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Devolution is critical for securing a just transition to net zero for workers


3 min read

In The Net Zero Growth Plan, the government states that “our transition to a green and sustainable future will provide new opportunities to grow and level up the United Kingdom’s economy” and will support up to 480,000 “green, high skilled jobs” by 2030.

That certainly looks good on paper, and it’s true that there will be new job opportunities connected to net zero (think of retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient, or installing electric vehicle charge points).

We don’t want to see a repeat of the deindustrialisation that devastated communities in the 1980s and 1990s

But from a policy making perspective, there is a risk that the realities of what the net zero transition means for employment in local areas are not fully taken into account. We don’t want to see a repeat of the deindustrialisation that devastated communities in the 1980s and 1990s.

Our new research, Net Zero to Level Up, based on 12 months speaking to local stakeholders in the Black Country, illustrates the scale of the challenge. In the absence of action, 20 per cent of the local manufacturing workforce – 12,000 jobs – could be long-term unemployed by 2032.

It’s a microcosm of the industrial shift across the country, one which brings new opportunities in net zero industries, but also risks weakening some local economies which rely on industrial jobs. But this isn’t the inevitable future of the Black Country, nor other industrial regions like it.

Our research shows that a place-based approach to net zero policy making, one made possible by devolution, is the path to take. In our report we outline how the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Black Country local authorities can use the new powers in the trailblazer devolution deal announced at the Budget to preserve existing jobs in manufacturing, and generate up to 20,000 new net zero jobs by 2032.

In our view, devolution is vital to achieving a just transition for the workforce. But devolution by itself is not enough. Combined Authorities and local authorities need to use devolved powers effectively to address specific local challenges, alongside directly involving local communities and citizens in policy design and implementation to secure a just transition which utilises local people’s perspectives, experiences and skills.

Taking the Black Country as a case study, there are specific factors in the local economy which require a local response. While about 14 per cent of jobs are in manufacturing, the industry in the local area is dominated by small businesses, with few large manufacturing companies or factories. It’s therefore vital that local authorities and agencies improve business support specifically for manufacturing SMEs.

On the other hand, the Black Country is a relatively deprived area, with higher than average unemployment and below average skills qualifications. New net zero jobs could benefit local residents. But this is not guaranteed: a high degree of uncertainty about when new jobs will be created is a serious problem, and there is a need to develop clear pathways so that local residents can access the required skills training and secure new net zero jobs.

Each area of the UK will see their own versions of these challenges, requiring unique, local responses. This underscores just how crucial it’s going to be to take a place-based approach to net zero policy making. That means devolution is essential for securing a just transition – as is the effective exercise of devolved powers to overcome local challenges.

With new powers in the trailblazer devolution deal, the Black Country and wider West Midlands can provide the rest of the country with a blueprint for how devolution can be used to deliver a nation-wide just transition.


Andrew Phillips, senior researcher at Demos. 

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