The National Audit Office (NAO) report also describes the government’s approach to funding net zero as “piecemeal”.
The report finds there to be “a lack of coordination” between central government departments on their specific net zero requirements making it hard for local authorities (LAs) to engage. It also finds that the government has not developed any “overall expectations”, or set out the net zero responsibilities of local governments.
Despite this, the NAO found that 91% of local authorities have adopted at least one commitment to decarbonise their activities or their local area - but the watchdog warns that without a clear sense of responsibilities, action may not be as targeted or widespread as it needs to be.
“There are serious weaknesses in the government's approach to working with local authorities on net zero,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.
He continued: “This hampers local authorities’ ability to plan effectively for the long term, build skills and capacity, and prioritise effort.”
The report goes on to say that neither the ministry for housing, communities, and local government (MHCLG) or the Treasury has assessed the total amount of funding available to LAs to meet net zero targets, or indeed if the balance of the different types of funds is likely to be effective.
There are three main sources of funding which LAs can use to fund net zero policies; core funding from the ministry of housing, grant funding, or wider funding streams targeted at more general outcomes such as social or economic growth - but which allow for the delivery of net zero objectives.
The NAO analysed 21 of the net-zero grants available to LAs and found there is great disparity in how much money different LAs have received. The analysis showed that 17 local authority areas received £20 million or more each, while 37 received less than £2 million each. Per person, 14 LA areas received £50 or more, while 67 received less than £12.50.
Responding to the report, Mayor Philip Glanville, chair of London Councils’ Transport and Environment Committee said: “Today’s paper from NAO reflects the frank reality that local government needs clear, consistent, supportive policies in order to take meaningful action to reach net zero targets. The scale of the challenge we face and our ambitions mean that only a truly collaborative approach will do.
The NAO report also warns that LAs may not have enough staff to effectively engage with net zero policies. The authors cite a 2020 survey from the Local Government Association, which found 79 out of 90 respondents thought “a lack of workforce capacity” was a moderate or significant barrier to tackling climate change.
In a statement issued by MHCLG, a spokesperson said the government recognises that councils can help drive progress towards the UK’s national climate change commitments, and that it will be setting out details of how it will work with LAs to reach net zero in its Net Zero Strategy.
The spokesperson added: “We have already provided billions in funding for councils to deliver local action on climate change, including through the public sector decarbonisation scheme, the on-street residential chargepoint scheme, and the green recovery challenge fund."
The NAO report comes in response to a request from the Environmental Audit Committee to examine local government and net zero, and follows a previous NAO report which highlighted that local authorities will have a critical part to play in reaching the target due to their role in shaping local transport planning, social housing, recycling and waste services.