Cutting carbon, delivering local green technology-based economic growth, creating jobs and regeneration, joining-up public services’ budgets and objectives, forging new partnerships. These are all desirable and all decent, clear objectives for the environment portfolio.
But to achieve them all, requires serious partnership working and the progressive, flexible and placeshaping route that local government must, I believe, follow. We need to make Localism work for us, face up to slashed funding, and tackle many wide-ranging challenges in our communities, of which economic growth and climate change are but two. As we digest The Committee on Climate Change’s new report out today, the role of local authorities in cutting carbon emissions is vital.
The reference in the title to ‘I want it all’ came from a recent speech to an Association for Public Service Excellence Conference – ‘Energy Efficiency vs Renewables’ – and developing a political vision for this. I unusually quoted a Queen song (not my taste in music either): “I guess my initial response to the question of energy efficiencies versus renewables would be, in the words of Freddie Mercury, I want it all, and I want it now.”
To return to joining-up, I think it is vital to place these specific aims in the context of broader, and more general, policy. We must continue to strive for energy efficiencies in our operations as local authorities. And we must do all we can to influence and directly impact on carbon reduction throughout the communities we serve.
But time is running out. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that existing global infrastructure is already producing 80% of the total amount of carbon emissions that would lead to serious warming. Its chief economist said “The door is closing. I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum for safety.”
It is vital that we proactively increase our own use of renewable energy. We must also take a community leadership role in driving growth of renewable energy use by residents, businesses and other public services.
One theme which I believe must underpin any political vision, is that we cannot develop policy in isolation. We must look at the wider challenges for our communities, from regeneration and economic development to poor public health, from tackling unemployment to improving educational attainment. There is a temptation to develop one-off responses to each challenge we face. But we must not lose sight of the overall goals of improving life for all our residents.
In developing a vision for energy efficiency and renewables, it must form part of an overarching green vision. And we need to ensure it contributes positively and effectively in achieving the overall vision for our towns, villages, boroughs, counties or cities.
So what are the key challenges to developing a political vision for energy efficiency and renewables?
I think we need to to develop policies which:
- reflect local government’s placeshaping role
- which are progressive so local authorities work alongside our communities, and lead them when needed
- which drive and don’t just respond to the market
- which join-up with partners beyond the traditional boundaries, whether geographical or sectoral
- and policies which deliver environmental change and wider outcomes
In placemaking our vision must reflect where we are and where we want to be as a borough. In recent years, you could pick up a council plan or sustainable community strategy and read something along the lines of ”we will strive to create a green and environmentally-friendly place with a growing 21st Century economy, where people want to live, work and play”. And you would not know which part of the country you were in. We have all seen these generic, one-size-fits-all corporate and community ambitions. In the same vein, we can no longer just base our environmental performance on meeting national indicators, broad carbon reduction targets, and chasing the reducing and very specific funding strands that emerge from central government.
I think we must raise our sights in local government.
We must work together as members and officers to develop our own progressive vision and policies which reflect our communities, and will transform where we live. This means engaging every part of our communities to develop plans that are specific and place-focussed. And that will help us better engage residents with the scale of our ambitions.
In place leadership, we have a vision in Stockton to develop a world class renewables and green technology sector. This must also help drive economic regeneration. It can deliver jobs and support development of new skills for future generations of our young people, as well as delivering the carbon reductions we vitally need.
We appreciate that we are working in the context of one of the most industrialised petro-chemical industry landscapes in Europe. But our vision must be to develop a truly green and sustainable environment alongside our economic aims.
I believe we need to drive the market, create opportunities for growth in renewables, and at the same time join up our thinking to bring wider benefits to residents.
Councils have achieved huge reductions in their own carbon emissions. This includes more energy efficient buildings, modernising and slashing our transport use, and many wide-ranging energy saving programmes. And we need to continue this work.
We also continue to have a wider role in driving carbon reduction across our communities. Again, it is about joining forces, not acting in isolation. On a small scale, for example, we have rapidly increased the infrastructure for electric vehicles in Stockton, working in partnership to install a growing network of charging points.
