Trams, solar panels and enlightened self interest in Nottingham
Two to three times a week I cycle to work, not primarily to reduce my carbon footprint but because it helps me to keep fit and saves money. I have solar panels on my house because the financial rate of return is far higher than I get in a savings account. I am also pleased that a by-product of these two acts is a reduction in my carbon footprint.
This is the philosophy behind Nottingham’s approach to the environment: enlightened self-interest, and, on the whole, it works. In particular it explains why the main thrust of the City Council’s approach to carbon reduction is to concentrate on energy production and consumption because this is where a green philosophy and self-interest most readily coincide.
Save energy, save money
The reasons are quite simple. First, energy use is a major part of commercial and industrial costs. At a time when profit margins are tight, turnover flat and prices rising, it becomes all the more attractive to reduce energy use. In planning terms, for example, we are finding it easier to talk to developers about planning conditions which involve alternative energy sourcing because they know it affects the bottom line.
Security of supply is important. The bigger firms, such as Boots, tend to think in decades and recognise not only that there may be a peaking of oil and gas supplies, but also that the geopolitics of sourcing make supplies highly unstable. It is for this reason that we are working with Boots to find alternative energy sourcing in their Enterprise Zone.
The council is also concerned about poverty, particularly because the imminent benefit cuts coincide with an unprecedented rise in domestic energy costs. We have, therefore, carried out large scale insulation projects in both private and social housing. More recently we have promoted programmes of internal and external cladding of homes without cavity walls and one of the most extensive domestic solar panel projects in the UK.
Green investments are also a source of income. Currently the interest rate on council lending is less than one per cent. Moreover, all local authorities, but particularly those with the most deprived populations, are suffering from government cuts. For these two reasons we need to make the most of our reserves and historically low borrowing rates. We already identified solar panel investment last year as a lucrative investment source giving a seven per cent rate of return.
Jobs are another factor. Getting people into jobs is our top priority, yet Nottingham’s labour market is unbalanced. We have a supply of graduates from two successful universities and a supply of people with basic qualifications. What we don’t have is a sufficient supply of skilled non-graduates. Sustainable energy is one of the four key sectors the council has designated for growth, with the potential to supply jobs at all levels. To this end we are supporting the development of a sustainable construction academy at one of the further education colleges; we are trying to ensure that projects with council involvement and, in particular, in district energy, take on and train local labour by subsidising apprenticeships through the council’s own jobs scheme. We have also set up an investment fund to encourage fast growth firms, many of which will be in the clean technology sector.
We have a strategy aimed at creating a hub for green technology and providing the supply chain which will result in local jobs. Extensive research is being carried out in the city. E.ON and the University of Nottingham are collaborating on a new generation of super battery to improve energy storage, and batteries used in hybrid vehicles are being developed for domestic energy storage. We have also created a technology investment fund directed mainly but not exclusively at bio, health and green technology.
Cutting down on car travel
Transport development is a priority for Nottingham, which is probably the foremost transport authority in England. The council-owned bus company Nottingham City Transport, which has recently been named Bus Operator of the Year, runs new low emission buses and has seen customer growth in ten out of the past 11 years. We have kept it in public ownership simply because we can guarantee continued investment in the service as well as the social benefits it can provide. It also gives a financial return to Nottingham’s council tax payers.
The tram has shown similar success and we are developing two further lines. The aim is to develop a network across the conurbation. We are considering the possibility of powering it from the district heating system and using its braking energy to generate electricity.
Finally, Nottingham is only the second authority in the world to introduce the workplace parking levy. There are signs of reduced car usage as a result. But this was not the primary purpose. It was intended to provide a revenue stream to pay for subsequent lines of the tram and for the green buses which service the workplace and hospital sites in the city.
Learning from the Germans
But all in the garden is not totally green. It may be laudable that Nottingham is the most energy self-sustaining city in the UK. But this achievement pales into insignificance when compared with best practice outside the UK, for example in Germany, and when compared with what is possible. We still have much to do. The district heating system could be far more extensive than it is. Although there are many groundbreaking green initiatives, we have not yet developed a coherent cluster. We also suffer from the British disease of not transferring innovation effectively into local production. There are still large numbers of properties, especially those owned by private landlords, which are not properly insulated; and there are skills and investment shortages in the sector. And the vacillations in government policy are making long term planning difficult.
But what we have recognised, as indeed the Germans did long before us, is that green energy is at the centre of a virtuous circle of enlightened self-interest and, as such, is an essential part of our city’s long term strategy.
Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA