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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 14, 2023


Net Zero: Local Government and Cross-sectoral Partners

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item is a debate on motion S6M-08209, in the name of Edward Mountain, on behalf of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, on the role of local government and its cross-sectoral partners in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am pleased to open the debate on the committee’s inquiry. I thank the many people who contributed to the inquiry, especially the councils and their local partners from business and the voluntary sector who hosted the committee on its four visits, to Stirling, Dundee, Aberdeen and Orkney.

I also thank my committee colleagues for their marathon efforts on the inquiry, which lasted for more than a year. Not only did the committee take a lot of evidence, it covered a lot of bases. It looked at everything from the intricacies of multimillion-pound green finance deals to whether tree preservation orders are fit for purpose. It was truly a multipolar inquiry, informed by expert opinion from a variety of disciplines.

By the time that I joined the committee as convener in September last year, the bulk of the evidence had been collected. I therefore saw my main role as ensuring that we kept on top of the mountain of evidence that we had accumulated and came up with a report that was less a compendium and more a succinct call to action—to separate the wood from the tree preservation orders, as it were.

I hope that we succeeded. I think that it is a truly excellent report with a small number of clear general messages, interspersed with some more granular recommendations. I know that the report has been welcomed by local government, which I expect will be keen to hear what the cabinet secretary says in response today.

On that note, it is perhaps a little disappointing that the Scottish Government was not able to reply to our report before today’s debate. If it had done so, we might have been able to push the discussion on a little further today. However, I look forward to hearing what the cabinet secretary has to say. The committee embarked on the report while recognising the importance of local government as a layer of democracy closest to and most rooted in our communities, and the heft that that gives when it comes to preparing for net zero, for instance, in taking place-based planning decisions that truly reflect local needs.

Another strength of councils is their unique convening power—the power to get different interests round the table and to be a catalyst for positive change in climate change and, indeed, all other areas. On that note, it is important to stress that our report is as much about those partnerships as it is about local government itself.

The committee agreed the report unanimously, in the spirit of consensus, which is important. I hope that that constructive spirit can be sustained in today’s debate, with a pragmatic focus on the question: where do we go from here? I propose that against the backdrop of our headline finding that we are unlikely to make Scotland net zero by 2045 unless we have a more empowered local government sector that has better access to skills and capital. The sector will need to play a full role in this energy revolution, and it must have a clear understanding of the specific role that the Scottish Government wants it to play in some of the key delivery areas.

This is not a counsel of woe; good progress has been made in many areas. The committee was inspired by the work that many councils are carrying out with their local partners in the business and voluntary sectors in areas such as electric vehicle charging, reuse, recycling and renewable energy. The report has case studies on those.

However, overall, councils feel underpowered and they are struggling to deal with the pace of change that the net zero transition requires. To paraphrase the evidence of one council leader, it is hard work for councils to think strategically about their carbon footprint when they are wondering how they will fill potholes and keep schools open. That is a real problem.

This is not simply the debate that we are all used to having about council funding, hugely important though that is. In the report, we call on the Scottish Government to provide additional support to councils in future budget cycles, to help them to contribute to national net zero targets.

There is also a knowledge and skills gap, as councils themselves recognise. The net zero transition means that unprecedented and often highly technical demands are being made on local government’s resources and skill sets.

Where do we go from here? I will set the scene by mentioning four key recommendations, knowing that other committee members might want to expand on those or other ideas in their speeches this afternoon.

First, the Scottish Government needs to provide a comprehensive road map for delivery of net zero in key areas that also gives councils more certainty than they have right now about the roles that they will have to play and the leadership that they must provide. That applies in several areas, but I single out heat in buildings as one area in which progress most needs to be made and where councils are least sure of their role and least certain that they have the right tools and resources for that role, whatever that turns out to be.

Secondly, and complementary to that first recommendation, the Scottish Government needs to create a local government-facing climate intelligence unit to provide help to councils in areas where in-depth specialist knowledge is lacking. One aspect in which such assistance is most needed is in securing help with green finance deals from institutional investors. Just about everyone agrees that that will be necessary if we are to have any hope of meeting the 2045 target. That is specialised and high-value work. The rewards are potentially great, but the level of financial risk is equally high. We also want the Scottish National Investment Bank to be more active at the interface between local government and private finance.

Thirdly, we call for a review of the Scottish Government’s challenge funding streams for net zero-related projects. We want there to be larger, fewer and more flexible funds, to avoid the needless bureaucracy and perverse incentives that we heard can bedevil the current system.

Fourthly, we call on the Scottish Government to address churn and delay in the planning system, which has a chilling effect on investment in all areas, including renewables. We also need a strategy to address long-term decline in the number of people who are employed in council planning departments.

In some areas, councils could do more to help themselves. An Accounts Commission report from last September found inconsistency among councils in the level and depth of strategic planning for net zero. It also found that, in general, councils were not thinking enough about mitigating measures and addressing residual carbon. That was largely corroborated by evidence from our inquiry.

Many councils need to do more to show their working and demonstrate how they propose to reach their targets. Councils will find that work easier if they can tap into the enthusiasm of their residents. That was underlined by the evidence from the Freiburg council in Germany, which is a global leader in municipal-level net zero planning. The witness was clear that the city’s success was largely due to the engaged and politically literate local population, who constantly kept the council on its toes. To put it differently, the net zero project should not be centralised but should be something that people and groups can shape, lead and deliver.

That would have been well understood by Patrick Geddes, the father of modern town planning, much of whose work was done not far from this building. Long before the modern environmental movement was born, he understood intuitively that the best and most sustainable solutions are usually low-impact ones that are decided locally, not imposed from far away. “Think globally, act locally” is a mantra of the modern environmental movement, but that message was at the core of his philosophy and is at the core of the committee’s report.

I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s 1st Report, 2023 (Session 6), The role of local government and its cross-sectoral partners in financing and delivering a net-zero Scotland (SP Paper 302).


The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

I take this opportunity to thank the committee for its time and effort in undertaking its inquiry and producing its very detailed report. I also put on the record my thanks to the organisations and individuals who presented written and oral evidence to the committee during the inquiry.

As the convener rightly said, the report is wide ranging. That speaks to the vast complexities and challenges in delivering net zero. The report is also unquestionably timely.

Our national climate change targets, which were passed almost unanimously by the Parliament, are our collective responsibility. Both national and local government have vital roles to play and have a shared responsibility in leadership and delivery. That shared role is evident across the range of climate change policies that are highlighted in the report.

Despite the positive progress that has been made to date, I fully accept that we need to do more, not least in the light of recent analysis on Scotland’s progress from the Climate Change Committee. For that reason, we welcome the inquiry and the report. There is much for us to agree on in relation to the recommendations. It is key that we explore the scope for greater partnership between all levels of government, not least in how we use our funding together more powerfully.

An example of where we are looking to pool our efforts is the proposal for a climate intelligence service, which was one of the key recommendations from the inquiry. The service would provide all 32 local authorities with the data-informed evidence, insights and intelligence that they need to make continuous improvement to their climate change plans. It would also help with the development of skills and knowledge to equip local authorities to take more climate-informed decisions. I am pleased to inform members that we are in advanced discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on setting up the service. I very much hope that it will be in place soon.

I agree with the committee on the vital role for communities in our just transition to net zero, and I accept the need to promote models of community engagement and to take a place-based approach to that. That is already happening through participatory budgeting, through which local communities decide democratically where funding should be invested. For example, Dundee City Council has launched a £750,000 fund to support climate action, with local people determining which projects to fund. In the north-east, as part of our just transition fund, we have allocated at least £1 million of funding in every year over the life of the fund to support participatory budgeting projects that are aimed at addressing a just transition to net zero.

The report rightly focuses on how local action can be co-ordinated and galvanised to support our shared net zero agenda, and on what the Scottish Government and local government can do to support that. Climate action hubs have been at the heart of our approach.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

I listened carefully to what the cabinet secretary said. He described the place-based approach as being about participatory budgeting in local geographical areas. However, the report recommends that the place-based approach should not just be about public funding; it should be about co-ordination of all the partners.

Michael Matheson

I very much agree with that. One action that we have been taking, as I mentioned, is through climate action hubs, which are about helping to lever in public and private finance and to co-ordinate and bring together communities to direct support and assistance in local areas.

To date, we have supported two pathfinder hubs to do exactly that. Both hubs are community-led organisations that were launched back in September 2021—one covers Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and the other covers Highland, Orkney and Shetland. The hubs have provided a strategic approach to enabling community-led climate action. They have focused on building awareness of the climate emergency and building community capacity through training and events. The hubs have widened participation, with an impressive 40 per cent of the groups that have engaged in the Highlands being new to climate action.

The hubs have directly supported community organisations in developing projects, including on community energy, retrofitting, reducing flooding risks and green skills, while helping to secure funding from public and private investments. The hubs offer an opportunity to build on existing support and ensure co-ordinated action. I have been encouraged by the positive feedback from a number of local authority colleagues who are looking to support the programme.

I want to build on that progress and the interest that local authorities have expressed in that work. That is why I am delighted to announce that we will expand the programme to provide a national network of hubs. The Scottish Government will commit £4.3 million in the 2023-24 budget to support the expansion. On the basis of conversations with communities to date, we anticipate that in the region of 20 hubs will be developed. A national network will drive a place-based approach, putting communities very much at the heart of the transition to net zero.

The inquiry specifically highlighted the need to promote community engagement on local heat and energy efficiency strategies.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I appreciate what the cabinet secretary says about community engagement, as that is a vital subject on which I think we can all agree. However, the report states clearly—this issue resonates with me, because I asked the First Minister about it last year sometime—that the Scottish Government needs to give clear guidance to local authorities. There is an important sentence in the report’s executive summary and in the conclusions about the importance of councils receiving additional resources in the run-up to 2045 because, otherwise, the net zero objective will not be attainable.

I ask the cabinet secretary to comment on those two principal aspects of the report: the need for clear guidance from the Scottish Government and the need for additional resources.

Michael Matheson

On the point about guidance, yes, there needs to be guidance, but that needs to be developed in partnership with local government, and not be top-down guidance from Government—the member gave the impression that he was asking for the latter. That is very much the approach that we want to take. Of course, the intelligence unit is one of the routes by which we can achieve the guidance that local authority colleagues need.

On additional funding, I would like to be able to give local government more funding to support it in this area of work, but we work within a limited budget and we have to recognise that, in a fixed budget settlement, if we are to put more money into local government, it has to come from somewhere else. Of course, where we can—such as through the community hubs that I mentioned—we are putting in additional investment in order to support the expansion of community-based approaches.

