Wera Hobhouse MP: Local government should be at the heart of the net zero transition

'To effect the change we so urgently need, local authorities must embed zero carbon approaches to managing, funding, procuring, commissioning and delivering services but they need the sufficient resources to do this.'

Local councils and net zero

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson and MP for Bath.

Two things were blatantly missing from this budget: climate change and local government. 

Given the right tools, local government can play a vital role in the transition to net zero. We are in the crucial decade – meeting net zero commitments requires urgent action across a range of sectors. 

Local governments across the country have a key role to play in tackling climate change yet the budget has offered little scope to local authorities to act. It is a wasted opportunity. 

Councils, combined authority and regional organisations are well placed to translate national climate ambitions into transformative action. 

Many of the urgent decisions are local. Decarbonising buildings, transport, waste, industry, cutting emissions from agriculture and increasing carbon sinks through land use and forestry are dependent on delivery at a local level. 

As such, with the right tools and long-term financing, local authorities can cooperate and lead on creating zero carbon, green and healthy areas. 

And local councils’ influence extends beyond their own direct emissions. 

To effect the change we so urgently need, local authorities must embed zero carbon approaches to managing, funding, procuring, commissioning and delivering services but they need the sufficient resources to do this. 

The government could have sent a strong message to global leaders and laid the foundations for a multi-level approach to tackling the climate emergency. 

Instead, local government is set to lose out again as they face real-term cuts. According to provisional data from Grant Thornton UK LLP, 79% of English councils overspent on their budgets in 2020/2021 as they dealt with the fallout of the pandemic.

In addition, councils will be squeezed by the increase in the National Living Wage of 6.6%, inflation set to hit 4% and public sector pay increases reinstated alongside council running costs. 

It is therefore likely that any increase in funding will be absorbed by rising wages and other cost increases. 

Some have responded by saying that unless they increase council tax bills by 3% – forcing a referendum in which local residents will vote on the rise – essential services are likely to be cut further. This will make it even more challenging for councils to do what’s needed to deliver positive change.

Local government should be a key part of the transition to net zero. They must be integrated into the national plan but as far as I can see they are not intrinsically involved.

UK100 have said that to enable local government to play its part and unlock the benefits of climate action in communities, it must be given more powers and more resources. 

Unfortunately, local government is only mentioned once in the Government’s 10-point climate action plan. Councils have been handicapped and need a clearer roadmap as to how we can implement the Government’s ambitious plans. 

It’s obvious that this Government refuses to take climate action seriously. Just days before COP, Rishi Sunak did not mention climate change once in his *hour-long* speech. Sunak has offered the palest of greenwashes in his budget. 

To make matters worse, he has slashed domestic air passenger fees in the UK, making domestic flights cheaper. Flights between airports in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be subject to a new, lower rate. This is simply astonishing. 

This is at the same time that the cost of train travel has reached record highs. These fares could rise by 4.8% in January making flying a much cheaper option to travellers in the UK. 

This flies in the face of the climate emergency and is an obvious example of the Government’s failure to grasp the profound importance of the issue. 

COP26 is the biggest opportunity for real climate action since the 2015 Paris Agreement, yet the Government is limping towards it and damaging our country’s credibility on the world stage. 

Whilst the Chancellor announced some funding for local authorities, this barely makes up for the last 11 years of harsh cuts. 

The Chancellor’s budget did nothing for the climate. The Tories will be hopping on a flight to Glasgow and brazenly lecturing other countries about cutting emissions – countries who won’t be able to take them seriously. 

We should cancel the domestic flight tax cut and continue with investment to ensure all UK domestic flights are zero-carbon by the end of the decade. 

Local government in the UK holds the key to achieving net zero. The budget embodies the Government’s failure to recognise the vital part that they can play in the transition.

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