UK100: Westminster must trust local authorities to make decisions

On Clean Air Day, Jason Torrance, interim CEO of local authority network UK100, says there remains no comprehensive national  strategy that enables the delivery of clean air at the local level.

Local efforts to deliver Clean air and Net Zero are inextricably linked, and London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is the canary in the coal mine for local delivery of those joint ambitions.

‘Whitehall generates the majority of revenue in the country but imposes strict measures on how these funds can be used’

Government opposition to ULEZ in London is mirrored in town halls up and down the country as they face continued opposition to clean air and climate action, leading one to question why they would even bother addressing these crises if that is the response they receive from Westminster. As we celebrate Clean Air Day, it’s important to remember that the UK will not deliver clean air and Net Zero through Whitehall alone.

London’s approach to combating air pollution encompasses the three obstacles outlined in UK100’s recent report, titled ‘Powers in Place’, which hinder local initiatives for clean air and Net Zero policy delivery. These obstacles can be summarised as the three P’s: powers, policy, and pounds.

Although London possesses the most extensive range of powers among local authorities, its use of these powers increasingly causes discontent in Westminster. A group of Conservative Members of Parliament recently attempted to amend the Greater London Authority Act, to strip the Mayor of London of his power and further entrench centralisation in Westminster.

Instead of trying to snatch power away, Westminster must trust local authorities to make decisions concerning Net Zero, as their actions are judged by their community at the ballot box. If every bike lane, bus route, and car policy decision has to trudge through the mud of Whitehall’s bureaucracy we will not deliver clean air or Net Zero.

In practical policy terms, there is a lack of substantial support for Net Zero or even a governing body to measure progress. While the Greater London Authority has gone to great lengths to establish ULEZ,  the national government is far behind – as shown by the failed UK GovernmentClean Air Strategy in 2019. Put simply, there is no coherent and there is still no comprehensive national  strategy that supports and enables the delivery of clean air and Net Zero at the local level.

Whitehall generates the majority of revenue in the country but imposes strict measures on how these funds can be used, stifling the delivery of Net Zero and clean air policies. Mark Harper, Secretary of State for Transport, emphasised this during a recent debate in the Commons, stating, ‘We have made it clear that the government grant funding, through the longer-term funding settlement, cannot cover the cost of implementing the scheme… If he [the Mayor] does not wish to finance a proper scrappage scheme, he should not be expanding the ULEZ.’

If the Mayor of London has to fight for how they spend every pound on Net Zero, our smaller authorities face an impossible task, particularly when they must compete against each other.

The planned expansion of London’s ULEZ is a litmus test for local efforts to achieve clean air and Net Zero objectives. As a scheme that has already seen dramatic effect – with 74,000 fewer polluting vehicles driving in the zone each day, a cut of 60 per cent since expansion in October 2021. It’s an ambitious local program, but it’s been strangled by funds dictated by a few in Westminster, with a push to remove local decision making power.

The delivery of clean air and net zero policy needs to be decided by local decision makers – backed up by a coherent long-term UK Government strategy that supports and enables, rather than obstructs and delays. Air pollution will never be tackled without partnership between national government and local authorities that moves beyond the current ‘Kafkaesque’ barriers to ambition action to deliver cleaner air currently confronting many councils.


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