This on its own is not enough. We are bringing dealerships, fleet managers and other stakeholders together, asking them what more can we do to stimulate the market? Only by aligning our objectives with new partners and stakeholders can we make an impact. We need to be on the same side to drive change.
On a bigger scale, there is a huge potential prize in harnessing renewables and doing so in a way that could even influence a step change in the energy market and simultaneously drives our economic growth. We must bring our powers to bear on not just using renewables but how we can shape the market.
Councils must extend their vision for what they can achieve, and where. The volume of energy we purchase allows us to broker huge deals, stimulate the market and actively choose renewable energy sources. Based on today’s energy prices, the five Tees Valley councils alone will require an estimated £450 million worth of energy over 25 years to run their core facilities and services. This gives us real purchasing power.
But why do we need to stop there? We need to look outside our statutory, local, sub-regional and regional arrangements. Are we doing all we can to forge new partnerships to purchase power, and to encourage investment from renewable suppliers? Should we be negotiating for example in partnership with the NHS and prisons, both 24-7 operations? With other authorities across the country? And what about the private sector? And even on behalf of residents?
The somewhat haphazard nature of the UK’s waste and energy infrastructure offers an opportunity. And there is growing pressure on central government to change the dynamics of the energy market, to open it up and allow genuine choice and competition.
If we are looking at the next generation of energy recovery technologies, such as energy-from-waste plants; gasification; and ever more advanced recycling, then I want us to cast the net as far afield as possible for partners. In Stockton we have the sites, conditions and infrastructure to support much more investment. For example, maximising the opportunities for new energy-from-waste plant investment requires new thinking and joined-up approaches. Household waste – the key statutory local authority responsibility – in reality only accounts for around ten per cent of UK waste. The figure is dwarfed by commercial and industrial, mining and quarrying, and construction waste. And domestic recycling rates have risen by an estimated 29% in a decade (with volumes headed for landfill also going in the right direction).
So to really maximise the opportunity to align waste management with renewable energy production, local authorities need to look for new partnerships, and potentially to actively source ‘new waste’! We need to get involved with the wider waste agenda, work with business, and drive integrated investment in green energy production. On Teesside, this could mean we import larger quantities of waste, maybe one day even via the port, and it could arrive from the public or private sector. Waste would become a commodity and underpin a growing renewables sector locally.
And there are opportunities to further develop and secure the future competitiveness of our world-leading petro-chemical and process sector. As local authorities we must work with these businesses, and aim to attract new investment in areas such as decarbonisation and developing integrated clusters, reducing waste and creating more by-products. We need to assess investment opportunities in areas such as district heating systems and the business case for PV. These new growth opportunities and efficiencies come from scaling up, not down. They offer the chance to tackle our energy security, stabilise prices, hugely impact on our carbon targets, and boost local economic regeneration.
Again, this will require new thinking and joined-up community leadership. We need to think progressively, and differently – and to forge new partnerships. For example, can we use the Localism Act’s general power of competence to drive the market? As ever, finance, and the mechanisms available to central and local government to intelligently invest in infrastructure, will be key. The current government and London Councils have recently raised the issue of the large – and relatively healthy, in particular in comparison to many other public and private funds – local government pension funds, and how they could help deliver capital investment. Would this offer an opportunity to invest in long-term energy solutions which deliver genuine ongoing financial returns on the capital investment to the funds? New, renewable energy sources (such as the new generation of energy-from-waste plants) can deliver income – selling into the Grid – and could give local government more control over bringing renewables into their areas.
All this will require new skills and vision in local government, from members and officers alike. Proactively market-making, like placeshaping, means we can no longer just act responsively. For example, we need to understand the barriers and drivers for potential private sector partners. We must impose our visions and priorities on negotiations, develop equal relationships and shared goals.
In recent times I have seen the worst and best of the private sector in its relationship with local authorities. Multinationals have refused to negotiate on a normal commercial basis with us, and have tried to use their power and apparent belief that we have no alternative as a blunt negotiating tool. I am proud that Stockton Council officers have stood up to this and tried to develop equitable relationships, and to gain a better deal for residents.
