from across the House that the competitive process is a real problem, because it wastes time and money—money that could be spent directly on the projects themselves.
The reality is that we also have to talk about scale. York wants 73,000 heat pumps and 22,000 new connections to sustainable district heat systems, and we have 44,100 homes that need retrofitting and 24,000 that need microgeneration through solar energy—all by 2040. If we do not scale up the funding, we will never reach those targets.
We all need to grasp the enormity and scale of what needs to be done. The ambition of central Government is just not big enough, whereas I find that the ambition in local authorities is very high and the will to deliver on that high ambition is much bigger in local authorities than we currently see in central Government.
In the updated net zero strategy, the Government agreed to simplify the funding process. Local authorities have spent £130 million since 2019 simply on applying for competitive funding pots—£130 million that could have gone into the projects.
Large-scale funding is required to address the scale of the challenge facing local areas when it comes to housing and bringing homes up to decent standards, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right about ensuring that that is provided equitably across the country. If we are serious about net zero, the Government need to provide the appropriate funds to retrofit 19 million homes across the country, so that they can be up to the necessary energy performance certificate standard and provide the benefit of reduced energy costs to millions of households. That is the kind of ambition we need, but it is lacking from this Government. Does she agree that that is what the Government need urgently to do?
I agree; I could not have put it better myself.
Let me return to the grants, which are currently rigid and tied to certain areas, meaning that councils can end up with money for projects that are not right for their communities. Not only have we not got enough money; when we do have it, it is often not the right sort of money, nor what our communities need. For example, a council could receive money for additional bus lanes when increased bus services would be preferred, or they might receive money designated for e-bikes when such provision is not really right for the needs of the community. Net zero grants must be made more flexible to help local authorities to spend the money on projects that work in their area.
The Government have spent more time blocking local authorities than they have empowering them. Many councils I have spoken to said the biggest barrier they face in implementing net zero policies is central Government. Onshore wind is an example. Some 77% of people would support a new onshore wind farm in their area—people know that renewables are the solution to our energy crisis—but the Government’s effective ban on onshore wind has denied communities this investment. Housing is another example that has already been mentioned. The UK has some of the leakiest homes in Europe. Net zero will remain a pipe dream in the absence of a huge and comprehensive retrofit programme; we need to understand the scale and we need the money to retrofit.
I am grateful that the hon. Lady is recognising the problems around funding, but also around regulatory frameworks. She will know that a report by UK100 has said that local authorities face what they call “Kafkaesque” barriers to pursuing net zero, one of which is in the area of transport. As she knows, the all-party parliamentary group on the green new deal undertook an inquiry on transport, concluding that we need local authorities to have the powers and the funding to modernise their own local public transport networks. Does she agree?
Indeed. Again, the hon. Lady pre-empts me; I will come to that point in a minute. Local authorities need much more control over what is happening in their local transport provision. The situation is wholly inadequate. If we really want to provide an alternative to motorised travel, we need good local transport and bus services, but we do not have them. Local communities are crying out for us to design and implement such services, but local authorities must be key partners as only they have the structure and relationships to deliver the programmes we have discussed.
Let me return to housing. We Liberal Democrats have campaigned relentlessly to get the Government to introduce higher efficiency standards for new builds and not wait until 2025. It is irresponsible to delay further and to hamstring local authorities’ ability to raise standards, and it is ridiculous that we are building homes now that will need to be retrofitted in five or 10 years’ time. That is such a waste of time. Why not regulate now to build the houses for the future? The chair of the national Climate Change Committee has called this a “stunning failure” by the Government to decarbonise homes, and I fully agree.
Planning and listed building laws also contribute to our leaky buildings. We Liberal Democrats run councils with some of the most precious historic buildings and streetscapes in the country, such as in my city of Bath. This is a blessing and a curse. We represent some of the most beautiful areas in the world, but we are often unable to retrofit and reduce the emissions of historic houses and buildings. Currently, national planning policy puts heritage concerns above climate concerns. That is counterproductive. If councils are unable to retrofit these properties and make them more energy efficient, many will become uninhabitable.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is that of skills. We simply do not have the skills supply needed to retrofit—whether historic buildings or new builds—at the scale we need. It will therefore be crucial to start injecting that focus on skills, but we need to do that now to deliver in time.
Indeed. We need a Government who understand how this all fits together. We cannot retrofit homes if we do not have the supply chains or the skills, and we need to be talking to further education providers and universities so that we get the skills for the future. This all needs to come together, but there is currently a deplorable lack of plan and vision. Again, local authorities have understood that and are starting to have those conversations. Central Government should really look to local authorities and see them as equal partners.
In designing future planning policy, we need central Government to give more weight to climate concerns so that local authorities can make our beautiful buildings habitable and fit for purpose. Planning legislation must also be bound to our climate change legislation, so that climate change can take greater weight in planning decisions. The Royal Town Planning Institute argues that nothing should be planned without the idea first having been demonstrated to be fit for a net zero future. This would solve some other issues. For example, a major reason that renewable projects can wait up to 15 years to connect to the grid is that the planning approval process is not adequately focused on the urgency to deliver net zero.