I mentioned the local heat and energy efficiency strategies, which are at the heart of what I believe is a place-based, locally led and tailored approach to the heat transition. The strategies will set out the long-term plan for decarbonising heat in buildings and improving energy efficiency across entire local authority areas. They will support local planning, co-ordination and delivery of heat transition across communities, helping to target investment where it can make the greatest impact.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am conscious of the time, Presiding Officer. Do I have to conclude?

You do indeed.

Michael Matheson

I therefore offer my apologies to the member.

We are also continuing to work closely with local government through our recently established heat network support unit. That has been designed to address a key issue that some of our local authority colleagues face in developing local heat networks, which is carrying out some of the pre-capital stage development work. That is absolutely critical.

To return to a couple of the points that I made in my opening comments, I hope that members can be assured of my firm commitment that we will build on our existing partnership with local government to support the development of a new deal to achieve better outcomes for people and communities, especially on national priorities such as climate change.

I very much look forward to hearing and engaging with the debate today and to making sure that we deliver on our shared objective of creating a new deal for climate change with local government.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the clerks to the committee and my fellow committee members for what is a very good report—I agree with the convener about that. It is a considerable piece of work. We spent all of 12 months on it, took written evidence from 63 stakeholders and went on four council visits.

We heard that local government and its cross-sectoral partners will play a fundamental role in Scotland’s transition to net zero. Indeed, they are doing that already. For example, on our visits, we saw the Aberdeen hydrogen hub, which is a partnership between Aberdeen Council and BP, and Aberdeen Community Energy, with residents of a local housing development pioneering an urban hydro power scheme—I declare my interest as a shareholder. We also saw Dundee Council’s partnership with business to provide EV charging points that are sustainably powered by solar panels and batteries, and Orkney Council’s fabric first approach in affordable new-build housing. Just yesterday, Jackie Dunbar and I visited the NESS energy-from-waste plant, which is being funded and progressed innovatively by Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray Councils.

That innovation and further development require the Scottish Government to step up. To that end, the committee made various recommendations, and perhaps the key, overarching one is to offer strategic plans and clarity of direction of travel, which councils have been crying out for. Indeed, in its response, Aberdeenshire Council told us:

“A major barrier is understanding what various paths to net zero would look like in practice”.

That is why the committee was absolutely right to call on the Scottish Government to produce a comprehensive and detailed road map for the delivery of net zero—a call that has been echoed today in a submission by COSLA. That road map should give councils certainty about their role and the additional resources and powers that are required to deliver what the Government asks them to deliver. It should also allow them to assess the cost and operational implications of options and what ultimately represents the most sustainable, optimal strategy or course of action. With such a road map, councils will be able to assess the expertise and experience that are required to carry out the strategic planning and data gathering, and to source the leadership that is needed to promote and embed best practice in order to mainstream net zero planning into council decision making, which the committee also recommended.

That strategic planning is not easy. Stirling Council said:

“we need help with strategic planning so that we can understand our priorities. Then we need help to develop the resource and skills to be able to deliver programmes.”

The road map would allow strategic hires and planning. However, the Scottish Government should also carry out another committee recommendation: the creation of a local government-facing climate intelligence unit to provide specialist help where a local authority might not retain that itself or be able to afford it. I was very pleased to hear the cabinet secretary’s remarks about that and to hear that there are advanced discussions with COSLA.

The road map would also have a positive impact on skills. With clarity about the work available and the timescales involved, businesses would have the confidence to invest in the new skills and training that are required to meet Scotland’s targets, and colleges would know which courses to scale and would be better able to work with business to support apprenticeships or assist in transitions.

All of that must be financed, and a much more informed and strategic approach to financing must be taken. For example, we were originally told that the Scottish Government’s heat in buildings strategy would cost £33 billion to deliver. When I asked the minister, Patrick Harvie, what the figure was—adjusted for things such as inflation—18 months later, he was unable to tell me. He will not have a revised estimate until after the consultation on the planned heat in buildings bill. Given the tight timescales that we are working to, that is ridiculous.

Although all of that money cannot come from public funds, an element must come from the Scottish Government. WWF Scotland suggests that

“Capital investment by the Scottish Government would need to increase to between £2bn and £3bn per year from 2025 to 2030”.

That is worrying, as we know that this Government promised only £1.8 billion over this session of Parliament, and that, by January this year, it had spent only £155 million, which is less than 10 per cent of what was promised.

The committee has asked the Scottish Government to be smarter with funding. COSLA’s Gail Macgregor said:

“To empower local government, councils need not just increased funding, but also larger, fewer and more flexible funding streams”.

In that regard, it is notable the UK Energy Research Centre found that a £1 million investment in each of the 32 local authorities in Scotland to provide technical assistance for energy efficiency and renewable energy investments could produce investment finance, on affordable terms, of around £1.2 billion.

The Scottish Government also needs to get better at leveraging private finance. The University of Strathclyde told us that there is

“a reluctance to engage private funding bodies on leveraging the appropriate scale of private sector finance to supplement available public funds.”

That looks set to continue, with the Scottish National Investment Bank saying the right things about working with local councils to support the transition to net zero, yet telling the committee that

“The Bank has been established to invest on commercial terms, and it is unlikely to be suitable for the needs and requirements of local authorities funding”.

That is why the comments of the likes of the Association of British Insurers are so interesting. It told us that the insurance and pensions sector wants to invest in net zero initiatives and has the capital to do so, but needs consistency in how those opportunities are structured and a long-term business case. In short, the sector needs the very road map and proper expert resourcing to give investors confidence that the committee called for as its key recommendation and that I highlighted at the start of my speech.

The committee found that a lot of good work is going on at local authority level, despite the serious challenges that we will no doubt hear about as the debate develops. By taking extensive evidence, the committee has been able to set out some really practical steps that the Scottish Government could take now to help local authorities and communities to deliver on our net zero ambitions. That is why it is so disappointing that the Government has failed to respond to the report, despite the urgency of the subject matter, the report’s publication on 23 January and all the representations that have been made to us since.

The committee has done its job in looking at the role of local government and its cross-sectoral partners in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland. I hope that, in response to the report, the Scottish Government will do the same.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the members of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for carrying out the inquiry, the many organisations and individuals who gave evidence and the committee clerks and researchers for their work in distilling the evidence into the committee’s excellent report, which makes an important contribution to the debate on how we get Scotland on track to meet our climate commitments.

As the report stresses, our local authorities are crucial to the journey to net zero. As the biggest employers and service providers in Scotland, and as major owners of land and buildings, councils will have to lead by example in cutting their own carbon footprint. Many of the services that our councils provide—from transport to housing and from recycling to care of our open spaces—will be key in supporting communities to play their part in tackling the climate and nature crises.

Our councils are more than the sum of the services that they provide. They are the bodies that we look to for leadership in our communities to build the local partnerships that will help to enable us all—households and businesses—to cut our carbon emissions and meet our common goal of a transition to net zero and, crucially, to make sure that it is a just transition. However, councils can only do that if we properly empower and resource them, which we are failing to do.

In budget after budget, the Scottish National Party and the Greens have hollowed out local government, stripping £6 billion from council budgets in the past decade. As the Scottish Trades Union Congress said in its evidence to the committee,

“The most recent Scottish Budget has further entrenched cuts to Local Government. This needs to be reversed.”

The NZET Committee was clear in its report. Our councils need additional financial support in their core funding and a more strategic approach to dedicated net zero funding, ending the fragmented, short-term, time-consuming bidding wars that we see from challenge funding.

Although the Government has not yet bothered to respond to the committee’s report, COSLA’s response made the point that

“Local government does not have the core, flexible resources it needs to develop local net zero programmes and climate resilience … we need to urgently simplify funding of national programmes so that there are fewer challenge funds, and more larger, multi annual funds.”

Will Colin Smyth take an intervention?

I certainly will.

Will I get extra time for Stephen Kerr putting his card in?

There is some time in hand, Mr Smyth—do not worry. Are we there, Mr Kerr?

Stephen Kerr

We all do that at some point, and I have just done it.

Does Colin Smyth agree with the report, which says that the

“clear message of this inquiry is that no amount of additional government funding is realistically likely to bridge the gap between the current reality and our national net zero ambitions.”

It then calls for things that must be done to access private investment. In short, does Colin Smyth agree with what Liam Kerr said about the need for a clear route map that unlocks private investment?

Colin Smyth

The point was well worth waiting for, and it is a point that COSLA made in its recent response to the committee’s report. It said that the Government has no overall costed and coherent road map to net zero by 2040 or to the arguably more demanding target of a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

That was also the conclusion of the Climate Change Committee in its recent report card on the Government’s performance. The chairman of the Committee, Lord Deben, said:

“One year ago, I called for more clarity and transparency on Scottish climate policy and delivery. That plea remains unanswered.”

The Climate Change Committee report was damning. It said that seven out of 11 of our “increasingly at risk” legal targets have been missed and that those targets are

“in danger of becoming meaningless”.

It also said that progress on cutting emissions has “largely stalled”. On the three big emitters—transport, heat in buildings and land use—the report card was a clear fail, fail and fail, and that view was largely echoed by the NZET Committee report.

Transport is our largest source of greenhouse gases and is responsible for a third of our emissions, with levels that are barely below those of 1990. The Government’s response has been to axe 90,000 train services a year and to propose just 2,000 more public electric vehicle charging points when we need 30,000 by 2030. Its response has also been to cut 120 million bus passenger journeys since 2007 as it dismantles our bus network route by route, with more cuts likely when it ends the network support grant plus at the end of the month.

Does Colin Smyth agree that that hits rural areas disproportionately harder than urban areas?

Colin Smyth

There is no question but that the cuts in support for bus companies will hit rural areas harder, as those are the more heavily subsidised parts of our network scheme.

What frustrates me is that, nearly four years after the Parliament passed the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, the Government is still dragging its heels on giving councils the powers secured in that act and, more importantly, the resources that they need to deliver publicly owned local bus services in order to start to put passengers, not profits, first.

If we want to see evidence of this Government’s lack of commitment to a just transition, we need only look at the way in which it and Glasgow City Council treated Glasgow’s taxi drivers when introducing the low-emission zone. They have failed to support drivers adequately to make that transition, which will force many out of business or into unmanageable debt.

