Local leaders cannot make the transition to net zero fair by themselves. To secure a just transition we need central government to provide ambitious nationwide schemes to complement the daily decisions of local leaders on net zero. Taking the example of congestion charging, local leaders have the power to make the case, promote behaviour change and determine many important details including its geography, the rate of the charge, exemptions, its start date and how much notice is given to the public. But what they can’t do is determine how much money is provided to fund an alternative travel offer for those shifting away from cars, or, say, fund a car scrappage scheme to incentivise the purchase of electric vehicles.
There are emerging examples of coordinated local and central government action. Greater Manchester has secured £120m of central government grant funding to ease the transition for high polluting vehicle owners as it introduces a Clean Air Zone next year. More of this needs to happen and fast. Without a supporting national offer, local leaders are often left exposed by asking people to make the transition without the capacity to mitigate the impacts on the less well-off. As a result, they may choose to scale-down their ambitions on net zero if it can’t be done fairly, or feel obliged to press on with schemes despite their unfair impacts.
Good jobs are a potential meeting point of levelling up and net zero, but this will only happen by design. As Onward has set out, it is far from automatic that those losing jobs will be the same people gaining green or good jobs without intervention. Places such as Glasgow are still reeling from the effects of the dismantling of the heavy industries in the 80s; worklessness and poor health are the legacy. Locally the urgent task is to identify whose jobs are at risk through the just transition or wider structural changes (surely the job of local Skills Advisory Panels) and prioritise the same people in the training for emerging, good jobs. IPPR has called for local skills audits to help make this happen.
Nationally, there are plenty of ways government could go further to align net zero and levelling up around good jobs. For example, Scotland launched a Transition Training Fund in 2016 during the decline of the oil industry, and more recently, the Just Transition Commission. In the United States we see funds being set up to support former coal communities make the transition to net zero fairly. A similar format could be replicated in the UK. This could be supplemented by other national level policy interventions, for example by creating a new status for those out of work due to the climate transition with an enhanced financial and training offer to support people to up- and re-skill. A fair transition relies on both local and national action.
Investment in green industries is another mutual interest of levelling up and net zero. Local economic development teams are working hard to align the green and the growth but central government must recognise the path dependency of places. As Professor Diane Coyle and Dr Penny Mealy have set out, we cannot rely on places building solely on existing local strengths as this can lead to places replacing low-earning jobs with new low-earning jobs. Instead, we need interventions and investment that will change the local industrial trajectory of places. The emerging conversations between government, local leaders and business on ‘gigafactories’ is a promising example of local and national coordination on investment.
Stepping back, the political narrative around the impact of the transition to net zero on people’s lives remains jarringly positive. Voters already know this isn’t right. Aligning the positive elements of the transition with the wider levelling up agenda – good jobs, training and investment – and confronting the more difficult and costlier elements of the just transition is essential.
Local leaders are currently exposed to the justified wrath of voters on the (lack of) fairness of the transition to net zero – in response they may end up moving more slowly than the urgency of climate change demands. It is time for central government to step up and make bold (and irreversible) commitments to a fair and inclusive transition to net zero. The government urgently needs to provide local leaders the funding to help make it fair and recognise that neither local nor national government can go it alone. Previous industrial change has been the catalyst for increasing regional inequality. Surely this time, to achieve levelling up, it has to be different.