Local authorities are also constrained when it comes to managing transport. Surface transport is the largest emitting sector in the UK. The benefits of supporting active travel far outweigh the cost. People walking, wheeling and cycling in 2021 took 14.6 million cars off the road, saving 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding more than 29,000 early deaths. Independent modelling suggests that even if 50% of vehicle sales were electric by 2030, car mileage would still have to decrease by more than half if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°. Investment in active and sustainable travel is therefore essential.
Unfortunately, the decision to deregulate buses means that bus operators run routes primarily based on profitability, which has led to thousands of bus routes being closed. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, 1,100 bus services were cut, including 51 in the south-west region. The Government must empower local authorities to franchise bus services and simplify the franchise application system, and they must also reverse the ban on local authorities setting up their own bus companies. Only then can our bus routes be determined by the needs of local communities, rather than the need to make a profit.
Active travel is not prioritised when the Government decide what infrastructure projects to fund. Instead, the Department for Transport’s web-based transport analysis guidance model provides funding for travel schemes that have a perceived economic benefit, which means schemes that lead to higher volumes of faster traffic. Councils have been told that money for an access road to the city centre would not be awarded if traffic levels decreased due to the reduction in economic activity. They have also been told that a pedestrian crossing could not be implemented due to the cost of delays to traffic. Those decisions fly in the face of the need to really tackle the climate emergency. Active travel schemes are usually built where they do not require such appraisals by the Department for Transport, and local authorities need to have the powers and financial control to build them. Local authorities should have the power to access transport funding using alternative justifications to those of WebTAG, and WebTAG itself must be revised to increase the value assigned to active travel projects.
Looking at all the examples, it is no surprise that we are on course to overshoot our target level of greenhouse gas emissions by twofold. We need local and national Government to work together to give us the best chance of hitting net zero. We Liberal Democrats propose that the Government establish a net zero delivery authority. That body would oversee the delivery of net zero, co-ordinate cross-departmental working, and facilitate the devolution of powers and resources to local authorities. It would co-ordinate national and local strategies and provide information to central Government about how projects can be delivered on the ground.
A net zero delivery authority would work with local authorities and communities to engage with them about delivering net zero. That work would primarily be carried out by local actors, with the delivery authority providing leadership and trustworthy information about the national decarbonisation effort. A similar body was proposed in the Government-commissioned independent review of net zero, but unfortunately the Government have not responded positively to say that that is actually a very good idea. I hope that the Government will look at it again—maybe the Minister can give us a different answer from the one we heard a few months ago.
Local authorities also need a sense of direction. To start with, they need a statutory duty to deliver on climate change; unless and until that happens, the issue will remain at the mercy of local politicians. Climate change is massively underfunded within local government because it is not part of local authorities’ core duties. Giving them that statutory duty would be a game changer.
National Government and local authorities do not yet have an integrated or systematic way to discuss, support and facilitate local net zero delivery in the short or longer term. That must change, too.
Order. Although I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, I hope that she will soon be concluding, because the guidance is that she has 15 minutes for a speech such as this, and she has so far taken 20.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I took many interventions, but I understand that you want me to come to a conclusion, and I will be finishing soon.
There needs to be a regular forum for feedback on the problems that local authorities are facing. A net zero delivery authority can help facilitate that. Local authorities up and down the country stand ready to do more to tackle the climate emergency, but often find themselves constrained by an over-centralised Government. To make the net zero transition as efficient and sustainable as possible, we must all pull in the same direction. The latest research demonstrates that, when compared with a nationally implemented programme, devolved climate action would result in £160 billion of savings and wider returns of over £400 billion.
It is time that this Government acknowledged the huge potential there is for local authorities up and down the country to deliver net zero. The Government must see local councils as true partners, and provide them with the proper resources and powers they need in our path to net zero.
Councils are indeed well placed to help communities get to net zero, and they need to lead from the front with political leadership and genuine, tangible change. While we recognise that councils face real funding challenges at this time, the pandemic has taught us the importance of collaboration between local and national Government. Far too often, climate plans in response to councils’ declared climate emergencies are just that: a plan. I wrote about councils’ declarations of climate emergencies back in August 2021, and not much has changed in far too many councils’ responses since that time. The “Cambridge Dictionary” defines an emergency as
“something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results”.
By their very names, emergencies and crises invoke something of a helplessness in many, as they seem to be someone else’s problem. If we are to address climate change and achieve net zero, there is a need for everyone to feel that they can take action now, not wait for another long-winded plan.
Furthermore, our flag-waving Lib Dems who have run North Devon district council since May 2019 took a full three years even to produce a plan, and they continue to fail to reduce their own carbon emissions and energy consumption or to incentivise electric cars. To date, they have switched just one vehicle to electric, as was announced with much fanfare in their press release earlier this year, which stated:
The new electric asset, Eco City Sweeper 2, will be used to keep the streets of North Devon clean and tidy. It is equipped with the latest electric technology and has a working time of six hours on a single charge.”