If we want a just transition with regard to our buildings, which are the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and account for a quarter of emissions, we will not get that by cutting the energy efficiency budget by £133 million. Instead, we should be tackling the issue of why poorly designed schemes—including the area-based schemes that are administered by local authorities—are not being utilised, given the shocking levels of fuel poverty in Scotland and the knowledge that insulating our homes properly cuts not only fuel bills but fuel use and therefore emissions.

We need more clarity and certainty for our councils, home owners, landowners and—crucially—supply chains through the early publication of future regulations for heating and energy efficiency. That regulatory framework needs to sit alongside an effective enabling framework, learning from effective retrofit examples from across Europe. For example, in Europe, one-stop shops are emerging that provide end-to-end management of the retrofit and installation process for the home owner, from access to information on options to getting quotes and engaging in contracts.

Even in areas such as energy production, where we have made good progress in cutting emissions, not only have we not seen a just transition, with many of the supply chain opportunities going overseas, but we see that that progress is now under threat because of the long-term decline in the number of council-employed planners. In my region of Dumfries and Galloway, eight of the latest 11 wind farm projects that were taken to the Scottish Government’s planning and environmental appeals division resulted from a failure to decide the application locally within the required four-month timescale, primarily due to a lack of planning staff.

The clock is ticking towards our net zero targets, but the Government lacks a clear plan for the urgent actions that are needed to meet those targets to ensure that we play our part in stopping the climate crisis from becoming a climate catastrophe. Our councils are key to meeting those targets, but we need to start to give them the powers, the support, the resources and the respect that they need to help us to deliver that greener, fairer Scotland that we all want to see.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I thank Edward Mountain and his committee for producing a very substantial report. I think that it will—unlike some committee reports, I have to say—actually help in the longer term. I hope that it will also bring some clarity to a very difficult situation, because change is hard. We would not be here discussing those world-leading climate change targets that were set in 2009 if it was not hard, so I accept that these are challenging circumstances. This is probably the biggest change since the industrial revolution. If we are going to get it right and get a just transition, we need to ensure that there is a proper plan that works effectively.

The Climate Change Committee was severe in its criticism, as I am sure the minister would accept. It said that the climate change targets that have been set by the Government

“are in danger of becoming meaningless”.

Those targets have gone from being world-leading climate change targets to being potentially “meaningless”.

That should worry us all, which is why the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report is helpful and will, I hope, bring some clarity to the situation so that we can have the road map that has been mentioned frequently today.

There are a number of strong, competing priorities that have been set by Government, and some of those issues are difficult to resolve. We might take homes, for instance. As we all know, there are people in our constituencies who are absolutely desperate for a house. Their homes are overcrowded or they are staying with relatives, or they are in a house that is just too small for their needs or is very hard to heat. Those people are desperate for a home, and I am desperate to get houses built. The challenge concerns how efficient we make those houses. Sometimes, the more efficient we make a house, the higher the up-front costs. Of course, it will be of longer-term benefit and it will keep the fuel bills lower for the longer term, but the up-front cost is higher—it will cost us more to do it.

Such challenges are faced by council officials and councillors every day. They are in danger in that, if the requirements that they put on developers are too great, those developers might put their money into building houses somewhere else, in the area of another council that is perhaps not as strict. Meeting their housing requirements at the same time as meeting their climate change objectives of having energy-efficient homes in the right place, with 20-minute neighbourhoods, at the right time, and finding the right land—all of that—is challenging.

The same applies to energy schemes. We have big challenges on biodiversity and on where we get the stock from, at a low cost, while dealing with the climate. Transport has the same challenges of finance, immediate needs, long-term climate and biodiversity needs and through-life costs. All of those are massive challenges that we must resolve.

Does Willie Rennie agree that, as a Parliament, we need to start looking further than a parliamentary term and to start making long-term strategies that are more likely to deliver net zero?

Willie Rennie

I wish that we could do that. However, the nature of politics is that we want answers now. We want to get results immediately. Of course, people are desperate for urgent action but, too often, action is too short.

I will give a slightly old example from four or five years ago. There was a proposal to build 1,400 homes on the north side of Cupar. It has been debated for a long time. Housing development in north-east Fife has stalled, partly as a result of that scheme’s having been caught in a quagmire.

The Sustainable Cupar Town Development Group was desperate for a district heating system to be attached to those 1,400 homes, so we spoke to the developers, who said, “It is experimental; it is too expensive; it involves long-term obligations; we want to build houses and be out; and we are not required to do it. We do not have to do it, so we are not going to do it.” We went to the council and said, “You’ve got the power to make them do it.” The council people said, “We don’t really know much about district heating systems. It’s a bit risky and perhaps a bit expensive, and we want the houses to be built, so we don’t want to scare the developers away.” So, we went to the Scottish Government, which said, “Naw. We’ve got funding schemes and pilots, but it is up to councils to resolve this.”

I hope that the situation has improved since then, because that buck passing means that we do not have a district heating system for Cupar. In fact, we do not really have the answer as to whether a district heating system would be the right scheme for Cupar North.

That leads to the point of having the right advice, having the right laws in place—the right compulsion—and empowering local councils to bring all of that together to make it work, so that we can progress.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I am aware of the discussions on a heat network in Cupar, but that was happening largely before the heat networks legislation was brought into place. Does Willie Rennie accept that there is now greater legislative certainty around heating frameworks and that propositions for developers to introduce such networks are now better and more investable?

Willie Rennie

Having plans is fine, but how do we deal with the risk? Who takes that risk? Do they have the money? Do they have the incentive? Are they addressing competing priorities? Of course, they want to get the houses built as quickly as possible. If developers say, “No, it’s too much of a responsibility. We’re not going to build those houses; we’re going to build somewhere else,” that is a challenge that I am not sure we have resolved.

I hope that that has changed, because the quagmire that Cupar got stuck in is astonishing, given that, just down the road, as Mark Ruskell will know, because it is in his region, there was a proposal to connect up the district heating system—the biomass plant for St Andrews, which was built by the University of St Andrews—with a new Persimmon development 100 yards away. The university and the developer had a discussion about connecting it up, but the developer said, “We don’t have to do it; there is no requirement; so we are not going to connect up,” and it put gas boilers into those houses instead. We are supposed to be moving away from gas, but there are gas boilers in those brand new houses, right next door to a district heating system. We could have connected them up, but there was no requirement. That was post the new frameworks that Mark Ruskell talked about.

I should probably conclude.

When it comes to solar panels, businesses were required to pay extra business rates for solar schemes of above 50 kilowatts on their roofs. They were also required to get planning permission. In England, that was not the case. The minister who is responsible has just changed that, but why has it taken so long to get some of those really simple things in place so that we can provide the right incentives?

We need the people, we need the expertise, we need the road map and we need councils to be able to do more than their statutory duties, in order to make those big changes and make sure that we meet our climate change obligations.

Before we move to the open debate, I advise members that, at this point, we have some time in hand, so members may wish to make and/or take interventions.


Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in my first committee debate as a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee—I think that this is the first time since I joined the committee that we have had a debate in the chamber. I thank the clerks, my committee colleagues and all those who participated in the committee’s inquiry. Without their input, the inquiry and our recommendations would not have been possible.

All the challenges that have been highlighted during the NZET Committee’s inquiry are made even more acute during the present cost crisis. For example, the evidence that we took shows that there is no doubt—I know this as a former local councillor—that the increasing inflationary pressures that are being experienced by local authorities will have an impact on their ability to deliver on the important net zero ambitions.

Indeed, successive Scottish budgets have demonstrated this Government’s commitment to the centrality of a just transition to a net zero and climate resilient Scotland. The 2023-24 budget prioritises a just transition to a net zero climate resilient and biodiverse Scotland with more than £2.2 billion of investment in 2023-24, and this year the Scottish Government has allocated £194 million to help to reduce energy bills and climate emissions through the warmer homes Scotland area-based schemes and Home Energy Scotland.

Scotland’s ambitious climate change legislation sets a target date for net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045. Progress has been made and Scotland is more than half way to net zero, but it still has much to do. Our inquiry heard how we are now entering the most challenging part of the journey to date, with a need to halve our emissions again by 2030. It is not going to be easy.

The next full climate change plan will show the emissions reductions of the economy-wide policies in the plan, as well as detailing other benefits such as job creation and the costs of the policies. The transition to net zero will require a truly national effort from all sectors of the economy, including significant private sector investment in net zero and climate resilience to ensure the long-term strength and competitiveness of our economy. Central to that—members will not be surprised to hear me say this—is a just transition for the north-east of Scotland, including my Aberdeen Donside constituency.

However, our evidence shows that, in order to fully make that transition work, the UK Government must also take action to secure a just transition. The UK Government’s green jobs task force recommended that the Government should set out how it will match the support that is available through the European Union’s just transition fund. Unfortunately, that has still not been acted on. The UK Government has still to match the Scottish Government’s £50 million just transition fund.

Liam Kerr

When the member calls for the UK Government to match the just transition fund, does she think that the £16 billion North Sea transition deal goes any way towards that, since it is 32 times the size of the Scottish Government’s fund, to meeting that criterion?

Jackie Dunbar

Well, the UK Government has taken £300 billion from the north-east of Scotland through the Treasury since the 1970s, if you are going to start matching funds, Mr Kerr.

I call on the UK Government to play its role in ensuring that we achieve a just transition and to match the support that is available through the EU scheme. It is vital that we all take responsibility and do our bit.

One of the areas that I have an interest in and that the committee’s inquiry covered is green skills and getting young folk into green jobs. Tackling climate change is not just about Government policies or investment, and there is a significant role for the whole of Scottish society in supporting transformational change. We heard how Scotland’s skills response to climate change needs to be a national endeavour. An agile, aligned and responsive skills system will be vital to the delivery of a green recovery. The scale and pace of change needed across all sectors will demand a significant realignment of our investment in education, training and work-based learning, towards green jobs.

Scotland already has many of the skills required to facilitate the transition to a low carbon economy. Those skills exist across many of our established sectors, including energy, engineering, construction and chemical science. However, the Scottish Government must take a range of actions to support the development of green skills. The climate emergency skills action plan is central to creating a future workforce that can support our transition to a net zero economy and ensure that workers are equipped with the skills that employers will need in that green economy. Our inquiry shows that the green jobs workforce academy is an important step in achieving that and will help folk of all ages to assess their skills, identify skills gaps and access upskilling or retraining courses. Alongside the just transition plans, the Scottish Government is developing a pilot of a skills guarantee, offering folk in high-carbon jobs support in moving into good green jobs.