And on the other hand, we have seen private sector partners large and small demonstrate tangible commitment to working in partnership. An energy company has understood and backed our CESP strategy – and significantly increased their obligation funding to us. And a series of contractors have employed local people including taking on new apprentices, to deliver the scheme. So whether it’s the private, third or public sector we must develop true partnerships.
Many local authorities have demonstrated how their environmental policies can deliver much wider outcomes. Toronto has pioneered many climate change strategies and ensured they are fully linked to green economic development. For example, the city has more than 1000 high-rise concrete-frame residential tower blocks – the second highest number in North America. It has developed a Tower Renewal programme, which uses energy efficient retrofits to drive community revitalisation. Through innovative financing mechanisms, training and on-the-ground community engagement, residents are leading the retrofit programme. This in turn is boosting regeneration and creating thousands of new green industry jobs.
The Labour-led Council in Liverpool has mainstreamed its sustainability vision as one of its five corporate aims and priorities. Its commitments include promoting new green industries and technologies, and optimising the value of its green spaces. In Stockton, we are delivering the country’s largest Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP) of energy efficiency measures for private housing. We are not just achieving significant domestic carbon reductions. The scheme is also tackling regeneration, fuel poverty, health and financial exclusion. We recognised the potential for wider benefits at the outset and used housing regeneration funding as a key element of our match funding. In total we have attracted more than £6m of energy company CESP funding to help our most deprived wards.
So our green vision can be the glue which binds many of our aspirations to improve the lives of residents. To get there, as members and officers we must recognise the best policies arise from from working together. Politicians will typically look to formulate policy with these influences:
Evidence – more often than not the expertise, views and detail provided by officers
Our vision and values – as a Labour politician I believe passionately that local government must use every lever at its disposal to adapt and mitigate against climate change. At the same time we should develop joined up policies which benefit the many, not the few, within our communities.
And we are influenced by the experiences of our residents – this may not seem as relevant when developing a vision in this area.
But I know the difference warmer homes make to people who are struggling amidst the dire economic reality for many in the North East. And I know how much people want new investment and new jobs.
It is true that at present in local government, we are immersed in a world of efficiency savings. We need to move to transformational change. Like tackling climate change, doing nothing is not an option. For some councils, political ideology will increase levels of contracting out and commissioning of services. For some, this may be the only route left once all internal efficiency savings have been exhausted. This will inevitably lead to more private sector delivery of services, but not necessarily in a progressive way. Instead pricing will be key. Personally I do not believe there is an option to stand still. Simply relying on efficiencies, narrowing down towards the statutory services, and trying to follow direction from central government won’t do. I think this will lead to councils basically managing decline.
There are alternatives. Innovation can thrive in difficult times. By joining-up strategies and maximising resources – dare i say it, in Total Place style – and by working in genuine partnerships with all parts of our communities, we can deliver transformational change.
The Localism Act offers opportunities, not just perceived threats. As mentioned, can the general power of competence help us kick-start investment in renewable energies? How can we strategically use CIL, Enterprise Zones and new financing mechanisms to support our climate change and green economy goals? Can local government pension funds invest in, or enter joint venture-type partnerships, to create green energy investment? Councils around the country are using these new powers and freedoms, often progressively – and still valuing public services. Some are working with business, the third sector and residents to design and co-produce services, involving communities in new ways. Innovation such as the work of the Co-operative Councils network can help maintain and develop public services and empower experienced and dedicated staff. It would be easy to be pessimistic, such are the scale of the challenges. But this is a new era for local government.
As politicians, we can develop visions and help shape policies that will support people in the toughest of times. Cutting carbon emissions through efficiencies, innovative new technologies and behaviour change is within our power, as is stimulating major investment in renewable energy. By taking on such challenges, we can help shape the places we serve. We can develop successful new partnerships. And we can improve opportunities for our residents, and make a positive difference to their lives. Which is what we are all here for.
Cllr David Rose is Cabinet Member for Environment, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council