Although I am delighted that it has arrived, I am not sure that it is going to make the largest reduction in emissions, given that it is replacing a man who did not create many. I appreciate that our hard-working council officers have been very busy with the pandemic and the projects that have fallen out since, and the staff at the council do a fantastic job, but one would hope that the lead councillor responsible for the environment could have found a way to at least install some solar panels on the new council building, or secure an electric bin lorry or two.
Time is of the essence, and we need not reinvent the wheel; we should look where solutions currently exist and work to implement them. UK100, which was referenced by Wera Hobhouse—I thank her for securing today’s excellent debate—brings together local authorities across the country to devise and, crucially, implement plans for the transition to clean energy that are ambitious and cost-effective and that garner support. I have spoken at UK100’s events and seen how effective its solutions would be. I am a big supporter and urge others to join. Its knowledge hub offers excellent ideas for how local leaders can work to hit net zero.
Declaring a climate emergency suggests that it is someone else’s problem. We need climate action, and we must work together in driving that action, rather than producing endless plans. If councils need funding to deliver those plans, they need to speak with their MPs and Government in order to detail how action will be taken. I live in a village that is full of tourists at this time of year, yet it is still many, many miles to the nearest public electric charging point. The pace of change in Devon may be marginally quicker at a county council level, but we do not have many buses, so surely we are overdue at least a single electric or hydrogen-powered one.
I hope that the hon. Lady will soon talk to the leader of her district council and get some answers, but the problem of electric charging is, of course, a central Government problem. It is a centralised grid, and grid connections are so incredibly difficult to achieve—that is the same for a local authority that wants to put in more electric charging points as it is for community energy projects. We share the concerns about those projects. Does she not agree that the problem is with the grid?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. While I fully acknowledge some of the concerns about the grid, living where I do, I would suggest that that is not the reason why those charging points are not going in. I have parish councils that do not believe in electric vehicles and, to be completely frank, that is holding back some of the roll-out. There is a lot more we could be doing to drive through some of this change.
Having previously led debates in this place on decarbonising rural transport and levelling up rural Britain, I fully recognise how much harder some of these challenges are in a rural environment, but some councils are leading from the front, as UK100 is testament to. I just wish that any of the rural councils in Devon were on that list. Indeed, I support UK100’s “Powers in Place” report. I very much hope that the Minister will have had a chance to look at some of its recommendations, particularly on more strategic, needs-based long-term funding in a rural environment.
The Conservative Government are a world leader in fighting climate change, and we have introduced the legislative tools to enable and encourage individual leaders and businesses to take action. We as individuals, business leaders and councillors need to get on and do what we can to make change, rather than producing endless plans and PowerPoint presentations that do not in themselves solve the problem. My door is open to any of my councils who want my assistance in driving North Devon towards net zero.
I congratulate Wera Hobhouse on securing this debate and on the email that she sent me, inviting me to participate in it. She may well regret that invitation, because I want to raise a few issues that need to be considered in relation to this subject.
In Northern Ireland, the local government elections have recently finished. For the past four or five weeks, I have been knocking on people’s doors and speaking to them about local government issues. Only one person mentioned net zero to me, and she objected to the stance I took against some of the lunatic decisions made by my local council in putting wind farms on some of the most beautiful upland areas of East Antrim, where they are visible from all around. One of the most iconic landmarks in the area, Slemish mountain—it is where St Patrick is supposed to have sat, surveying that part of North Antrim and then going out to evangelise—is now blighted by what can only be described as mechanical triffids, which have blotted the landscape. They are not good for the environment: at one wind farm, 3 metres of peat was taken off the mountain to put into roads and the foundations, disturbing the wildlife and habitat, providing mincing machines for birds in the future, and destroying the environment, probably releasing tonnes of carbon in the process.
That was the only person who mentioned net zero: most people were concerned about zero rate increases, zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour and zero tolerance of people being allowed to dump rubbish across the area.
I knock on a lot of doors all the time—not just at local elections—and although not many people mention net zero in that language, they do mention their energy bills. I wager that the right hon. Gentleman did hear from people who talked about their energy bills. Does he agree that urgent climate action is a good thing not only to protect the planet, but to make people’s homes warmer and to reduce their energy bills?
Ironically, the huge windmills that we see generating renewable electricity, because of the method by which they are pegged, get the most costly rate. For example, if the last unit of electricity has been produced by gas bought at premium prices on the spot market, that is the price that the wind energy companies get for the electricity that they produce. Wind energy does not reduce people’s energy bills, because that method inflates the profits of the companies that do not have to pay for the expensive fuel but can charge as if they were using it.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s point, of course there are other ways and actions. One does not have to believe that net zero should be a target by 2050, or whatever the year happens to be, to see that it makes sense not to waste energy in people’s houses. It makes sense to build houses that are energy-efficient. No one is disputing that. The issue I am raising is that local authorities are pressed for money. I listen to all the issues raised about local authorities in debates in the House, and time and again I hear about social care provision and its inadequacy, education provision, policing, and special needs education. Given the range of concerns in the House, the question is whether local government’s priority should be seeking more grants to achieve net zero—to provide more facilities and projects that aim towards that—or the more pressing and immediate needs that people experience day to day.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we tend to have a crisis every winter, but increasingly we have a summer crisis in our NHS and care sector, because of the health impact of heatwaves, particularly on older people. Does he not accept that rather than there being a trade-off between investing in the environment and taking climate action and somehow investing in people’s social wellbeing, the good initiatives are those that seek to address both, which is precisely what we can do if we take the right actions?
