Cllr Anna Firth is the National Director of the Conservative Policy Forum, a councillor in Sevenoaks, and on the Board of the Conservative Environment Network. She is a Patron of Tories for Climate Action and contested Canterbury at the General Election last year.
The benefits to the environment since lockdown have been phenomenal. The air we breathe is nearly twice as clean due to plummeting CO2 and pollution levels, our coastal waters, normally murky with pollution and sediment, are crystal-clear, and our uncut verges are an uplifting riot of colour and wildlife. But what can Councils do to harness this unique opportunity to reset the environmental dial?
Last week over a hundred conservative councillors from across the country came together for the first time on zoom – itself a climate-saving tool of almost unimaginable proportions – to share best practice. Organised by the Conservative Policy Forum and Tories for Climate Action, the discussion was kicked off by excellent presentations from East Worthing & Shoreham MP, Tim Loughton, Portsmouth City Cllr, Donna Jones, Canterbury City Cllr, Dan Watkins, and Camden Cllr, Oliver Cooper.
Five key areas emerged where local authorities have a key role to play:
Local jobs and economy
Councils have already played a key role in distributing grants to small businesses and the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors, to help them survive the current crisis. Indeed, one of the unexpected success stories of the coronavirus crisis has been the adaptability and flexibility of some businesses to turn their production lines into producing PPE at short notice.
Sadly, not all businesses will survive. However, alongside the £40 million joint Government/charity finance pot for green-related “start-ups” announced last week, councils could run a local business grant scheme to assist companies wishing to pivot towards green-related businesses e.g e-bikes, e-scooters, wind or solar power development, eco-restaurants etc. Local authorities would be key in ensuring that grants were targeted and distributed appropriately, and could also consider offering discounted business rates or reduced council rents for green-related business
Many councils are looking to go further to support green growth. Warwick District Council, for example, have agreed a CT referendum to create a ring-fenced Climate Action Fund while at Sevenoaks District Council we are exploring opportunities to invest in a local Net Zero Bank to finance energy efficiency and carbon reduction. Other councils are looking at green municipal bonds to finance green projects.
Finally, free of EU procurement rules, councils now have a unique opportunity to support jobs, the local economy, and the environment, through new local green procurement rules.
Local transport policy
With remote working now the norm, it is very unlikely people will return to the same work patterns, post the coronavirus crisis. With sales of electric cars, e-bikes, and, soon to be legalized, e-scooters booming, coupled with the new £250 million government boost for pop-up cycling and infrastructure, as part of the £5 billion new funding for cycling and buses, councils have a once in a generation opportunity to boost cleaner, greener, and more sustainable transport.
In Portsmouth, cycle contraflows systems and super-highways along with multiple charging points for e-bikes and e-scooters, secure storage stations, and easily available “Boris bikes” have all been successful. Other ideas included restricting cars on days where pollution levels are high to avoid putting residents unnecessarily at risk of respiratory conditions, and pressing for legislation to enable emission-free, short-trip cycle rickshaws to be extended outside London.
Long-term, local authorities will have a key role in transitioning buses and all service vehicles to hydrogen or electric. For example, at Sevenoaks District we are also looking at developing an electric vehicle car club to improve air quality and boost the councils income.
Meanwhile, ensuring cycling and walking is given far more prominence in state schools would help develop good habits early.
Local energy generation and old houses
Many councils produce, or are in the process of producing renewable energy. In Sussex, for example, half the homes are already powered by off-shore wind. In North Thanet the UK’s first hydrogen plant is being developed, capable of powering 100 double decker buses. Meanwhile trials are also on-going to use hydrogen in residential homes in Staffordshire Moorlands.
Poorly insulated old homes, however, are the biggest source of emissions in the UK. Councils, therefore, have a major role in retrofitting old social housing whilst also installing solar panels and other energy creating infrastructure on all public buildings. In Denmark, for example, the level of council tax is determined by how environmentally friendly your home is. The cost of retrofitting houses is expensive but people add the cost to their homes in form of an additional mortgage which is partially financed by the council tax savings. There is no reason in theory why this should not happen in the UK.
New housing and planning
New, properly insulated homes is one of the biggest opportunities for councils to reduce future emissions and the local plan the most powerful tool for making this happen. For example, new local plans can specify that “new builds” are energy neutral with ground source heat pumps, solar panels, hydrogen-compatible boilers and, where possible, hedges, trees and grass in place of tarmac or fencing. In Sevenoaks, for example, we are looking at the installation of electric vehicle charging points in all new developments, both residential and non-residential, giving a tree for every new home built, and providing a one year 100 per cent reduction on the District Council element of the Council Tax for new certified Passivhaus ‘Classic’, ‘Plus’ & ‘Premium’ homes built in the District, in any year until 2030.
With 27,000 parks and green spaces in the UK used by over half the population every week, councils clearly have a key role both in protecting and enhancing green spaces, nature and wildlife. Many councils are already prioritizing nature-based solutions. Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, for example, is working in partnership with Staffordshire Wildlife Trust to deliver their Green Infrastructure Delivery Plan.
Tree planting, for example, needs to be done strategically and managed so that the trees reach maturity. Existing mature trees and green spaces must always be protected first to avoid destroying established greenbelt woodlands at the same time as creating new woodlands leading to no overall progress and no marginal gains. RSPB have very helpful maps demonstrating where there are particularly good carbon sinks and also where there are gaps at the moment.
As there is more green space locked up in our gardens than in all our national parks combined, councils could consider offering council tax discounts for environmentally-friendly gardening e,g “planting for pollinators”, “bird and bat feeders”, “grow a new native trees or shrubs scheme” etc.
Last but not least, currently we do not use our coasts enough. Tree planting is great but kelp, the large, brown seaweed that grows near coastal fronts, absorbs six times as much carbon as a tree. It also attracts marine life and can be eaten, so presents a commercial opportunity as well as an environmental one for all councils with a decent shoreline. Local councils need to be leading the way in planting kelp farms.
Supporting green and sustainable energy has always been a challenge for a party that believes fundamentally in the free market. But the development of areas like offshore wind power are a text book example of how government subsidies can support an industry while it reaches critical mass, and which is now paying us back as one of the cheapest sources of electricity we have in the UK.
In conclusion, from energy generation, through transport, to the restoration of nature, councils are perfectly placed to lead the charge on tackling climate change. Successful councils get this and they also get the value of sharing good practice. The Conservative Policy Forum and Tories for Climate Action are delighted to have been able to provide the first emission-free, digital space for this to happen.