One example of the role that local government and its cross-sectoral partners are playing in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland is the joint working of Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council and Moray Council, which are working collectively to finance and deliver a new energy and waste plant. Just yesterday, as Liam Kerr mentioned, we visited the energy-from-waste plant in Aberdeen—a plant for unrecyclable waste, so that there is no longer a reliance on landfill. I was involved in the project from the beginning, when I was a councillor, so it was great to see the project coming along and nearing completion. Once completed, it will hook up with the local district heating network and help to reduce fuel poverty in the local community.

Again, I welcome the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle the climate emergency, while being aware that there is still a way to go. I look forward to hearing other members’ contributions.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to contribute to the debate, which highlights the vital role that local government can and must play in the journey to net zero. As the level of government that is the closest to our communities, councils are best placed to deliver the local flexibility that will be required in order to achieve the Scottish Government’s net zero targets. We know that many councils are aware of the challenges that face them in this area, and COSLA has set out clearly that local government is committed to meeting the 2030 and 2045 climate targets.

However, COSLA is also clear that, despite that commitment, local government’s ability to contribute towards those targets will be seriously limited without increased investment in our councils. As we have heard, the issue of funding comes up time and again when it comes to local government’s climate responsibilities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report by the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee states that the issue of local government finances was one of the main issues raised in its inquiry. Numerous individual councils that responded to the inquiry made it clear that insufficient funding is one of the biggest challenges that they face in this area.

Although the debate should not be entirely focused on local government funding, it is clear that progress on net zero is yet another area of local government performance that is being compromised by underinvestment. The committee’s report reveals that councils’ planning departments have shrunk, with more than a third of planning staff having been cut since 2009. The Royal Town Planning Institute has highlighted that planning authorities are now struggling to recruit staff at the same rate as they are retiring. To that end, the report is right to support the creation of an apprenticeship scheme for planners. The Scottish Government should continue to work with the RTPI on such a scheme.

However, the skills challenges that our councils face go far beyond the planning departments. Indeed, skills are one of the biggest hurdles that we face in retrofitting buildings for net zero, including switching to low-emission or zero-emission heating systems such as heat pumps. One of the biggest issues is that the efforts in that area must be maintained.

There are areas in Scotland that are trying to achieve that. Stirling Council has worked with Scottish Water Horizons to create a district heat network that powers much of the Forthside area of Stirling. That is an example of exactly the type of collaboration between local government and external partners that we need if we are to achieve our targets.

However, it is clear that the retrofitting journey faces significant skills challenges—so much so that numerous stakeholders, including Homes for Scotland and Scottish Renewables, have suggested that the 2030 and 2045 targets are not realistic.

The clean heat and energy efficiency workforce assessment produced by ClimateXChange sets out the scale of the challenges that we face. The report estimates that, to meet the 2030 target, Scotland will require at least 4,500 thermal insulation installers, up to 12,700 heat pump installers and up to 4,000 heat network installers. Those are massive numbers.

The Construction Industry Training Board has highlighted the point that the Scottish Government’s heat in buildings strategy has not provided a “clear pipeline of work” for the construction industry. That means that the industry still lacks the confidence that it requires to ensure that the workforce is ready and willing.

Given the amount of housing stock for which local government is responsible, it is vital that councils be able to access contractors. The skills challenges must be met and we must ensure that jobs are tied back. I hope that, in summing up, the cabinet secretary will at least acknowledge that that is one of the big issues that require to be addressed.

There are real ambitions for what we want to do in the sector, but they can be realised only if local and central Government take responsibility and it is possible for them to work together. Together, we must address the challenge, ensure that there is real development and ensure that the skills delivery review comes forward with many strategies about where we go from here.

Scotland’s Government must do more to achieve its net zero targets. It will be unable to achieve them unless local government is able to play its part in the journey. Councils must be empowered to invest fully in their own climate initiatives. That means giving them investment and ensuring that they can access the skills and workforce that they require to move forward. It also means supporting them to deliver local strategies towards net zero as much as is humanly possible.

Unless there is a step change in how local government participates in the journey to net zero, the 2045 target cannot be achieved. The onus is now on the Government to act and empower local government before it is too late. I hope that the cabinet secretary and the Government take heed of the warnings that we have given today.


Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

I am delighted to speak in the debate. I thank the committee for its report. It is an excellent summary of what we need to do, and I commend the committee for it.

Scotland will not meet its ambitious target of being net zero by 2045 without a strong partnership with local government. Local authorities can lead on skills; that they will need access to capital in order to play a full role is a point that I will touch on later. It is clear that the Scottish Government and local authorities need to understand their roles in key delivery areas.

In the report that it has launched, the committee recognises the crucial role that councils will have to play if we are to become a net zero nation. I say that with 15 years’ experience as a councillor. With local knowledge of workplace, supply side and skills base, councils are in a good position to engage with local and national stakeholders as part of what will have to be a collective national effort to reach net zero. The report is as much about those partnerships as it is about local government itself.

Only yesterday, I discussed the subject extensively with the chief executive of my local authority. One of the first key tasks is to establish a pipeline for what each local authority needs to do. In East Lothian, I set up an energy forum that has now met four times to look at planning, financial, skills and supply-side issues. That extensive stakeholder engagement brings together skills agencies, supply-side agencies, developers and the council.

Local heat and energy efficiency strategies and area-based approaches need to be published by the end of December 2023. An implementation plan should address how LHEES will be used to help to implement the area-based approach that will be necessary if real progress is to be made on the issue. The role of councils in relation to district heating systems is also key and needs to be clarified.

The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence on retrofitting and held a debate on the issue last year. There was clear evidence from the supply sector that it needed to see a clear pipeline prior to substantial investment. The quicker local authorities arrive at that point, the better. In order to do so, councils need to set out strategic planning objectives and targets in that area. The committee calls on the Scottish Government to work with COSLA to audit the effectiveness of councils’ net zero-related strategic planning and data gathering—which is a really important process that many local authorities are going through at the moment—and to promote and embed best practice in mainstreaming net zero planning in council decision making. We are not quite at that point yet.

The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee also spoke to the Accounts Commission on that issue. The commission has a role to play in ensuring that councils’ strategic planning and major budgetary decisions are consistent with net zero goals and promoting climate change budgeting, and I am sure that it will publish more detail on that later this year.

There are key areas in such strategic planning: funding, skills, powers and direction. The committee calls on the Scottish Government to heed the Climate Change Committee’s call for a comprehensive and detailed road map for the delivery of net zero in key areas, such as heat in buildings and transport.

The Scottish Government is currently discussing a new deal with COSLA. Any such deal, and associated reforms, must comprehensively address how councils are to be supported in delivering net zero.

We also need to develop investment streams. The challenge of attracting private investment needs to be approached by adopting area-based approaches that offer the potential to scale up investment opportunities. Liam Kerr mentioned the figure of £33 billion. I know that the Scottish Government is looking to put aside £2 billion, but the gap needs to be filled by institutional funding. I spoke to a professor from the London School of Economics who highlighted that there are billions of pounds available out there, but the real challenge is to develop investable projects for scaling up. That is a challenge for local government and the Scottish Government. As has been mentioned, scaling up, risk management and co-ordination are key.

The cabinet secretary also mentioned flexibility in funding. The UK Government and the Scottish Government need to have grown-up discussions about allowing the Scottish Government to have targeted additional borrowing powers to help it in that area.

On skills, the inquiry identified planning, procurement, building standards and environmental assessment as being among the areas where assistance is likely to be most needed. East Lothian Council, which is one of the smallest local authorities, will need help in scaling up its activity in that regard. COSLA and the Scottish Government need to work on securing specialist advice and assistance for local government in its engagement with institutional investors on major capital funding. The role of the Scottish National Investment Bank and the Scottish Futures Trust in relation to area-based decarbonisation schemes was discussed in the report and needs to be explored further.

On procurement, local supply chains need to be developed. That ties in with establishing a pipeline at an early stage at a local level, which I mentioned earlier. The energy forum is already engaging with local supply-side developers to see what they need to do to grow their businesses in East Lothian. Local authorities need to lead on developing the supply-side growth that is required, and they can do that now.

The committee was concerned about delays in planning applications for renewables. That is a valid point at this stage.

On NPF4, the committee asked the Scottish Government to consider setting up a short-life working group on renewable energy within the planning system, which would include representatives of local government, the planning profession and industry, to speed up the process. The Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee will be undertaking more work on that and will be monitoring progress. We have been having discussions with the RTPI, which has also been talking to the minister about the need for an additional 700 to 800 planners across the planning authorities. That needs to be monitored, and the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee will be doing that. If we are to achieve net zero, we need a fully resourced planning system to meet the growth in demand.

The Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee also raises the issue of grid capacity keeping in touch with planning applications for renewable projects so that they are not placed at risk. Discussions on increasing grid capacity need to be advanced much more quickly with the UK Government.

Transport and active travel are other policy areas that we could talk about at length.

The report sets out what we need to do: establish strong partnership principles between local government and the Scottish Government; establish a pipeline at the earliest opportunity; establish local energy skills partnerships; establish a resource planning system; and create investment streams that match up with projects of scale. We need to achieve net zero by 2045—of that there is no doubt. In doing so, we can empower our local communities to deliver not only for the local climate, but for the local economy.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

As a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I am pleased to take part in the debate.

As the convener set out in his remarks, the inquiry has been significant and substantial, spanning 17 evidence sessions, over which we heard from more than 50 organisations. It is right that we got out of Parliament and visited a number of the communities who are at the heart of delivering on Scotland’s net zero targets and ambitions. I was part of the delegations to Aberdeen and Orkney, and I was pleased to get out of Central Scotland for a couple of days. Those visits were really worth while, and I am grateful to everyone who made them possible.

I was pleased to hear Willie Rennie and other colleagues acknowledge the importance of the report. We would not have been able to produce the report and the key recommendations without Peter McGrath and the committee clerking team, the Scottish Parliament information centre and everyone else who played a part.

It has been good to follow my committee colleagues in the debate. Planning has been mentioned, but if members will indulge me, as a former planner, I will focus on planning, because it is absolutely key to the place-based approach about which our deputy convener Fiona Hyslop is so passionate, and to the place-making agenda.

I am pleased that colleagues have read the briefing that we received from the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland. We have seen a significant decline not just in the number of planners—members have heard some of those statistics in the debate—but in the capacity to deliver at a time when demand is increasing. As a Parliament, members have all bought into national planning framework 4, and we have had planning reform, so the demands are really high. We need to create opportunities, retain good planners and create a pipeline for new talent.