I do not want to get into the argument, because I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would probably ask me to stop, but I do not agree with the association that the hon. Lady makes. I do not believe that we have any more extreme weather today than we had in the past. Of course we have had heatwaves and cold spells before, and that tends to have an impact on some people’s health, but there is no evidence that spending money on local authority projects that blight the environment will save massive amounts in healthcare.
Secondly, on the impact on individuals, let us just look at some recent Government initiatives. For example, to help local authorities that say they cannot meet their recycling targets, we now have a levy on companies and food producers that will cost £4 billion, according to the British Retail Consortium. It will add £148 a year to people’s food bills to give money to local authorities—it is really a tax on the consumer—to help them achieve their recycling targets. Is that likely to have an impact on people’s health? When we have a cost of living crisis, is that likely to be a reasonable use of resources? That is the kind of expenditure that we are getting to facilitate some of the green policies.
I do not regret sending the right hon. Gentleman an invitation to participate in the debate, because only through debate can we have these issues out. May I come back to something that he said about our having had wildfires and floods previously? Does he not look at the facts and statistics about increased wildfires, floods and weather extremes across the globe? Scientists are putting those facts down, clear for all of us to see. Does he not accept that?
No, I do not, and nor does the evidence, which shows that the number of people who have died in extreme climate events has declined; it has fallen quite significantly during the past century. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not claim that the suggestion made by the hon. Lady is correct.
On the effects that local authority policies have had on people, in London one cannot lift the Evening Standard without reading about the impact that the ultra low emission zone is having. That impact is not on the people who make such decisions, who are usually fairly well-off. When we make decisions in the House, many of the costs of those decisions do not impact on us, but they do impact on low-income families, such as the people who cannot afford the latest car and the people who cannot afford to pay the £12.50 per day to come into the ultra low emission zone in London. Again, we have to ask ourselves about pursuing this policy in local authorities. Nobody could argue against some of the things suggested today, but for many of the others there are issues of expenditure. It is significant how many times in this debate funding has been mentioned—funding that could be used on other priorities—and it really is a question about where our priorities lie. Who do we target the money for such services at, and what impact does it have on people?
Although many Members say they want this—indeed, the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson used to talk about how he wanted Britain to be the leading country in the world in reducing carbon emissions and for it to become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy—the rest of the world, sadly, is not following. That is significant, and this perhaps puts it into context: in the first quarter of this year, China’s increase in carbon emissions—not its total, but its increase in the first quarter of this year—is equal to the total yearly carbon emissions produced by the United Kingdom. When we put the fight against climate change and reaching net zero in that context, we have to ask ourselves, and I think many of our constituents will ask: why impose additional costs on us? Why interfere in the decisions that we make about how we travel, where we travel and the cost of that travel, as well as about the cost of our energy and everything else, when quite clearly those in the rest of the world, and for very good reasons, do not?
When we consider that the average wage in Africa is $1,600 per year while the average wage in the United Kingdom is £27,000 per year, can we honestly say that the African countries now burning record levels of coal—to produce electricity to obtain economic growth and provide employment for the people who every year we see coming to our shores because they are fleeing unemployment—are wrong in making those decisions? If they are not wrong, are we, by pursuing a policy obsession at every level of government of reducing CO2—regardless of the cost for individuals, especially for the less well-off—distorting decisions?
It is a pleasure to follow Sammy Wilson. I say that because, in the context of this debate, he is very anti and I am very for, so I hope I will level things up in some way. First, to respond to some his comments, I want to say that I support every method that moves us towards net zero. In my speech, I will talk about some of the health implications and about how citizens need clean air; otherwise, we will suffer the consequences of not having clean air. As well as speaking about that, I will present some statistics, so I do hope that the right hon. Member will be paying attention.
I am proud that it was a Labour Government under Gordon Brown who passed the Climate Change Act 2008. It set a legally binding target for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels; that was increased to 100% in 2019. Unfortunately, 13 years of Conservative Government have slowed progress. Since 2010, local authority funds have been stripped away, and that has severely delayed and hindered what local authorities can do. However, as we have heard, local authorities are ambitious for change and for their communities. I will focus on how this Conservative Government and Conservative councils can probably learn a lot from the London Mayor and from Lewisham Council in my area—if I can be so bold as to say so, which I believe I can.
