Brexit champion Ben Houchen (the man Conservatives are now calling their new "king of the north") was re-elected by a landslide as Mayor of Teesside in what was once considered the heart of the Red Wall. Standing on a green jobs platform, he believes:
"The Prime Minister has rightly identified that a Green Industrial Revolution can deliver both post-Covid-19 economic recovery and his Levelling Up agenda. This policy, whilst surely popular with middle class voters in the South, will also go down well in the UK’s industrial communities."
At the other end of the Conservative spectrum, former Justice Secretary David Gauke, who was fired for being too critical of Brexit, is among those saying that to win more votes in the prosperous Home Counties you need a serious offer on climate change. In an open letter to Labour on how they can break into the so-called Blue Wall, Gauke writes, "DO highlight climate change. The people you need care about this." This followed Green Party breakthroughs near his old seat in Hertfordshire and other Blue Wall places like Sussex and Surrey.
The story repeats itself in Labour-held cities. In Bristol and Sheffield, Liverpool and London, Labour suffered heavy losses to the Green Party.
Not wanting to sound too wide-eyed about this, the simple fact is public concern over climate and nature has reached an historic high and support for a green investment-led recovery is clear and spread across demographics, classes and ages; it was only a matter of time before it started showing up in the polls.
After all, 300 of the 404 councils across Britain had already declared a climate emergency before the local elections. And 60 of these, representing more than 35% of the country, are aiming for a quicker delivery of the net zero goal than the government.
Most councils have the will and the mandate to get going. Now the focus is turning onto what they’re actually doing and what they can realistically do.
The recent success of many Mayors and councils in discouraging diesel traffic in city centres shows that significant environmental progress can be made when the right incentives and powers are in place for them to act. A renewed set of Mayors in London, West Midlands, Manchester and Bristol are likely to be even bolder this term. Indeed, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees is still hoping to ban diesel cars from the city centre at certain times of the day.
One size, emphatically, doesn’t fit all, as shown by Andy Burnham's video about the problems associated with decisions made too far away from the people impacted by them, and the need for integrated public transport provision in Greater Manchester. Councils, for example, have a significantly better track record of targeting investment in home insulation than that series of botched schemes outsourced by Whitehall to the private sector.
However, the controversy surrounding some low traffic neighbourhoods introduced in the past year demonstrates the limits of devolved responsibility in a context where the authority in question lacks sufficient time, budget, power or expertise to deliver an effective scheme, democratically. Few policies should happen in isolation. If car use is restricted without providing alternative, affordable transport, some level of backlash is inevitable (and reasonable), even if the environmental benefits are sound.
The National Audit Office, like the Institute of Government, is clear that local councils will need to take a bigger role particularly on transport, housing and planning if the government is to hit the Prime Minister's net zero goal. The Environment Bill also envisages a bigger role for local government in delivering new legal targets to ensure the recovery of nature.
Greater devolution of powers may simply be unavoidable. As the Climate Change Committee says, "Local authorities have powers or influence over roughly a third of emissions in their local areas… These levers alone are unlikely to be sufficient to deliver local authorities’ net zero ambitions, due to gaps in powers, policy and funding barriers, and a lack of capacity and skills at a local level.”
A landmark new report produced for UK100, a network of local leaders committed to climate action, forensically examines the net zero-related powers that are already available to local government leaders, and the additional powers they will need via new legislation to contribute more meaningfully. Local leaders are now seeking a new package of powers and investment, particularly on local transport and planning, to be able to go further, faster. (They will gather for a cross-party climate summit hosted by Conservative Mayor Andy Street in the Midlands on July 13th to agree next steps in their campaign.)
Their proposal for changes in the law to empower local leaders follows similar ideas from the centre-right think tank, Onward, which proposed the devolution of EV charging infrastructure and house retrofitting, as well as the centre-left think tank, IPPR, which even called for localised carbon budgets.
Post-austerity, councils are used to their pleas for greater resources falling on deaf Ministerial ears. But there's reason to expect a more sympathetic hearing, given the growing attractiveness of sharing politically tricky decisions with another tier of government.
Whether or not new powers are forthcoming, some councils are already blazing a trail through initiatives like the Place-Based Climate Action Network in Leeds, Belfast and Edinburgh, and The Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission. Oxford and Blackpool councils have carried out citizen assemblies to get local residents involved in shaping transition policies. Meanwhile, lawyers at ClientEarth are threatening to sue any councils that fail to factor climate into their local plans.
With a new planning reform bill at the centre of the Queen's Speech, a new devolution white paper on the cards, and the Environment Bill returning to Parliament in the autumn, the legislative runway is there for a devolution settlement on net zero, nature recovery and clean air.