While we were taking evidence in the inquiry, we were a dynamic committee—I am looking at the deputy convener—because we did not just wait to get to the end and do the report. We used parliamentary questions and other devices to ask the Government questions, as things progressed. I was pleased that the planning minister Tom Arthur was very optimistic and positive about the opportunity that a planning apprenticeship model could bring. The model exists in England, so we can see how it is going there. Given that we have lost a number of planning schools over the years—planning schools have become an endangered species in Scotland—we have to create new routes, and the planning apprenticeship would be an exciting way to do that. I am glad that other colleagues have championed that idea in the debate; it looks like something good will come from that.

Another key area for local government is procurement. Procurement is not yet fully aligned with sustainability, and net zero is not fully or firmly embedded across all council directorates and budgets. The Sustainable Scotland Network acknowledged that more work is needed to align council procurement with net zero, but it said that the problem may lie upstream of procurement, including at the specification stage. The network is keen to do more to provide training and build capacity. That is another key area for the Government to consider.

I will jump across to transport. As we heard from the convener, we are trying to find local and national solutions to a global crisis—we are living through a climate and nature emergency. The cabinet secretary and his ministerial colleagues have heard me talk about this before, but the X1 bus, which used to serve communities in Hamilton and get to Glasgow City Centre quickly and efficiently, was lost during the pandemic.

I want our young people, who now have free bus passes, to have such services again. We know, not just from our report but from the Climate Change Committee’s strong words, that we need to do more to decarbonise transport and properly invest in active travel. Where we know that there is demand for community bus services, let us bring those services back.

When we took evidence on transport, it was worrying that, despite there being legislation and powers that councils can use, there was no evidence that councils were going to hit the button and start to run council bus services, because they did not have the resources. I know that work is happening in Government, but we need to see real and significant improvement in that area.

We know that decarbonising transport and buildings is the key area. We heard evidence from the vice-convener of Unison Scotland, Stephen Smellie, on what we need to do on retrofitting buildings. He gave a striking example from South Lanarkshire. The cost of retrofitting all non-domestic buildings in South Lanarkshire would amount to half a billion pounds. We know that the council does not have that money and that a partnership approach is needed. Again, we need answers to those really big questions.

I give a shout-out to community wealth building. The Government is committed to that approach, but North Ayrshire Council has been pioneering it. We need it if we are going to spearhead a community and worker-led just transition. There are really good examples in that regard, involving solar energy and a lot more.

I know that there has been time in hand, but I am quickly running out of seconds.

It is really important that the report is not given warm words today and then filed away without us talking about it again. We will have a new First Minister, and there might be a new Cabinet and a new approach in Government. The report will help the Government and Scotland. We have to keep looking back at it and the work of other committees in the Parliament, because it is the people of Scotland—the experts and communities in Scotland—who have informed that work. We have fantastic recommendations.

As Willie Rennie said, this is hard. Of course it is hard, but we have to do it. When we talk about net zero, there is a lot to be critical of and a lot to get gloomy about, but we need to give our communities hope that net zero is possible.

On what keeps me motivated, I visit schools as often as I can on my eco tour, and they know what is possible. They know what needs to be done, and they want to be part of the solution. They want us to invest in them so that people in them can be the planners, engineers and architects of the future.

I hope that that is a positive note to end on. I thank everyone who has taken the time to read the report, and I ask them not to file it away and forget about it.


Natalie Don (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP)

I welcome the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report.

Many of us in the chamber agree that climate change is by far the biggest threat to our future. It is crucial that, across the Parliament, we work constructively together to identify ways in which we can deliver net zero in Scotland.

As a previous member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I really enjoyed my time spent on the inquiry, listening to such a wide variety of witnesses give evidence and reading feedback from a wide range of stakeholders. I was sad to miss the final stages and I keenly looked out for the release of the report. I am delighted to be taking part in this debate.

Local authorities are, and will continue to be, absolutely crucial in the delivery of net zero, not only because they are at the forefront of delivering many of the policies but because they know their areas and communities best. Recommendation 22 in the report is that

“the Scottish Government and COSLA promote models of community engagement on climate change and net zero, building on the good work some councils are doing ... The effective engagement of communities and community groups, drawing on their local knowledge, is vital to embed a place-based approach to climate change and net zero at local level.”

Some of my colleagues have already touched on that. I believe—and the evidence taken during the inquiry reaffirms—that collaboration between local authorities and local communities is key. I want to focus on the potential that that joint working can have.

Some great examples of joint working were highlighted during the evidence sessions, and I want to use an example from my own constituency. Renfrewshire Council is leading the way in working with the community and getting community buy-in. The team up to clean up campaign, which was launched in 2018, has been massively successful and has involved the community and the council taking a joint approach to the scourge of litter. The campaign kicked off by asking people to take pride in their area, in an attempt to change behaviours and change attitudes towards littering. The idea was that, if a person sees people in their community actively picking up litter, that might make them think twice about dropping it in the first place.

The campaign began with just a handful of people in each community, who took time out of their day every day to pick up some litter. However, it has grown into so much more than that and has taken on a life of its own. Not a day goes by in Renfrewshire without someone picking litter or clearing something out, and we have seen people really taking it to the limits—for example, through riverside clear-outs, which are not for the faint-hearted.

With that idea of changing attitudes in mind, Renfrewshire Council worked with Renfrew author Ross MacKenzie to create “The Clumps’ Big Mess”, a lovely wee story about a dad who dropped litter, much to his children’s dismay, and who then had to deal with some tricky consequences until he changed his behaviour. That is the kind of initiative we need if we are to change attitudes.

I know that the climate crisis will not be solved by our dealing with litter alone, but the campaign was about so much more than just litter picking. More than 4,000 people are now interacting and communicating through the online group, which has become a hub that is not only opening people’s eyes to so many more environmental issues, but allowing discussions to take place about how to solve those issues. Different ideas on issues from biodiversity to up-cycling and reducing plastic are being shared, promoted and discussed. What is even more exciting is that people are sharing best practice. The campaign is enabling people from different communities to explore ways that would work for their own locality. We cannot forget that what works for one town might not work for the town or village next door—every community is unique.

The campaign could not have worked without buy-in from the community, and it deserves great recognition for its hard work, as does the council for enabling all of that to happen. As we go forward, we need to be aware of best practice in local authorities and ensure that it is supported and promoted, where applicable.

I was pleased with the report’s recommendations on transport and active travel. It is clear that changes in transport patterns and behaviours will be pivotal in achieving net zero goals, so the recommendations to create a more joined-up and strategic approach to public transport and active travel at regional level, which reflects actual travel and commuting patterns, are welcome. I am thinking of the declining bus services in my constituency, which also has limited rail travel, but there is such decline in local authorities across Scotland. The public has fallen out with public transport in many areas, because of the decline in and unreliability of local services. Councils are best placed to understand the needs of their communities, and we need to work to incentivise and encourage people back on to public transport. I am therefore genuinely excited to see the aims of the Scottish Government’s national transport strategy, which include supporting local authorities to look at different ways of delivering more localised services.

Another issue that was raised during the committee evidence sessions was 20-minute neighbourhoods, which align well with transport. The aim is to ensure that people within a community can gain access to the services and facilities that they need within 20 minutes, which will also be key in transforming our travel habits. However, such neighbourhoods will be achieved only through a joined-up approach to public transport and active travel, and we need to ensure that they are built around the needs of the whole community.

I am running out of time, so I will close. I believe that this mammoth enquiry has been useful and provides real food for thought on our delivery of net zero goals and the creation of the greener Scotland that we all want to see.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I warmly welcome the report by the NZET Committee. I enjoyed taking part in the inquiry, which is certainly the longest inquiry that I have ever been part of. I hope that it will provide food for thought across the Government about how we change, adapt to threats and realise opportunities as we tackle the climate and nature emergencies. I agree with Monica Lennon that the report has a lot of hope in it. There is the hope that we can tackle climate change by working hard in our communities and realising the opportunities and energy for change that they contain.

We heard about some really inspiring examples of climate ambition and leadership from around Scotland, but, at the same time, we heard about the inconsistency between councils, especially when it comes to setting and planning for climate targets. The latest Climate Change Committee report on Scotland’s progress emphasised three words: delivery, delivery and delivery. That means that we need to see action on the ground in communities everywhere, not just good examples.

It is simply not enough for councils to focus solely on their own buildings, land and vehicle fleets. Those bodies must be responsible for overseeing the delivery of area-wide climate targets, not just corporate plans for internal carbon reduction.

However, through the inquiry, we found that only 53 per cent of councils have set area-wide emission targets. We heard from the council in Freiburg, in Germany, which has shown exactly the type of climate leadership that we need councils across Scotland to adopt. From acts of citizens and cross-sectoral participation in decision making to a dedicated climate neutrality unit embedded in the organisation, the council in Freiburg has led the way internationally. We need to support councils in Scotland to get into that same space, which I think Freiburg managed to get into well over a decade ago.

Introducing a formal duty for local authorities to report progress and planning action on the ground will be critical if we are to make that step change. However, that additional responsibility on councils must come with the tools to deliver, including wholesale reform of local taxation powers to raise income and to drive behavioural change through road user charging or even carbon land taxes, for example.

We must also recognise the need to rebalance the conversation between national and local government, and I will be seeking to get the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill reconsidered in this Parliament at the earliest opportunity.

A number of committee members have mentioned our visits. The visits were inspiring, particularly the one to Dundee, where we saw the progress that has been made in taking forward climate initiatives over many years. Councils should be applauded for recognising that long-term funding for the voluntary sector is absolutely needed.

I am delighted that the Scottish Government has also recognised the need for long-term investment in the third sector. I am particularly delighted by the cabinet secretary’s earlier announcement that another 20 climate hubs are to be funded.

I will talk about one of the hubs that I hope will be funded. Greener Kirkcaldy is an amazing example of how we can put justice at the heart of climate action. Its Cosy Kingdom project is tackling poverty and disadvantage by getting energy advice to people who need it the most. As a result, Fife now has highest number of referrals to Home Energy Scotland of any other council area. What it has achieved is quite remarkable.

The investment through climate hubs will need to continue to drive change and to expand and scale up the work of Greener Kirkcaldy and a range of other organisations. I really look forward to seeing the results of that.

Councils that are working in collaboration with communities are well placed to drive real change when it comes to transport, which remains one of the biggest carbon emitters in Scotland. The national transport strategy and the record investment in active travel are charting an ambitious course towards the 20 per cent reduction in car kilometres. Throughout the inquiry, we also saw brilliant examples of how councils are shaping national policies to fit the communities that they serve, including the councils in Dundee and Stirling investing in on-street EV charging.

