Loving thy neighbourhood
City regions are in a unique position to shape the sustainability agenda when we eventually rebuild our economy post-coronavirus, writes Cara Jenkinson, cities manager at Ashden
A green recovery is a rebuilding based on sustainability, and a fair transition to a low-carbon future. Key aspirations include providing high-quality jobs and tackling health inequality.
There’s an important role for England’s nine metro mayor city regions (North of Tyne, Tees Valley, West of England, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, London, Sheffield City Region, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and Liverpool City Region). But like all authorities, they face a challenging future – with a wide range of urgent demands and funding under threat.
In a discussion hosted by Ashden and the Local Government Association, city region officers shared their views on the barriers and opportunities ahead.
Climate emergency vs coronavirus emergency
At first glance, local climate action faces an uphill battle, as the COVID emergency dominates national and regional politicians’ attention. In many local authorities, officers working on climate emergency action plans have been redeployed to distribute food and medicines to vulnerable families, to deliver much-needed grants to local businesses and to help roll out the national testing and contract tracing programme. Despite a greater workload, local authorities face reduced revenue from, for example, parking fees or leisure centres.
Social distancing has halted many energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, particularly where those projects involve going into residents’ homes. Project funding is a problem; many city region green energy initiatives are dependent on European (ERDF) funding, and for now the decision-making on this funding is paused. Public consultation on emerging climate emergency action plans has to take a different shape and may not get the same levels of engagement from distracted citizens. And when energy projects start up again, will contractors face a major backlog of work?
Loving thy neighbourhood
City region sustainability officers are concerned by these challenges but can also see short-term opportunities. The lockdown has got people thinking about what makes home a good place – a cosy, well-insulated flat, access to leafy green space, safe streets for walking and cycling or easy access to local shops. But there is a short window in which to take action before the pace of life starts to ramp up again.
Some city mayors are already acting – in London, Sadiq Khan is fast-tracking measures to make the city better for walking and cycling, including seizing road space to create new cycle lanes and wider pavements. There are calls for national government to simplify the process of traffic regulation orders, so roads can be closed more easily. Many UK cities will take inspiration from Milan, Bogota and Mexico City, which are introducing hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes. But we need to see transformation happen fast or there is a danger our streets will be clogged and polluted by an increase in cars as people avoid public transport.
Lockdown has kept people in their homes, using more energy and facing higher bills. This may be an opportune time to encourage home energy retrofits and renewable energy generation, once social distancing restrictions have been lifted. With a surge of interest in DIY, some people may not wait until builders start work again.
The coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight on inequality across the UK. Diseases of poverty, diabetes, heart conditions and respiratory illness increase the likelihood of death from coronavirus, with North-East England and parts of inner Birmingham and London particularly exposed. People in low-paid, insecure jobs often can’t work from home, and are more likely to contract the virus.
But action on climate change can improve health and create better jobs. Insulating homes improves respiratory health and more active travel improves physical fitness, increasing resilience to infectious disease. By working together with local health trusts, health and wellbeing boards and clinical commissioning groups, city regions can deliver these wider benefits.
Many city regions have already made clean growth a key part of their local industrial strategies and are establishing programmes to build the right skills. Initiatives such as the Grangetown training and employment hub in Tees Valley, a joint initiative with the local biomass power station, will be particularly important if national unemployment rises significantly as a result of the crisis. There’s no need to choose between economic recovery and climate change action. Well-designed policies can build resilient local economies as well creating jobs, training opportunities whilst simultaneously tackling climate change.
Scaling up city region climate action
City regions are in a unique position to lobby national government for the right policies to launch a green recovery. To create secure, fairly paid jobs, government low carbon policy must be consistent, and avoid the stop/start approach that has led to job losses in renewable energy in recent years. If the government is to deliver its ambition of ‘levelling up’, then this should be reflected in devolution to empower local leaders to deliver. And there should be flexibility in spending the £28bn currently allocated for upgrading the national road infrastructure, with city regions able to allocate more funding to active travel and public transport.
With less than 10 years to avoid catastrophic climate change, city regions don’t have time to learn in isolation or act alone. Sharing best practice is essential, whether that’s learning from each other or from the NGO and academic sectors. In the years ahead Ashden will use its network of over 90 inspirational low carbon enterprises and initiatives across the UK, as well as our recognised convening power, to help city regions deliver an inclusive green recovery.