In 2019, Lewisham Council led by example and became one of the first local authorities in London to declare a climate emergency. Its many achievements in delivering net zero include its climate emergency action plan, which obviously covered schools, housing, cycling, green spaces and so on, being rated as one of the best in the country. Lewisham planted 25,000 trees between 2018 and 2023, and it has increased food waste recycling rates by 250%. Lewisham Council is therefore stepping up and providing leadership where the Government sadly are not. Lewisham’s climate action plan is estimated to reach net zero for our borough by 2030, and it will cost a minimum of £1.6 billion. Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis and the hardship that people are experiencing, the Government must resource local councils so that they can deliver on the net zero plans.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also set a target for London to be net zero by 2030. To do this, he is working to achieve a target of over 2 million homes and a quarter of a million non-domestic buildings being properly insulated. I also support his action to extend the ULEZ. Right now, toxic air is thought to contribute to the premature deaths of 4,000 Londoners each year—that is 11 deaths a day. Those are 4,000 deaths that could probably have been prevented. I remember hearing a paediatrician at an event speak about particles in a new-born baby’s lungs. It was astonishing, shocking and awful to hear that CO2 emissions in the air have done this injury to a baby at such an early stage in their life.
The hon. Member is making a powerful case, and I very much agree with the point she is making about air pollution. I am sure she will agree that things like air pollution hit the poorest hardest—they are less likely be to be able to move away from busy roads, for example. Whether it is air pollution, fuel poverty or a lack of affordable public transport, all of these things hit the poorest hardest, so in suggesting that there is somehow a division between environmental justice and social justice, Sammy Wilson is just plain wrong.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. I remember my child saying to me, “Mummy, it’s really quite smelly here.” I said, “No, it’s not,” but then I thought that I am not the same height as my child, so I bent down and I could smell all the fumes coming from all of the cars. It is awful, but this has an impact on children’s health and wellbeing, and it has an impact on the quality of air. We all have the right to breathe clean air, but we need to make that possible, and it is the Government’s responsibility to do so. These deaths are preventable, and that is why we must act now.
I was pleased that last week, Sadiq Khan announced a major expansion of the ULEZ scrappage scheme. It will cover more small businesses in London, as well as London families receiving child benefit. There is also more support for charities. To return to the point raised by Caroline Lucas, poorer communities are suffering more from polluted and dense areas, but families and communities from diverse backgrounds are also experiencing more pollution because of poverty. The Mayor of London has consistently called on the Government to support the switch to cleaner vehicles by funding a targeted national scrappage scheme, or by providing additional funding to London, as has been done for other cities across the country. The Government must also do that for London; if they do not, they must say why. I hope they are not failing to do so for political reasons.
It is clear that the Mayor of London and Lewisham Council are miles ahead of the Government in delivering net zero, but I would love to see the Government trying to outdo them and to hear from them how they are trying to make that difference, rather than making things harder. I urge the Government to rethink their approach, and I look forward to their serious response on this serious matter.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I commend Wera Hobhouse for securing it. Although her speech took 20 minutes, every part of it was worth listening to, and I agree with what she said and with Caroline Lucas—I am going to set a trend in this House of us almost all agreeing on these things.
This issue is important to me, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I am sure she has grasped the importance of this issue to many us in the Chamber and to my constituents. On the doorstep during the council elections, this was an issue for me. People told me that they are concerned that ice levels in the Arctic and Antarctic are decreasing, about flood levels across the world, and that the oceans are rising. They are aware of climate change. Some people might not agree with that, but that is certainly my opinion and that of many of my constituents.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. I have spoken in such debates before and I stood alongside the hon. Member for Bath when she was making those comments, and I was pleased to do so. I agree that the contributions that local councils and communities can make does not, and will not, go unnoticed. Why is that important? Someone might think that what the council does is small and minuscule—and yes, it might be—but all those small bits come together to make the big picture change, and that is what I see as the role of the council. In particular, I commend Ards and North Down Borough Council in my constituency, as well as Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. There is such an important role for local councils and governments to play, and that must be paralleled throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure that the devolved nations are not left behind. It is important that we in Northern Ireland play the same integral role as that referred to by the hon. Members for Bath and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby).
I also take an interest in what we can do as a country to support our rural villages and towns to transform to net zero. Local government has a huge role to play in that, which cannot be ignored. My constituency of Strangford is heading in the right direction in our contribution to net zero. Our council—my council—is doing that already, and it is important to recognise that we all have a role to play. I have been contacted by a number of constituents from the village of Moneyreagh in my constituency. An old, outdated bus shelter was in desperate need of replacement. Translink, the bus company in Northern Ireland, was great and was able to replace it with its new Insignia-plus bus shelter. In addition, it is trialling solar power at that location, in line with its new net zero carbon target. Someone might say, “That’s a small part to play”, and perhaps it is, but it is a big part when all the small parts are brought together collectively.
I read recently that Worcestershire County Council—I am not responsible for it—is installing new sustainable bus shelters in Bromsgrove. They are powered using a combination of wind turbines and solar panels, and they were the first shelters in the UK to be 100% off grid. It is estimated that each shelter will save us all—all the people in the world; all the people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—3.6 metric tonnes of carbon over 10 years.
Last Friday, I attended an event in North Down that was looking at the provision of offshore wind farms just off the constituency of my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson. I attended because I have a deep interest in fishing issues, and I wanted to ensure that what was being put forward would not impact on the fishing sector and the critical fishing grounds out there in the Irish channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. I contacted the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and other local fishermen to ascertain their opinion about that project. I will be nudged and pointed in the direction that the fishing sectors want me to go in, because I understand how important the pelagic fishing and lobster grounds are to them, as well as to some of the smaller crabmen. The fishing grounds need to be preserved, so we must ensure that all those things are in place.