However, we too often see antiquated local transport strategies that no longer reflect what communities want or need, or that do not reflect our new priorities in the national transport strategy. There is a real opportunity for councils to change that through, for example, making use of the franchising powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and the newly launched community bus fund to transform local bus networks in ways that really start to serve local communities.

Of course, the climate emergency cannot be separated from the nature emergency. We have seen record investment through the nature restoration fund. I would like to highlight some investment that has been taking place in Fife. An additional £3.3 million of funding has been granted to nature restoration projects—from community co-design work for new active travel routes along the River Leven, which benefits active travel and biodiversity, to restoring urban meadows across the kingdom. We can invest in both the nature and climate emergencies together, working with communities.

The scale of the challenge in meeting the 2045 target will require a step change in the relationship between local government and private investors to deliver more co-financed decarbonisation projects. Throughout the inquiry, we have been inspired by Aberdeen City Council’s initiative to issue municipal bonds, as well as by a number of other initiatives.

There is much to read and reflect on in the report, which we do not really have enough time to do this afternoon. However, we will continue to come back to the report in the months to come. We must keep building on these achievements and commitments, and I really look forward to continuing that work as a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.


Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I thank the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for undertaking the comprehensive range of work that informed its excellent report on the role of local government and its cross-sectoral partners in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland.

The contributions to today’s debate have been helpful in analysing many of the key areas that the committee feels need to be addressed so that the Scottish Government supports greater empowerment of, and provides meaningful support for, councils, given that they will play a pivotal role in delivering net zero. That is, of course, against a backdrop of, as the committee puts it,

“unprecedented ... demands being made on ... resources and skill-sets against”

an extremely

“challenging financial backdrop.”

The committee’s recommendations focus on a wide range of issues and themes, but my contribution will focus on three areas: funding, private investment and planning.

First, we need to improve the way that local funding is configured so that larger, fewer and more flexible funding streams offer a more holistic and place-based response to climate change.

Secondly, there is the need for private investment at scale and the development of an investment strategy that will increase investor appetite and lead to deals being agreed. I note the call for an expanded role for the Scottish National Investment Bank. I am attracted to the proposal for it to

“act as an interface between local government and investors”

and, essentially, to support contemporary models of co-financing.

In its briefing that was submitted ahead of today’s debate, COSLA calls for the simplification of national funding for net zero programmes and more core funding for local government to help to deliver local and regional net zero projects and programmes.

As a north-east constituency MSP, I have spoken to a number of businesses that are ready and waiting to invest in renewables projects. In many cases, they would bring their vast experience in the oil and gas sector into the renewables sector, but the current funding arrangements—particularly the yearly funding distribution—are challenging for them and create potential disincentives. Therefore, I ask the Scottish Government to consider how funding can be better accessed through more effective co-funding models and to further explore the proposition that the Scottish National Investment Bank should act as a more effective interface between local government and investors.

Thirdly, I note the committee’s concern about the “churn, repetition and delay” in the planning process. That is having an impact on major renewables projects and other projects. The committee also highlights the urgent need to reverse the decline in the number of local authority planners.

The complex nature of planning law and the associated lengthy timescales are pressing issues, which are further compounded by the consenting timescales for new projects. Although consenting is a separate process and was not directly considered by the committee in its report, I nonetheless consider it to be important to acknowledge the unintended but significant challenges that both processes create for businesses. Indeed, I have raised the issue of consenting with the Scottish Government on behalf of businesses in the north-east that are eager to invest in projects but for which planning and consenting timescales are a major challenge, particularly in relation to offshore wind projects.

I note the comments that were made by COSLA and Scottish Renewables about the need to disentangle aspects of planning law so that we can increase our onshore wind capacity from 8GW to 20GW in order to meet our 2030 target.

I am aware that the committee raised the issue of staffing reductions in planning departments over the years with the Scottish Government in its letter on the draft NPF4. It commented that, unless the trend is reversed,

“there is a risk of NPF4 being more of a wish-list than a blueprint for truly transformational change that is urgently needed”.

In addressing that issue, I am drawn to the specific proposal that planning could be placed within the tertiary education landscape, as one of the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects.

In that regard, I highlight the work that Aberdeen City Council is undertaking to develop its senior phase curriculum and align it to the anticipated demand for the skills required by offshore energy production; to broaden the pathways that are available to young people to maximise the use of vocational courses and alternative routes into further and higher education; and, importantly, to develop digital and computing skills and a broader range of computer technology pathways. I commend the passion and commitment of Eleanor Sheppard, director of education at Aberdeen City Council, who has been pivotal in driving forward that work.

Members have highlighted many examples of the work that is under way in the north-east involving council-business partnerships. Some of those are in my constituency, including the energy-from-waste facility and the Aberdeen hydrogen hub. I hope that the report that we are debating today will offer an important opportunity to ensure that future work is secure, deliverable and successful.


Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the committee and the clerks for this excellent report. Its sentiment is summed up in the opening paragraph, which states:

“Scotland will not meet its ambitious target of being net zero by 2045 without a more empowered local government sector, with better access to the skills and capital it will need to play a full role in this energy revolution”.

The message that runs through the entire report is that local government is key to us all in meeting our ambition and targets when it comes to our environmental responsibility. However, to date, the devolved Government has abjectly failed in meeting those targets, and my colleagues Maurice Golden and Brian Whittle shine a light on those failures on a weekly basis. Targets have been missed, funding has been lost and local government has been excluded from the process on schemes such as the deposit return scheme.

Such schemes will have a detrimental effect on council budgets. In December last year, Falkirk Council announced that it will cease its kerbside glass collection, as it would cost £234,000 in lost revenue once the DRS starts. That has huge implications for people who cannot get to a deposit return location.

It is not just the DRS that is causing councils concern. The report highlights the concerns of rural communities, such as those in the north-east, and calls for the Scottish Government to set out what specific assistance will be available to councils that have a large component of rural housing and to our island communities, where there are additional challenges. Given the greater demands in relation to transport and car travel in rural communities, we need answers from the Government on how it will support local authorities to achieve the targets that have been set.

I am proud that, when I was the leader of Aberdeen City Council, we signed a partnership agreement with BP, which became a planning and technical adviser, helping to shape solutions for the city’s net zero path. Working in partnership, BP and Aberdeen City Council explored opportunities such as accelerating the adoption of electric and hydrogen-powered city vehicles, energy efficiency programmes for buildings and the circular economy. The task of the partnership is to connect the dots between experts in the council and those across BP to create the very best and most sustainable decarbonisation solutions for the city.

The partnership was strengthened when both organisations signed a joint venture agreement to develop the city’s hydrogen hub. That is exactly the type of agreement that we require if we are to succeed in meeting our targets. It involves private and public organisations working together, sharing knowledge and expertise and, of course, attracting investment. It is the attracting investment piece that is so vital.

We all know that council funding and resources are being stretched ever further, which will make it even more difficult for local authorities to play their part in becoming net zero. Capital spending for local authorities is an issue, and there is often a conflict between cost and becoming net zero, as Willie Rennie highlighted.

In the Borders, the new high school in Jedburgh is the first plastic-free school to have been built, with all its furniture and fittings coming from sustainable sources. However, that comes at a price, and it will be harder for local authorities to make the right choice. With inflationary costs on building, it is now almost impossible for local authorities to make the initial capital outlay required to ensure the highest environmental standards for new buildings.

Councils have many responsibilities that link in with the net zero agenda: transport, housing, economic planning and support, spatial planning and place making, the built environment, and waste management and recycling. Councils are vital, but, without giving additional support to local councils, the Scottish Government will not achieve its net zero targets. Councils are central to ensuring that the targets are met.

Twelve per cent of Scotland’s housing stock is in the hands of local authorities and the retrofitting of those buildings to meet the targets is a mammoth task. There is no way that our local authority partners can hope to achieve those ambitious targets without additional support from the Scottish Government.

I have already touched on waste and recycling, in relation to the deposit return scheme, which we know is one of the biggest responsibilities of our colleagues in local government. So many of our councils are now moving to longer and longer periods between refuse collections due to funding cuts. That cannot be good for our environmental ambitions, and we have seen an increase in fly-tipping right across Scotland—a topic that my colleague Murdo Fraser is seeking to address in his proposed member’s bill. More support has to be forthcoming for our councils to ensure that they—and therefore all of us—are meeting those important net zero targets.

We are all aware that resources—not only our financial resources, but the resources of our planet—are finite. We have to invest now to protect our future. Governments are good at planning for the short term but often fall short when it comes to planning for the long term—that came through strongly in COSLA’s evidence to the committee. We need to be much better at providing long-term funding solutions to our partners to enable them to take long-term policy decisions in relation to our environment. Councils need our support and a fair funding settlement that allows them to take the innovative and forward-thinking approach to net zero that we need. We need action rather than just warm words from this devolved Government, and I would encourage the cabinet secretary to accept the committee’s recommendations and move urgently to implement them.

We move to closing speeches.


Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

As colleagues across the chamber have said, the report is hugely welcome and it acknowledges local government as being at the heart of meeting our climate goals. It also sets out a series of warnings. I welcome the headline response, which has been quoted by a number of speakers, that councils need more help and that targets will not be met without a more empowered local government, with better access to skills and capital and a better understanding of its role.

Fundamentally, the report accepts that decisions by this Government, including relentless cuts to council budgets and a failure to tackle our wider skills shortages, are very real blockages to success. It emphasises that a partnership approach between local and national Government, which currently exists in name only, is vital for success.

The warnings that the report gives are absolutely nothing new, so it is telling that the Government has failed to respond to it.

When it comes to the decarbonisation of heat in our buildings, the committee acknowledged that local government is still awaiting clarity on its role in relation to private and business properties. That sentiment is felt right across supply chains, and the Existing Homes Alliance said that it needs to be addressed urgently. Householders, alongside builders and tradespeople, are crying out for certainty about what they should do and how and when they should invest, or assurances that they are installing the right technology, that that is not going to be overtaken by events and that Government will not come in and say, “No, you need to rip that out and install something else.”

That needs to be done properly, because decisions made by Government without adequate planning and support for local communities are contributing to failure right now.

I recently visited Stornoway and learned how badly wrong this Government’s approach can be. It is affecting vital work to tackle fuel poverty in that island community, having a huge knock-on effect on the skills and work pipeline and decimating investment in local communities that should be progressing towards net zero.

