Local Authority Challenges: Implementing Digital Transformation for the UK Digital, Data, and Net Zero Strategies

The UK government has defined its Plan for Britain. This plan is to be delivered using powers devolved to local authorities to build a stronger, fairer country that works for everyone.

The Plan for Britain aims to build an economy that works for everyone and ensures that wealth and opportunity are spread across the country. The plan also aims to make the UK a globally recognised nation, generate long-term success and provide future generations with a better life than their parents and grandparents. In this article, we will highlight three primary government strategies driving technological innovation within Local Authorities across the United Kingdom. We also show some examples of digital transformation in action.

London Houses of Parliament

UK Digital Strategy

The UK digital strategy is the overarching programme of digital change set out by the government. It has seven goals:


  • Building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK – Connectivity drives productivity and innovation and is the physical underpinning of a digital nation.
  • Giving everyone access to the digital skills they need – ensuring that everyone has the skills they need to flourish, with nobody left behind.
  • Making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business – building a great, global trading nation and remaining a world leader in innovation
  • Helping every British business become a digital business – help all businesses become as productive and competitive as possible.
  • Making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online – securing our technology, data and networks from the many threats they face and keeping businesses, citizens and public services protected.
  • Maintaining the UK government as a world leader in serving its citizens online – delivering services in healthcare, education and culture with digital tools and technologies that improve essential public services.
  • Unlocking the power of data in the UK economy and improving public confidence in its use – creating the conditions for sustainable growth where data fuels economic and social opportunities and people can trust that their data is being used appropriately. The National Data Strategy (NDS) is an ambitious growth strategy that drives the UK to build a world-leading data economy while ensuring public trust in data use.
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These goals are to be applied by local authorities across the length and breadth of the UK, ensuring that no region is left behind. 

To support this strategy, the government proposed an Open Door challenge to industry to come to the government with proposals to transform their sectors through Sector Deals. Local authorities are encouraged to work collaboratively with digital industries to enable growth and deliver solutions to wide-ranging problems.

Edinburgh landscape looking down on the city with blue sky

Edinburgh City Council are a great example of using data insights for digital transformation decision-making. Edinburgh City Council has used scientific modelling of air quality and traffic data and found that a city centre low emission zone (LEZ) would reduce harmful emissions. Edinburgh City Council analysed data from their SMART Air Quality Monitoring Network, using it to inform their decisions. Then taking action to protect public health from harmful transport emissions by implementing a Low Emissions Zone (LEZ). The LEZ will be enforced in 2024, and air quality will continue to be monitored using the SMART network.

Edinburgh air quality monitoring map

Using data insights for developing clean air solutions is just one of the ways local authorities are driving change with data. The UK Digitial Strategy throws down a gauntlet to all local authorities across the UK, challenging them to deliver the digital transformation of services they provide to their communities. 

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2050: The UK’s net zero target

In addition to the Digital Strategy, the UK government has committed to extremely challenging but legally binding carbon emissions targets that require public sector organisations to find solutions to deliver them.

Camden lock bridge in the summer with people looking over the water

The UK was the first major economy to create a legally binding target to bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This target was set considering the latest scientific evidence and was recommended by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK’s independent climate advisory body. The net zero target also responds to the overwhelming public support for acting on climate change. In recent government surveys of the UK public, 80% of participants expressed concern about climate change, and following the rapid global air and sea temperature rises in 2023, this is almost certainly higher today.

The government is committed to ambitious decarbonisation measures across society while acknowledging that some sectors, such as agriculture and aviation, are hard to decarbonise completely. Promoting greenhouse gas removal (GGR) methods, like trees and carbon capture and storage technology, have been identified as essential to compensate for the residual emissions arising from industry to reach net zero by 2050.

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Achieving the net zero target aims to end the UK’s domestic contribution to climate change and lead the world to a greener, more sustainable future. To be able to hit these targets, local authorities and public sector bodies are tasked with delivering emissions reductions across their localities and infrastructure.

Carbon emission reductions must be achieved by making efficiencies and switching to greener solutions for

  • Power generation
  • Fuel supply
  • Industry
  • Heat & Buildings
  • Transport
  • Waste
  • Procurement

Many councils have already implemented requirements that support net zero goals. For example, the London Borough of Camden’s energy plan requires all development in Camden to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by following their Local Plan. Building developers must prioritise passive design measures so that buildings use renewable energy, use less energy, and are supplied energy efficiently. 

Coventry cathedral from the ground looking up at the steeple with tudor house in the foreground

Another example is Coventry City Council’s parking plan that supports an uptake in low-emission and electric vehicles. New developments in Coventry will be expected to include electric car charging infrastructure. 

Supporting this transition, local authorities must 

  • Procure innovative technology for net zero 
  • Support green investment
  • Support the growth of green jobs, skills, and industries
  • Embed net zero in all of their operations and strategies
  • Empower local climate action
  • Empower the public and businesses to make green choices

In 2023, global heat increases have brought the need for heat reduction firmly into focus. Equally, intense rainfall requires innovations in drainage. Urban planners will need to source innovative solutions to manage increasing summer ground temperatures, for example, using Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) that have multiple benefits. SUDS provide better drainage to reduce flash flooding, reduce the ground temperature significantly in urban areas, and provide greener community environments when used in car parks and pavements.

