Speaking before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into the role of councils in meeting the UK’s carbon targets, he said that the situation reflects the lack of an “overall strategic view” of the linkages between central and local government.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) does not appear to have a structure” to allow councils to seek expert advice. The planning system also fails to integrate the government’s commitments to fighting climate change, Deben added.
The two issues were seen in microcosm in how Cumbria County Council found itself approving plans to build a new coal mine in Whitehaven. The council relied on the information it was given and on the Planning Act when making its decision, though “both of those were deficient” said the peer.
“It’s not fair to put the local authority in a position where it doesn’t have the statutory backing with a proper Planning Bill”, and without a clear route to advice on how planning and climate policy interact, Deben said, “and I’ve sought to find who it would turn to” other than the CCC directly. “It’s got to be able to turn to somebody”.
In earlier comments, he noted that he spoke with some experience in the topic on the relationship between central and local government. As environment secretary in the mid-90s,before responsibilities were redistributed within the cabinet, he was responsible for local government issues.
Deben said he was, “looking forward to a really new way in which there is a partnership between central and local government. I don’t believe we can meet our climate change requirements unless local government plays an absolutely crucial central part.” He went on to say that MHCLG is “as key a ministry” for net zero as DEFRA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that secretary of state Robert Jenrick “understands that is s role he has to take”.
Within hours of him making that statement, Jenrick was fired from the job during Wednesday’s reshuffle, to be replaced by former environment secretary turned minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove.
Given his greater status within the Conservative Party, that change may help remedy another problem that Deben raised – the department’s inability to hold sway over others.
“What we really need is a net zero delivery structure, which would be centralised within MHCLG but bring the other departments in to constantly ensure that decisions made by local authorities and for local authorities would be made with [climate] matters absolutely at the forefront… at the moment, it isn’t like that.”
He went on to say that there is a “long list of pretty simple things that need to be changed” between councils and Whitehall, which should avoid “handing down requests or determinations” and embrace a more equitable approach, allowing local authorities to set their own standards for housing and fulfil local needs.
In particular, the Planning Bill needs to make sure that developments are “sensible in sustainability terms” – and that also means where they are built, focusing in the centre of cities or near railway stations to avoid the growth of car commuting. At the moment, there “seems to be an attitude of spreading the pain” around England, he said.
A further necessary reform is allowing the builders of rental homes to share in energy savings made from building to high energy efficiency standards. At the moment, such an arrangement would be unlawful, Deben told the MPs.
The conversation later turned to the Green Homes Grant, recently lambasted by the National Audit Office. Though the government-led side was a clear failure, the aspect delivered by local authorities has been far more successful. “People have greater confidence in local authorities than they have either in utilities or central government. And so there is a confidence factor here, as well as a knowledge factor. They know their area, and for example, if you are going to retrofit houses, which we are going to have to do on a very big scale, then retrofitting them in blocks is very important, if you can do that,” he said.
Deben added that local authorities could also play a role in ensuring that the installers of air source heat pumps – one of which he recently had put into his own home – work to an acceptable standard. A national awareness campaign is needed, considering that the country cannot rely on natural gas boilers forever, as the government is “not getting information out” and neither is industry.
“They can do it in Germany, they can do it in Scandinavia, why the blazes can’t they do it here?” he asked.