Many in the chamber will know that the rate of fuel poverty in the Western Isles was due to hit 80 per cent this winter, but it was the short-sighted actions of Government that contributed to the collapse of the area-based scheme on the islands. In March last year, the council’s delivery partner, Tighean Innse Gall, announced the closure of its insulation installation department, with the loss of 14 jobs. TIG cited an onslaught of changes to regulations brought in by the UK and the Scottish Governments, and said that the Scottish Government’s wholesale adoption of Westminster standards was the key reason for the failure of the scheme. TIG said that the lack of rural proofing in the PAS 2035 retrofit standards, and a failure by the Scottish Government to flex those standards to ensure that they work for Scottish housing stock—

Michael Matheson

The member is making particular allegations that the Scottish Government adopted wholesale the UK Government’s approach to that particular scheme. Is he aware that the Scottish Government made repeated representations to the UK Government, asking it to amend the scheme so that we could operate on a Scotland-specific basis that would have allowed us to take those aspects into account, but the UK Government rejected that? We therefore had no option other than to operate its scheme. Despite repeated attempts to resolve the issue, the UK Government refused to move on it.

Mark Griffin

I appreciate that the scheme was designed and devised in Westminster. However, I have received advice that the Government was under no obligation to simply replicate and use that scheme in Scotland. In fact, the experts who have been involved in installing insulation in the Western Isles for many years said that that was exactly the reason why they had to bring their services to an end, which absolutely devastated the capacity of that community to deliver for the islands.

Will the member give way?

Mark Griffin

I will take the member’s intervention in a moment, because this directly affects his constituency.

All that has meant that there has not been a single installation of insulation in the member’s constituency since July 2021, which has seriously undermined the local supply chain.

Alasdair Allan

I partly agree with the member. He refers to the lack of insulation being carried out under the area-based scheme. Does he acknowledge that the council, which did not run the previous scheme, and the national Government are now working together to try to recreate the scheme? I have said many times that this is a bad situation, and one that has been created by UK Government regulations. However, everyone must now work together to recreate a scheme that will work in the Western Isles.

Mark Griffin

I absolutely accept that, but the contention by the experts that I visited in the member’s constituency is that the Scottish Government did not have to replicate that scheme in Scotland. It could have adapted the scheme to respond to the environmental situation here.

Those experts have also said that there has been an absolute failure by Government to provide adequate training so that their staff will know what the new scheme will look like. When I have asked questions of ministers, they have simply passed the buck to colleges and have said that it is for further education institutions to set up training schemes. They have not taken responsibility for supporting organisations in the member’s constituency which, as I said, have not been able to deliver a single insulation installation since July 2021. That is absolutely shocking. It has choked off work for local suppliers, which is something that should be urgently addressed.

To return to my original point, the report emphasises that local government must be a key partner. When making its recent budget bid, COSLA said that it would need £1 billion just to stand still and maintain current services. It emphasised how vital councils are in the preventative work that keeps people away from a strained NHS and continues investment in local communities. The journey to net zero will be even harder when budgets are cut and the consequences of not reaching those targets leave us in a worrying position.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. Like other members, I express my gratitude to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee for its report, which is comprehensive and really balanced—that cannot always be said of committee reports—and for giving us the opportunity to discuss such an important topic as delivering a net zero Scotland. It has been a significant debate because it has given this Parliament an opportunity to review how the Scottish Government is doing against its net zero targets, which will have to be met if we are to do our bit to keep 1.5°C alive.

What we have heard in evidence from the committee today and in the recently published review from the Climate Change Committee is that the Scottish Government is big on targets but not big on the required planning and route map to achieve those targets. The opening paragraph of the NZET Committee’s report says it all:

“Scotland will not meet its ambitious target of being net zero by 2045 without a more empowered local government sector, with better access to the skills and capital it will need to play a full role in this energy revolution, and a clearer understanding of the specific role the Scottish Government wants it to play in some key delivery areas.”

That is backed up by the Climate Change Committee’s recent report, which says:

“There are still important gaps at a local authority level, which might cause detrimental delays in rolling out the sufficient policy across the nation. A lack of coordination from the Scottish Government, as well as barriers to properly implementing climate policy that are ingrained in the policy cycle, have left local authorities to their own devices to do the best they can. The resulting risk is Net Zero policy being rolled out at different speeds depending on the local area.”

It goes on to say that

“the combination of an absence of a direction from the Scottish Government and a dearth of strategic design and financial support on a local level means that, when there is action, it is often uncoordinated across geographic and policy areas.”

Local authorities are taking the initiative to drive action where possible, but that should be accompanied by strong direction from the national Government, along with the necessary powers at a local level.

I will turn to contributions from members. Liam Kerr highlighted the lack of direction from the Scottish Government—its setting of major deadlines and targets but with an unacceptably slow delivery of guidance and supports to achieve those targets. He talked about the lack of resource and the cuts to date. Colin Smyth also talked about the cuts to councils, with no insight into the provision of resources in the longer term.

It is not often that I am disappointed by Willie Rennie, but, when I asked him a question about the need for a strategy that is longer term than a parliamentary session, he said that he did not think that this Parliament would be able to achieve that. We must change that, because that needs to happen.

Willie Rennie

I did not mean to disappoint Mr Whittle. I was just trying to be realistic about what politics is like. I would love the approach to be longer term—I strive for longer term—but we must understand that we have quite a short cycle.

Brian Whittle

I agree that we have a short cycle, but, if we are to hit our net zero targets, which we must do, this Parliament will have to work in a different way, and we will have to start looking to the longer term.

The lack of skills planning was highlighted by Liam Kerr and Alexander Stewart. We need suitably qualified staff to carry out everything from home retrofit to the development of energy-efficient strategies. There is already a shortage of staff in key areas such as planning, which is leading to delays in applications for wind farms and other renewables projects that are key to net zero. Alexander Stewart highlighted the skills shortage that is now being cited by Homes for Scotland and Scottish Renewables as a major threat to meeting the 2030 and 2045 targets.

I agree with my colleague Jackie Dunbar—I am glad that she is sitting down, because that does not happen all that often—that the green economy has to be woven into our education system for children at the earliest age, to ensure that we have a workforce that can deliver net zero. There is no evidence of that having even been thought of by the Scottish Government, let alone planned for.

Douglas Lumsden used his extensive knowledge of local government to talk about the impact that Scottish Government policies have already had on councils. For example, the deposit return scheme, which is continually being raised in the chamber, has led to Falkirk Council abandoning kerbside glass collection. He highlighted the particular challenges faced by councils with a substantial rural area, where the wider geographical spread of housing and more limited infrastructure can create additional challenges and costs.

According to the Climate Change Committee,

“Scotland has failed to achieve seven out of eleven of its targets to date. The trend of failure will continue without urgent and strong action to deliver emissions reductions”.

That has to start now. The CCC goes on to say:

“The Scottish Government urgently needs to provide a quantified plan for how its polices will combine to achieve the emissions reduction required to meet the challenging 2030 target. The plan must detail how each of Scotland’s ambitious milestones will be achieved.”

That is the crux of the matter. I am totally supportive of targets and stretch targets, and ambition should be applauded and supported. However, without a route map, and without working back from the targets to produce a plan starting from now, those targets are worthless.

We know why we have to hit the targets, but the Scottish Government now must produce the how. As the NZET Committee’s report details, councils will be among the main deliverers of our net zero policy, but they are working in a Scottish Government fog of uncertainty. We need our councils to be driving the net zero agenda.

The Scottish Government needs more than targets and high-level objectives; it needs to ensure that there is adequate funding for these policies. Time is running increasingly short, and it is time for the Scottish Government to get serious on its targets.


Michael Matheson

I have listened with interest to contributions from members on all sides of the chamber to this debate on what is, as I said in my opening remarks, a helpful and timely report. The report highlights a number of key actions and measures that need to be taken forward to support our colleagues in local government to tackle climate change. In particular, it recognises—as some members, particularly Fiona Hyslop in her intervention during my own contribution, have recognised today—the importance of empowering local authorities and taking a place-based approach to finding the solutions that are right for individual communities.

I challenge some of the contributors to the debate on the idea that the Scottish Government simply needs to do X, Y and Z in order to magically improve things for local authorities in tackling these issues and ensure a consistent approach across the country. In fact, that would be the wrong thing to do. We need to empower local authorities to make decisions that are right for their communities, and to empower communities within local authority areas to be able to influence that process collectively together.

Will the member give way?

Michael Matheson

I will make some progress first and then give way to Mr Whittle.

I want to ensure that we empower communities and allow them to make decisions that are right for their needs regarding how they meet the challenges that go with tackling climate change.

A couple of key themes have come up during the debate. Issues around resources and aspects of planning were raised by Colin Smyth, Willie Rennie, Alexander Stewart, Audrey Nicoll, Monica Lennon and a number of others. Members will recognise the significant progress that is now being made through NPF4 to ensure that climate and nature are front and centre in our planning and decision-making process. Those in our renewable energy sector and in many of the areas that are committed to tackling the nature crisis that we are facing have warmly welcomed the way in which NPF4 fundamentally turns the dial towards tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.

That is why, in putting that in place, we have given a commitment to take forward work, as we are currently doing, with Heads of Planning Scotland, the RTPI and the planning schools on implementation of the “Future Planners Project Report”, which includes the provision of an apprenticeship scheme to address that specific issue. That is not just about supporting the ability to tackle local planning issues but about some of the big strategic infrastructure investments that will be necessary in order to unlock our renewables potential. Consideration of significant planning aspects will be required alongside that.

Colin Smyth

Does the cabinet secretary accept that, since 2009, there has been a reduction of 38 per cent in budgets for planning departments and of a quarter of planning department staff? The big fear is that if, for example, we cannot get it right for onshore wind projects—I gave the example of those that have been delayed in Dumfries and Galloway—we could have an even bigger challenge when it comes to the scale of offshore wind projects, because we do not have the staff—

Michael Matheson

I recognise that challenge. It is important that we also make sure that local authorities provide the resources that are necessary to meet those needs. I was interested in the stats that were published today. Just last year, the headcount of local authority employees increased—even in the present financial environment. We need to make sure that the necessary resources are going from local authorities to the areas that are a priority for them as well. Clearly, planning is one of those. I have mentioned the work that we are undertaking on that.

There is also work on a national level between Heads of Planning, the energy sector and the Scottish Government on how we can ensure the efficiency of the planning process when big strategic planning aspects for infrastructure investments come forward.