Permeable car park paving - concrete latice with grass growing through with vehicles parked on top

Local authorities, healthcare and universities are all implementing innovative green solutions driven by data. The NHS and Universities like the University of Greenwich have used digital twin modelling to identify energy and activity usage in their buildings. This has enabled them to close less-used buildings by converting existing facilities for multiple uses. 

Plymouth City Council planning worked with Plymouth University to introduce an evidence-based heat reduction solution by including Living Walls in their new buildings.

Living Wall Plymouth University

Levelling Up the United Kingdom

On top of the above-mentioned challenges, local authorities must deliver further high-priority government strategies.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government has made progress towards spreading opportunities around the country by creating the Levelling Up Strategy.

Levelling Up strategy requires local authorities and public sector bodies to find ways to:

  • Boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in places that are lagging behind.
  • Spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in the weakest localities.
  • Restore the sense of community, local pride and belonging.
  • Empower local communities.

In the past, local leaders have lacked the powers to design and deliver effective policies for tackling these problems and supporting local people. In recent years there has been a focus towards greater local empowerment putting power in local hands, for example, with the introduction of the Localism Act, Police and Crime Commissioners, City Deals and democratically elected Metro Mayors.

Liverpool waterfront and modern and old buildings

With Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities now able to exercise the powers devolved from government, they have a stronger voice and more opportunity to implement transformative change. The Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region is taking full advantage of devolved power. Mayor Steve Rotheram is bringing together Liverpool City Region’s six local authorities – Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral – to tackle the big issues that matter to them all, stating that they are “creating a region that is ambitious, fair, green, connected and together”.

Supporting Businesses

Local authorities are tasked with enabling and empowering businesses to increase investment, jobs and growth in their localities.

Open shop sign

Progressive councils like Plymouth and West Devon are coordinating public sector investment as a catalyst for transformational change. Their Plymouth City Improvement Plan includes new infrastructure that benefits businesses, such as high-quality public car parks in strategic locations. It aims to support independent traders, niche retail and food shopping to serve their residential communities and provides for business, cultural, community and creative business uses. 

Plymouth Hoe gardens and lighthouse

Improving Health and Education

The government recognises that improving productivity and spreading prosperity depends on enhancing education and skills. Therefore, councils must find solutions to give everyone access to good schools and excellent education and training. Equally, councils must promote good health, which spreads opportunity and contributes to the local economy. 

Newcastle City Council is one of the leading lights in implementing school streets zones, working with Sustrans to implement schemes in areas across the city in consultation with schools and the wider community. Their schemes support Levelling Up by creating a safer and healthier environment for Newcastle’s children.

Newcastle city at sunset with golden sunlight

The London Borough of Islington’s education plan includes their use of data to target support to children and young people who are not progressing in school. The plan aims to ensure that every child in Islington, including the most disadvantaged, will have the same opportunities to reach their educational potential. 

Islington canal boats in the sun - buildings and boats reflected in the calm water

The Levelling Up strategy goals aim to ensure that everyone, wherever they live, can enjoy fulfilling, happy and productive lives. The government strategy challenges councils to find solutions that deliver effective public services, support positive health and educational outcomes, and attract new talent and investment that boost their local economy.

Another example of progressive thinking is the City of York Active Travel Programme. This enables collaboration between community groups and the council to shape the future of active travel in York. Programmes like this are producing positive behavioural changes resulting in healthier travel choices and safer school streets. 

Bicycles parked outside York city gate

Innovative local authorities like these are looking ahead to a future of safer, cleaner, and smarter cities through their successful digital transformation programmes. 

Digital Transformation Next Steps

Digital transformation is of paramount importance for local authorities in the United Kingdom due to the expectation and requirements of central government. The digital landscape moves quickly, and so must local authorities. 

The government is working with the devolved administrations across the UK to champion digital success. Local authorities are working together with technology innovators to ensure that the benefits of data insights and digital transformation are felt across the country, whether by using data insights from monitoring traffic flow, school pupil attendance, building access usage, or SMART hardware systems.

The characteristics of the net zero challenge will require collaborative action by local authorities and private sector service providers, delivering at pace and managing the extreme uncertainties. Local authorities must procure solutions that support the net zero targets, whether sourcing greener power or removing onsite computer hardware by procuring cloud technology

The Levelling Up strategy is intended to extend opportunity across the UK, relieving pressurised public services and improving education, well-being and productivity. Local authorities must find solutions that deliver equity, whether that is safer streets, cleaner communities, or ensuring every child gets a high-quality education.

These significant challenges faced by local authorities in digital transformation emphasise the importance of perseverance and collaboration between local authorities and technology partners to make data-driven decisions, combine and integrate systems, and deliver more with less.

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