As someone who represents a rural constituency, I have stated that it is imperative that there is sustainable and economical transport for our constituents who live in the countryside. We need ideas for decarbonising public transport in more rural areas where the population is more dispersed—we cannot ignore these things; these things are real and happen all the time. As others have said, we do not have the continuity or regularity of buses that we should have in rural communities to incentivise people to leave their cars and use buses. The Glider public transport scheme goes all the way to Belfast, and the idea is to park and ride, using the Glider bus. Those things are progressive and helpful, and we cannot ignore them.
We have seen the expansion of green transport to protect and preserve our atmosphere and environment. In Ballymena, Wrightbus runs electric buses and is investigating the potential of hydrogen. We must look at such things, because they are the future. As someone of a certain vintage, I want to leave something for my children and grandchildren, and ensure that they have a world in which they can enjoy some of the things that I have enjoyed for a great many years. We must continue to do this as time goes by. In Newtownards, for example, people can charge their electric cars at the shopping centre, but if they want to go elsewhere in town, they cannot charge their cars. I know the Minister is not responsible for Northern Ireland in its entirety, but I have seen figures for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I have noticed that although more people are buying electric cars, electric charging points are not keeping up. If we are to incentive and encourage people to buy electric or hybrid cars, we must ensure that the number of charging points increases at the same level.
Councils can play a role in that. My council has responsibility for that issue in my area, and I have asked it to push it forward. Councils have a key role in prioritising charging points, and we should not be reliant on private companies, which may put charging points only in places that are of advantage to them. I am not saying that companies should not do that, but why do they want charging points in shopping centres? It is because they want people to shop there. Why is the council not putting charging points in the centre of town, and other places where they could be accessible?
We have to incentivise and encourage things to make them happen and to take the vision of a net zero transport network one step closer to reality. I believe that it is, and this is a way of doing it. Double-decker battery electric buses are 44% more efficient grid to wheel, saving energy costs and carbon. That is another example of how we are moving forward, together with our councils, to make it happen. There is such an onus on net zero and on meeting deadlines that incentives must be given to encourage people to adapt. For example, Belfast, the biggest council in Northern Ireland, has recently launched its first climate plan, which describes the importance of the power of genuine collaboration between local councils and Governments regionally. Belfast City Council recognises that, along with Ards and North Down Borough Council, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council. Indeed, all the councils in Northern Ireland recognise it. The consultation is so impactful because it lays out clearly and coherently that, even though Belfast has only nine years of carbon available before it breaches the Paris climate agreement, the economic gain from decarbonisation will be immense, so we are certainly on the right path for the future. As this debate is making clear, local government can work towards net zero.
In conclusion, we cannot achieve perfection—I am imperfect—and it is hard to achieve 100% in anything. It will also be difficult to reach net zero, but we are on our way there. The devolved nations have an important role to play in that. I encourage the Minister—I am confident about the response that we will get tonight—to have another look at the funding allocated to the devolved nations, so that they have the funds to level up and meet our net zero targets. That can only happen if we work together. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am a great believer in the idea that, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we are always better together. Let us help each other, in all the regions, and make life better—for my children, my grandchildren, and all my constituents.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report on this topic in October 2021 made it clear that the UK will struggle to meet its aim of reaching net zero by 2050 unless central and local government work together. As a former councillor, I know how important councils and combined authorities are to delivering net zero. The Climate Change Committee said:
“Local authorities have powers or influence over roughly a third of emissions in their local areas”.
I have to say it felt a little as though the Government were passing the buck when they estimated that 82% of emissions were under council influence. They have never explained how they came up with that figure. Despite their rhetoric, they have not implemented any statutory targets for councils on this issue.
It is true that most councils have approved some net zero commitments, or, like Wakefield Council, have declared a climate emergency. In Wakefield, the Labour council has made climate change a core function of its operations, and has a dedicated team working on projects relating to it. It has invested millions in replacing much of its fleet with electric cars and vans, and work is well under way to replace nearly 45,000 streetlights with LEDs, in order to reduce its energy consumption by 80%. Some 100,000 trees have been planted through a partnership with the White Rose forest. The council is also looking at building solar parks, which could provide renewable energy, enhance biodiversity, give rise to training opportunities and provide new, green jobs. The list of positive actions goes on. All that is being done to drive the change necessary to become a carbon-neutral council by 2030, and to help the entire district to be carbon-neutral by 2038.
Not every authority is like Wakefield. Some councils have not adopted proper plans, and that is holding us all back. I ask the Minister: what are the Government doing to encourage more climate change action plans? Labour recognises the important role that local government has in this fight, and that is why empowering our towns, cities and regions is at the heart of our plans. We will consult on Gordon Brown’s commission on giving local leaders more financial autonomy and longer-term funding settlements—powers that the Local Government Association has been asking for—to help deliver net zero. We will also transfer more powers over skills, transport and planning to local leaders, which would be a game changer. Councils will be at the forefront of delivering Labour’s warm home plan; they will help to roll out our street-by-street retrofit programme, which will not only slash energy bills but help in our fight for net zero.