A number of members have raised issues to do with heat in buildings, which is key. I take issue with Mark Griffin about the Western Isles. The area-based scheme is a UK Government scheme. Repeatedly, for more than a year, we asked it to allow us to bring forward regulations that would adapt the scheme specifically to address Scotland’s needs. I was involved in some of that correspondence. Despite repeated attempts to achieve that, we were unable to get it, and the UK Government left things right to the very last minute, which left us with no space or option to do anything other than to adopt its scheme.

The consequence of the UK Government’s intransigence was felt in the Western Isles. That failure to respond to us for what felt like almost a year led to the crisis in the Western Isles. That is why we are working with the local authority to recover that situation. To suggest that we did not really bother ourselves to deal with that issue effectively is simply wrong. The correspondence and the repeated attempts to do so will demonstrate that.

Willie Rennie raised an important issue on heat in buildings, in highlighting the type of challenge that can be experienced at local authority level. That feeds into an issue that I want to come back to: skills. For example, Willie Rennie mentioned his experience in Cupar in Fife over the possibility of developing a district heating system—a heat network that could have been alongside a new development—and said that, to some degree, the local authority had been indifferent. I do not know what year that was, but we now have in place district heating legislation, which creates the legislative framework to give clarity to that.

In addition, through the LHEES programme, local authorities need to have strategic heat decarbonisation plans in place by 31 December this year. That is a five-year programme to address the issue that Alexander Stewart raised: skills. It gives a clear pathway so that the industry knows where the work is coming from, so that it can invest in skills and knows where the opportunities will be. That will address the type of unacceptable issue that Willie Rennie raised.

To add to that, we are taking forward specific work with the Scottish Futures Trust in order to prevent such circumstances, because we believe that heat networks will play an important part in the decarbonisation of domestic premises. We want to avoid reinventing the wheel 32 times and have a framework approach in which local authorities can turn directly to the Scottish Futures Trust for some expertise and support in rolling forward programmes on areas such as district heating systems and heat networks. Again, that will help to support them.

Edward Mountain rose—

I am not sure how much time I have.

A brief intervention and a brief response would probably be in order.

I will give way.

I am grateful. I realise that the cabinet secretary is coming to the end of his speech. My question is a very simple one. Will he give the committee some indication as to when he will respond to the report?

Michael Matheson

I hope to be able to respond in the next couple of weeks, once we have finalised our approach. The reason why that has taken longer than I would have wanted is that we are taking a cross-Government approach to it, because of its wide-ranging nature, which has meant that we have had to draw on information and responses from a range of different directorates. That is the principal reason for that, and I can assure the member that we will provide a full response to the committee’s report, as I would always seek to do, given the nature of the important work that the committee undertakes.

I recognise the challenge in the report and in other reports from the CCC around the work and the actions that the Scottish Government must take forward in tackling climate change. I also recognise the role that local authorities and communities have to play in supporting that.

We collectively—almost unanimously—supported our climate change targets of 75 per cent net zero by 2030 and net zero by 2045, but we also have a responsibility to have a mature and considered debate on how we go about making that transition. It is very easy just to say that the Government should do X, Y and Z whenever it thinks that it should; it is much more difficult to put policy into action.

I hear colleagues across the chamber saying that we need to give more powers to local authorities and assistance for it to be able to do these things, but when we gave them the simple power to introduce a workplace parking charge, we got opposition from a range of parties in the chamber, which said that local authorities should not have that power—that they should not be empowered to make that decision, if it is the right thing for them to do in tackling climate change in their area.

In welcoming and acknowledging the importance of this report and its well-considered recommendations, everyone in the chamber also needs to recognise that we must take collective action and show collective responsibility and that difficult decisions will have to be made in meeting our climate change targets. That requires a maturity of debate and a recognition that we all have to play our part in achieving that target when it counts, rather than simply descending into political opposition. I believe that, if we can get that level of maturity, we can support our colleagues in local government and our local communities, and we can achieve our net zero targets by 2030 and 2045.

I call Fiona Hyslop to wind up the debate on behalf of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. You have up to nine minutes, Ms Hyslop.


Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Climate change and our collective role of delivering net zero and elimination of carbon emissions is a global imperative, but to deliver that we need action at every level of government. This has been a good debate. It has raised so many issues and has challenged us, but it has also given us some hope and confidence.

I, too, thank all those who sent in submissions and gave evidence—from financiers such as the Association of British Insurers to community groups; from city councils to environmental groups; and from planners to transport and housing private companies.

I also thank our clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre, who provided excellent assistance to steer us through almost a year of evidence and inquiry. Despite joining our committee at the end of the inquiry, our convener Edward Mountain steered us well to its conclusion.

The power of the report is its breadth of approach but compact output, and the brief and sharp focus of the recommendations to help government. Targets matter, but it is delivery that will make the difference. The Climate Change Committee’s last report was crystal clear about the Scotland’s need for a step change in setting out delivery plans, as Mark Ruskell emphasised.

It is worth repeating the top line of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report, which states:

“Scotland will not meet its ambitious target of being net zero by 2045 without a more empowered local government sector, with better access to the skills and capital it will need to play a full role in this energy revolution, and a clearer understanding of the specific role the Scottish Government wants it to play in some key delivery areas.”

Some lazy thinking and reporting and, indeed, the initial response from the Government and from some members in the debate, assumed that “access to ... capital” meant that it all had to be public capital, which is far off the mark. We make it clear in the report that access to private capital will be key, but the financial skills—product development for market investment—are far from mature, and we need co-ordination and the sharing of financial skill sets in order to access the billions of pounds of institutional finance that is available.

Would the summary be that it is, going forward, the Government’s responsibility to set the targets, the framework and a strategy that will give confidence for that investment to be made towards net zero targets?

Fiona Hyslop

That is the very point of the recommendation that there should be a road map, which, I think, we are all agreed on.

The response from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was that our report is a watershed moment in terms of understanding and appreciating local government’s role and potential in delivering net zero. There is no shortage of willingness or of good examples of best practice in, drive for and understanding of what needs to be done, as I saw when I visited Stirling, but they are far from comprehensive all over Scotland. To get where we need to be, we need examples of the best being delivered at scale all over Scotland.

Councils are major employers and have significant ownership of buildings and land. As such, like any other public or voluntary organisation, they need to act in-house and to realise net zero with their own assets, but that cannot and must not be the limit of their role. As Colin Smyth set out, councils are uniquely placed to lead, co-ordinate and deliver all the different players and services in their geographical locality in a deep and comprehensive way. They have unique convening power, so we strongly advise the Government that that needs to be harnessed and co-ordinated, with co-production, in a way that the Government has just not done, to date.

We also call on the Scottish Government to ensure that all councils set area-based targets, rather than targets only for their own direct emissions. Only 53 per cent of councils currently do that.

Yes—local government is independent, but councils themselves are strongly of the view that the Scottish Government should take on a far bigger role in a team Scotland delivery model. We need to shift from piecemeal projects to a strategic delivery model, with changes in incentives and style, and a timeframe for funding and decision making to make that happen. Paul McLennan spoke well on that in relation to heat in buildings and what that will mean for our proposed new deal for local government. Audrey Nicoll spoke of the style and form of funding and co-financing.

Our main recommendations are as follows. We would like the Scottish Government to provide

“a comprehensive roadmap for delivery of net zero in key areas; one that also gives Councils far more certainty than they have at present about the roles they are to play”.

We recommend that the Scottish Government set up

“a local government-facing ‘climate change intelligence unit’”

to provide specialist help. I am pleased that Michael Matheson has accepted that.

We would like

“a system of larger, fewer and more flexible funding streams for net zero-related projects”.

Such funding streams would be larger in form but perhaps more strategic, to help with the place-based response.

We also ask the Scottish Government to address the “churn, repetition and delay” in the planning process that are holding up major renewables and other projects that would help to meet net zero goals, and which we say has a “chilling effect” on investment. I agree with the cabinet secretary that NPF4 will make a big change in that direction.

We also recommend in the report that

“The long-term decline in numbers of Council-employed planners must be reversed in order to meet the ambitions of the new National Planning Framework”,

and we would like the Scottish Government

“to clarify the role Councils will play in an area-based approach to heat decarbonisation and to set out the additional support they will be offered in preparation and delivery of their Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies.”

There are plenty of other recommendations, but, if the Scottish Government is to deliver only those ones, that would make a big difference to how, and therefore when, we deliver net zero.

I want to respond on a few areas that have been mentioned by members. On finance, the green finance task force needs to provide practical and deliverable assistance.

On skills, people are at a premium, and we face the perverse situation in which private businesses need council planners to deliver approvals at a pace that will make a difference, yet councils often lose planners to better-paying private practice. The 38 per cent reduction in town planning budgets since 2010 is of concern. It was mentioned by Alexander Stewart, and Monica Lennon brought to bear her professional expertise on that. The Government and SDS need to accept the RTPI’s detailed case for a chartered town planner apprenticeship scheme.

Advice is available from the Improvement Service, the Scottish Futures Trust and the Scottish National Investment Bank, but they can do more. It is not just about advice: it is also about secondment of experienced staff to deliver the projects that are needed.

Liam Kerr talked about the need for plans and certainty, so that private businesses have confidence to deliver private skills investment.

Regional transport partnerships need to do more across council boundaries for public transport—in particular, buses—for commuters, as was raised by Natalie Don.

On community, I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement today of £4.3 million for 20 new climate change hubs for community-led work.

On housing, Willie Rennie set out the very real choice of up-front costs for energy-efficient houses versus volume of new housing, and he asked who bears the risk. He said that “change is hard”, and he is right.

Monica Lennon spoke about aligning procurement and net zero, and Douglas Lumsden addressed procurement and the real choices and dilemmas that are faced by councils. On recycling and waste, Jackie Dunbar referenced the council-led Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire energy-from-waste plant.

We MSPs are sent to Parliament to serve our constituents and our country. I add that we are also here to serve our planet and the people of this nation and others so that we have a sustainable future.

The window on the world that we know is closing, and a world that we do not fully know or understand—one of constant adverse weather, flooding, rising sea levels on our and other shores, and millions of climate migrants escaping from drought—is coming fast. That world is not abstract but is of now, so the imperative for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and for carbon reduction is also of now. Delivery needs to be now and we need to mobilise all our talents across the land to do it.

As Willie Rennie said, “change is hard”. It demands that we work together. In that spirit, I commend the report and the debate to the Parliament. If, as is the challenge for members across the chamber, we work not only for the next four years or the four years after that but for the long term, although the challenge might be hard, the Parliament can rise to it and work with its partners in local government to deliver.

That concludes the debate on the role of local government and its cross-sectoral partners in financing and delivering a net zero Scotland.