The challenge

Local authorities in England are faced with multiple demands to improve local people’s quality of life and achieve the UK government’s target of net zero by 2050. Specialist knowledge and insight is needed to carry out net-zero innovation projects, from retro-fitting housing and care homes so they’re more energy efficient, to upskilling local suppliers to cut emissions, and understanding and improving how people travel around the borough. But many councils faced budget restrictions over the last few years, which have cut services and staff capacity – and some don’t have the knowledge and skills to develop and implement these projects.

The innovative project

The Net Zero Innovation Programme brings UK universities and English local authorities together for an intensive eight-month period to address a local challenge that can help them get closer to net zero.

Universities share their resources and knowledge to support local authorities, and in turn, work on real life projects, to test methodologies and gather data, and deliver impact.

The programme puts community needs at the heart of the challenges, local business owners, schools, health providers and citizens about their ideas. They then involve them in the testing and implementation, ensuring solutions are co-designed and have a lasting impact.

To date the programme has engaged with 13 UK Universities working with English Local Authorities in the 2021/2022 cohort, to design and implement net zero innovation projects:

  • Barnsley Council / Leeds Beckett University are designing and overseeing the construction and evaluation of a new, low-energy housing estate in Barnsley, using the latest research and innovation in insulation and renewable energy.

  • Cambridge Council / UCL are developing and testing a ‘procurement carbon calculator’ to estimate the emissions from procured goods and services and enable informed discussion with suppliers on how to reduce them.

  • Colchester Council / University of Essex are helping two local primary schools to embed environmental education, reduce their environmental impact and have fun.

  • Cornwall Council / University of Exeter provided evidence for decision-makers to understand the potential long-term benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation on health.

  • Durham Council / University of Durham are measuring the real energy consumption impacts of home working to help with future energy scenario planning.

  • Hertfordshire Council / University of Hertfordshire are working with care homes to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency.

  • Lewes and Eastbourne Councils / University of Sussex are exploring alternative financing mechanisms and evaluating them for use on different sustainability projects that may or may not generate a financial return.

  • London Borough of Lambeth / London South Bank University are addressing the urgent need to expand the capacity of local supply chains to deliver net zero retrofits at scale, pace and quality, and to connect local residents to these jobs.

  • London Borough of Sutton / UCL are analysing housing across the Borough, and exploring routes to improve energy efficiency across the housing stock.

  • North of Tyne Combined Authority / University of North are developing training for policy professionals to understand how they can help achieve decarbonisation targets.

  • South Gloucester Council / University of West of England are developing effective communication strategies to overcome resistance to active travel measures; increase the uptake of low carbon home retro-fitting initiatives; and raise the profile of the climate emergency within the Local Strategic Partnership.

  • Worcester City Council / University of Worcester are analysing ‘business miles’ and staff commutes to improve local uptake of e-bike schemes.

“The support and grant resource provided enabled us to allocate internal resource to work together on this challenge, it raised the profile of the particular challenge and gave us the ability to access external support. It […] is really important to create this space to explore gaps in knowledge and uncertainties.”
Participating local authority

The partnership

The Net Zero Innovation Programme (NZIP) is a joint programme led by University College London(UCL) Public Policy Unit and the UCL Climate Action Unity, who deliver the programme, and the Local Government Association, a national membership body, which counts 328 of the 333 councils in England as its members.

The Impact

The first cohort of the NZIP has helped all participating Local Authorities to implement their Climate Action Plans. It has also increased the skills for officers to work on climate change projects (76%) and the Council’s ability to respond to Climate Change (83%). Evaluation data shows that teams have been approached by other departments in their organisations to know more about the approach to collaborate which gives an indication that this could be replicated within councils and universities.


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