I am pleased that Wakefield Council is showing such leadership in this area, having brought forward its climate change action plan and backed it up with clear actions and investment. Now we need a Labour Government who will not only talk the talk but deliver the real change that we need, and give local government the powers and support that it needs to accelerate net zero.
We know that the Government’s plan to reach net zero is totally inadequate; that is the context for today’s debate. Thirteen years of failure has left us exposed to higher bills, energy insecurity, lost jobs and climate delay. As the Chair of the Climate Change Committee—a former Conservative Cabinet Minister—has said,
“This has been a lost decade in preparing for and adapting to the known risks that we face from climate change.”
Chris Skidmore —another Conservative—found in his net zero review that the Conservatives had failed on nearly every aspect of net zero policy. How are the Government responding? They have doubled down on fossil fuels, with billions in taxpayer cash being handed out to oil and gas giants. They are blocking the cheap renewable power that Britain needs; there is a de facto onshore wind ban, and war-torn Ukraine has built more onshore turbines in the past year than the UK. There is still no response to Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. There is dither and delay. There is no ambition and no urgency.
Thankfully, as we have heard today, local councils across the country are doing their best, albeit with scarce resources. Caroline Lucas, my hon. Friend Afzal Khan, Daisy Cooper and my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell talked about the need for greater certainty and continuity of funding, and an end to the piecemeal, competitive approach that sets one council against another, and that can be unduly restrictive when it comes to how money can be spent. Jim Shannon gave a wide-ranging speech, as usual, which covered everything from electric vehicle charging points to lobsters. My hon. Friend Janet Daby talked in very strong terms about the need to tackle air pollution, and set out what the Mayor of London is doing on that front.
I thank Wera Hobhouse for securing the debate. I share her pain when it comes to the cuts to bus services in our region. I would imagine that she is having the same conversations with the Mayor for the West of England as I am, about how we can subsidise non-commercial routes. It is interesting that she mentioned only Liberal Democrat councils when talking about the positive contribution that local authorities can make. I will make up for that by talking a bit about what Labour councils are doing. I do not need to say more about Wakefield, because my hon. Friend Simon Lightwood did a sterling job in speaking about it.
I celebrate all local councils’ work to reach net zero. I appreciate that the hon. Lady is going to make up for my not mentioning Labour councils. I am sure that there are many good councils across the political divide that are making good progress on net zero.
I thank the hon. Lady for that, although she has eaten into about 30 seconds-worth of my saying nice things about Labour councils. In Bristol, the Labour council set up a 20-year city leap project in partnership with Ameresco—a £424 million public-private investment in green infrastructure. It is groundbreaking. It is helping Bristol to go carbon neutral by 2030—the same ambition as Wakefield. Bristol will retrofit all our housing stock by 2030, reduce our CO2 output by 140,000 tonnes, and create over 1,000 green jobs in the process. England’s biggest wind turbine will open shortly in the constituency of my hon. Friend Darren Jones. It is community-owned, will provide low-carbon electricity to 3,500 homes, and save nearly 2,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. It will mean that energy can be sold back to the grid, and the money can be reinvested in local communities.
I turn to Hull. There was a recent event in Parliament with the aptly named “Oh Yes! Net Zero” campaign. It is a really good example of collaborative local working; it involves 150 local organisations that support the city’s efforts to reach net zero. In Oxford, the Labour-led authority has been leading the way with innovative solutions, particularly on battery technology. Redbridge is home to Europe’s most powerful electric vehicle charging hub, and a project called Energy Superhub Oxford launched in July last year with the wider aim of decarbonising the city, uses the latest in battery technology, and, for the first time in the UK, infrastructure that links directly to the national grid’s high-voltage network. I echo what was said about the need to ensure that the grid has capacity to support local innovative projects. To give one last example, in Liverpool, there is a groundbreaking project: an agreement between the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the Korea Water Resources Corporation to create what could be the world’s largest tidal power scheme in the Mersey.
Taking a placed-based approach to net zero is vital in ensuring that the opportunities from the transition start to finally level up the towns and cities of the UK, as opposed to letting them down as this Government have done. Around 95% of Britain’s population lives in areas where the local authorities have declared a climate emergency but, as has been said, councils and combined authorities must be given the resources and powers they need to act. As one contributor to the right hon. Member for Kingswood’s net zero review put it:
“Net Zero achievements at local government level are in spite of government, not because of it”.
That would change under a Labour Government, which would recognise and value the role local authorities can play and the immense difference local action can make. We would work in tandem with local authorities to deliver our green prosperity plan of capital investment. That would support the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in every corner of the UK, doubling our onshore wind capacity, tripling solar capacity and quadrupling offshore wind capacity. It would be financed by Labour’s national wealth fund, ensuring that, when investment flows into new industries, in partnership with business, the British people will own a share of that wealth, as happens in other countries.
