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Has Net Zero Been Sidelined by Levelling Up?


By Vikki Slade, Director of Strategic Advice on Sustainability and Climate Emergency Communications

After the long wait to read the report, the White Paper on Levelling Up was a confused read. Wading through references to the Renaissance, Medici, and Babylon via a comparison with NASA putting a man on the moon I did wonder who the intended audience had been.

The paper was peppered with references to those who leave school without qualifications, and you must wonder whether much of this ancient history lesson would be lost on them. The references to great civilisations could well have been a secret code inserted to reassure the Conservative traditionalists who need to know that the Secretary of State still has them in mind as the funds drift away from the home counties. The new policies feel like a tick list of every suggestion shared on a doorstep canvass and included to point out that this government is listening to the feedback from a difficult few years.

2020 was the year of the CornwallG7 focused on the Environment and COP26 in Glasgow, and there were lofty expectations that Levelling Up would dovetail with the Net Zero Strategy and reinforce the programme to decarbonize our economy. Whilst the term Net Zero is mentioned fifty-eight times in the 335-page document, more than a quarter of those references are on a single page during the first ‘setting the scene’ chapter. Air Pollution is missing altogether despite having a devastating impact on health and wellbeing and fuel poverty referenced just three times despite it affecting more than 1 in 10 homes (and that is prior to the current energy crisis).

The paper talks about the transition from carbon-intensive employment and the risks of long-term unemployment as these areas pivot around new, low carbon technologies but it is weak on the need to change the education and skills base of young people. The new Education Investment Areas that cover much of the country push further the Government’s agenda around Academy Trusts but fails to focus on moving away from learning facts in silos towards skills for life. As with most of the announcements, there is no mention of how the EIAs will be funded, governed or when they will be in place.

A highlight of the report is the commitment to Decent Homes for private tenants as well as social housing providers. However, following some harrowing reports in the media over the last year, it is clear the current framework is not helping those in the most need. The White Paper sets a target of a 50% reduction, but with 4.5 million homes thought to be failing this will still leave too many people struggling in sub-standard properties. It also fails to promise funding to help local authorities tackle this problem, either as landlord or through enforcement only offering a consultation on a landlords register.

A review of the definition around Decent Homes is already underway and this standard must be radically improved to match the requirement under the Net Zero strategy for improved EPC rating and progress towards net zero homes, so that fuel poverty can be eliminated driving an improvement in the economic activity of residents, as well as improved physical and mental health.

On the issue of new homes, the paper reinforces the proposal to build 300,000 properties every year, including a sizable proportion of ‘affordable’ homes while committing to make the Green Belt greener. There is no commitment to ensure those homes are zero or low carbon homes or clear plans to deal with the second home ownership and proliferation of Airbnb that blight coastal and high tourism communities. I suppose we shall have to wait for the revised planning proposals to see whether the recommendations of the Select Committee are adopted.

In summary, the paper is full of great ideas and catchy soundbites but on the environment that is pretty much all there is. It is hard to disagree with most of the proposals, but there is little on the ‘how’ or the ‘how much.’  New responsibilities for councils, police, education and health underpin many of the proposals but there is little to reassure those organisations about whether these new obligations will be funded and while most of them have committed to reach net zero much more quickly than the Government has proposed for our wider community, there is a real danger that they could be stretched too far and fail to achieve on both scores.  Net Zero cannot be sacrificed or future generations everywhere will be levelled down.

Has Net Zero Been Sidelined by Levelling Up?