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Can city leaders succeed where national politicians fail?

Victoria Square BirminghamThis first appeared in Breakthrough Birmingham: outputs from the UK Green Building Council city summit 2016.

If you despair about the lack of sustainability leadership from Westminster, you may have higher hopes for what city leaders can achieve. London’s mayoral candidates are currently competing to be greener than each other. We haven’t seen this in national politics since 2010 when Cameron ran for election on an explicitly green ticket. But that’s the rub. It proved only a short term boost to UK sustainability. So, are green promises from city leaders likely to be any longer lived?

Sustainability is fundamentally about the quality of economic activity. You have to be comfortable trading maximum quantity for higher quality development, which is why the headwinds have grown for greener building and renewable energy, in response to the Treasury’s ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ solution to the economic downturn.

City leaders tend to be less ideological than ministers and are more able to see the difference between a tacky development and one that brings pride to an area, so they should be natural sustainability champions. They tend to get how sustainability can help to protect local identity and drive investment.

Cities need to be more assertive about quality
Unfortunately, this thinking wasn’t very evident in the first round of city deals.  Although some cities, like Birmingham, made an ambitious energy retrofit scheme part of their pitch, on the whole the offers from core cities were fairly unimaginative and there was a sense that the government was setting the terms.

To be true sustainability champions, cities will have to be much more assertive about quality in the current ‘Devo-2’ negotiations and rediscover some old municipal virtues: great spatial planning, a long term vision for infrastructure and a real attempt to allow their citizens to help shape priorities for development.

Cities are being wooed by ministers in search of new infrastructure schemes but, at the moment, they have very little capacity to generate exciting new projects. Despite all the talk of smart cities, old road schemes and high speed rail dominate because they are ‘shovel ready’ or have national backing.

Sharp elbowed mayors can get a better deal
And national backing is not always a recipe for success, since government policy is so volatile. Birmingham knows that better than most, given that its fantastic energy savers programme was agreed with government but then scuppered by the withdrawal of the Green Deal loans scheme.  Old hands will say this is nothing new and that local government has always had a raw deal from Whitehall, but the signs are that sharp elbowed mayors can change that.

The drivers of sustainability are inevitably stronger at a local level, because a city’s natural environment and the quality of its built environment are part of its identity. This, in turn, drives investment and a better quality of life for its citizens. It’s why Nottingham and London have outstanding local transport, and Sheffield, Birmingham and Southampton have pioneering district heating systems.

If mayors and city regions can build on this heritage of municipal enterprise they can become the new sustainability leaders. And they can help us overcome the unsustainable, short term focus which has become the hallmark of national economic policy.

Written by

Matthew has been director of Green Alliance since May 2010 and has 25 years experience of UK and international environmental issues. Prior to Green Alliance, Matthew was head of government affairs at the Carbon Trust; campaign director at Greenpeace UK and founder and chief executive of the renewable energy agency Regen SW, where he developed Wave Hub, the world’s first proving ground for wave energy farms. Follow on Twitter @Spencerthink

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