Surprisingly, we did not talk much in the debate about retrofitting homes. We have the least energy-efficient housing in Europe. Millions of homes are going cold and premium-priced heat is escaping through roofs, windows and walls. Labour’s warm homes plan would upgrade the 19 million homes that need it, cutting bills and creating thousands of good jobs for electricians, engineers and construction workers across the country. It is important to stress that this is about economic growth. It is about a future industrial strategy. It is about jobs for the future. It is about the prosperity of our local communities. And it is about saving the planet at the same time. Local government has a key role to play in that. I just hope the Government step up and help it.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this incredibly important issue. I thank all hon. Members from across the House for their contributions, which have informed a very interesting and, at times, lively discussion. I also thank Wera Hobhouse for bringing this important topic to the House.
The UK’s 2050 net zero target is a Government priority. The transition provides huge opportunities for jobs, investment, innovation and exports. The UK is already leading the world in tackling climate change. Between 1990 and 2021, we cut emissions by 48% while growing our economy by 65%, decarbonising faster than any other G7 country.
Our local areas will play a crucial role in delivering net zero. We agree that local authorities have great scope to influence carbon emission reduction and many have strong ambitions in that area. We can consider the transition a success only if its benefits are felt across the UK. We know that we need local authorities to drive action across a range of areas such as planning, energy, housing and transport.
On the issue of planning, as an example, does the Minister accept that the Government need to give powers to local authorities as well? There are examples of local authorities trying to implement green planning policies, but they find that their policies are being thrown out by local planning inspectors because there is not a net zero obligation at the heart of our planning process. Does she agree that that is something the Government could do to facilitate the action of many councils around the country?
I will come on to talk in a bit more detail about all the Government’s plans, but we are confident that we are doing all we can to achieve our net zero goals.
Local authorities are well placed to align net zero work with local opportunities. There can be significant economic advantages for local areas, attracting private sector net zero investment and building local supply chains. They currently have a lot of flexibility when they take action on net zero. My Government are keen to ensure local authorities preserve that flexibility because, as has been noted, each region and community may require tailored approaches to reach net zero. So we do not believe that a new general statutory requirement on local authorities to meet net zero is needed. There is already a high level of local commitment in the sector and our local government colleagues have told us that a new statutory duty is not something they want.
The Government are already working closely with local government to help deliver net zero. In the 2021 net zero strategy and net zero growth plan from this year, we set out how local areas can take action on a wide range of policies, including planning, transport and energy, as part of our overall strategy to reach the UK’s 2050 net zero target. More detail on how we will meet net zero by working with local partners is set out in the relevant sectoral strategies, such as the transport decarbonisation plan from 2021. That covers, for example, how emissions from different forms of public transport will be reduced. The creation of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero helps to drive the overall delivery of net zero across Government. The Department’s officials work with counterparts across Government to co-ordinate action, working particularly closely with the Cabinet Office and His Majesty’s Treasury. That ensures net zero is prioritised in Government.
On working closely with local government on net zero, my colleague Lord Callanan, the Minister for energy efficiency, co-chairs, with the Local Government Association, the ministerial local net zero forum. It met in February for the first time. Alongside that, there is an officials’ local net zero forum, which has met four times to date. Both forums bring together national Government and local government to discuss key policy and delivery options on net zero. The Department funds five regional local net zero hubs to help local authorities develop net zero projects, focusing on attracting commercial investment. The hubs have helped to develop innovative tools and resources for local authorities, including Net Zero Go, an online platform supporting clean energy projects, and SCATTER—setting city area targets and trajectories for emissions reduction—which is a tool to help local authorities standardise their greenhouse gas reporting. Tools of this kind are supported by a wide range of guidance from Government Departments and other sources. I recognise the importance of co-ordinated action across Departments, but given the range of actions recently undertaken in this area, the Government do not think a net zero delivery authority is necessary.
The Government have provided a great deal of funding for local government to reach net zero. Through core settlement growth funding, such as the shared prosperity fund and grant funding from my Department and others, local authorities can meet net zero goals flexibly, in a way that best meets their needs. We have committed to explore simplifying local net zero funding, where that provides the best results for net zero. We will continue that work. One approach we are testing is using devolution deals in England to pilot new approaches. We have announced wide-ranging devolution deals with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority. They include first-of-their-kind pilots to simplify retrofit funding from 2025. We also established the UK Infrastructure Bank, which has a lending facility of £4 billion for local authorities at preferential rates and a technical advisory service.
Communities also play a strong part in supporting our transition to net zero. I am aware that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath, the Bath and West Community Energy Group works with local authorities in the area to support households to access funding for energy efficiency measures in their homes. Many communities work closely with local authorities to access the funding and support they need, and the local net zero hubs can help local authorities and community groups to work together.
We already work in partnership with local areas towards our net zero goals, with examples of local innovation across the United Kingdom. By working together, I am confident that we can drive green growth across the country and deliver our ambitious net zero targets.
I thank all Members across the Chamber for their contributions. Bar one, we are all agreed that the climate emergency is real, and that local councils must become a real partner to the Westminster Government.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I am slightly disappointed by her response. I hope that she takes to heart what has been said this evening and persuades her Government that local authorities need more power and resources. We need a statutory duty for councils to deliver net zero. I hope that the Government will look again at our Liberal Democrat proposals to establish a net zero delivery authority.