Navigating to net zero through local collaboration

Why collaborate?  

Nation pledges, local government delivers. Because this is where it all happens.  

With increased devolution, local government has the capacity to set policy, shape local areas, and transform our lives. It is at the heart of building and improving homes, providing social care, managing our parks and green spaces, and investing in our transport and energy infrastructure. And local authorities have a unique power to bring people together, from local communities and councilors to businesses and change-makers.  

There is increasing evidence on how effective collaboration and partnership working can be in leveraging transformative change. It is why encouraging collaboration was a priority when we designed the net zero navigator. Without collaboration the required system-wide shifts are unlikely to happen fast enough to avoid climate breakdown.  

Collaboration from within  

The sustainability or climate officer within a local authority, if there is one, is often tasked with the development and delivery of a sustainability or carbon neutral strategy. If a climate or sustainability officer has not been appointed, this crucial, demanding task falls to one officer, who has to do it on top of all their other duties and responsibilities. This is, in and of itself, not sustainable and will not give rise to the fundamental changes required to transition to net zero.  

The net zero navigator has been designed to encourage a group of officers from different services (such as policy, planning, environment or housing) to work together. For example, the net zero organisational maturity assessment is not intended to be answered by one officer alone. With questions spanning from corporate strategies to investment in renewable energy systems, it fosters collaboration amongst what are often siloed local government departments. To best use this tool and get the most accurate results, we recommend that a group of officers work together to answer the questionnaire, thereby starting to foster the collaborative spirit required to address climate change. 

This group of ‘champions’ can then decide, together, which enabling and strategic interventions are most appropriate for their organisation and area, based on what has already been done, what is planned and what is not feasible within the current local context.  

At its core, the net zero navigator is a ‘thinking’ tool which aims to engender conversations, questions and collaborative decision-making processes. These collaborative processes help ensure all officers within a local authority are knowledgeable about the road ahead; a critical factor for local authorities to meet their ambitious net zero targets. 

Collaboration with peers 

Collaborating from within is a necessary first step, but is not sufficient on its own. Forming strong partnerships with other local authorities and public sector bodies is critical. Climate change does not have geo-spatial boundaries and some of the strategic interventions required, such as investments in active travel infrastructure, require neighbouring areas to work together to create long-lasting change.  

Collaborating with other local authorities brings other benefits including learning from one another, sharing data about net zero projects and their success (or failures), or delivering projects at scale, and thereby helping to make them as cost effective as possible. 

When developing the net zero navigator tool, we engaged with over thirty local authorities across the United Kingdom. These engagement sessions further demonstrated the importance of creating a platform for local authorities to share their ideas, projects they have completed and challenges they are facing. Both the enabling and strategic interventions proposed by the tool encourage this type of collaboration; from sharing best practice, forming new governance structures, to working with trusted suppliers offering net zero solutions.  

Building collaborative networks 

Beyond other local authorities, there are many other actors local authorities can work with, from local communities and businesses to universities and private funders.  

A local authority’s direct CO2 emissions only represent a small fraction of an area’s total carbon footprint. A local authority has control over its own emissions but to transition to net zero it needs to build the required infrastructure as well as incentivise residents and businesses to reduce their own emissions. Local authorities are brilliantly placed, by flexing their collaboration muscles, to bring all these actors together. 

By collaborating with communities and businesses, local authorities can obtain buy-in for their carbon neutral strategies and/or specific projects. They can also create the right conditions for stakeholders to reduce their own carbon footprints. Collaborating allows local authorities to share the load, deliver more with the help of others, and meet their ambitious targets. 

Building capacity to deliver net zero interventions can also be achieved by partnering with universities, research institutions and innovation labs, or by working with private sector funders. Doing so helps local authorities secure more resources and share the risks associated with more innovative projects. 

Building collaborative networks is actively encouraged in the net zero navigator. For numerous enabling and strategic interventions, next steps include engaging local communities and businesses, using new financing mechanisms or identifying academic and/or private partners. 

There are already great examples of collaborative projects to learn from, such as PIRI in Peterborough (a partnership between Peterborough City Council, SSE Enterprise, Element Energy, Cranfield University, Smarter Grid Solutions and Sweco UK), or the NHS Healthy New Towns, which brought together different departments to work on a shared outcome. And more of these collaborative projects need to happen to address the climate crisis. 

Collaboration is an enabler 

Collaboration should be at the heart of every local authority’s plan to address climate change. The net zero navigator tool positions collaboration as one of the key enablers for local authorities to achieve their net zero transition.  

Building a successful collaboration requires several key ingredients: working around a shared purpose or vision, clearly communicating the goals, balancing skills amongst all partners, listening to others, ensuring there is an openness to learn and share, building trust and reliability amongst all those involved, respecting diverse opinions, compromising and effectively managing conflict, and choosing the right collaboration tools. 

The Net Zero Navigator and OnePlanet integration are one of those tools; after all its entire development process was collaborative. The Net Zero Navigator only exists because of the numerous organisations and individuals who contributed to its development: from the technical expertise of Useful Projects and Space Syntax, the guidance of CDP, the oversight of an appointed Expert Steering Committee, the feedback from local authorities, to OnePlanet’s digital integration and Connected Place Catapult’s vision.  

We can only hope the tool encourages such collaborative spirit within and amongst its future users.  

About the author  

Laetitia Pancrazi is a Senior Sustainability Consultant at Useful Projects, which is part of the Useful Simple Trust. Laetitia has worked as the Sustainability Officer of Ashford Borough Council. She now works with local authorities to develop holistic carbon neutral strategy with practical action plans.