Many were eagerly awaiting the chancellor’s statement last month to hear how he would tackle the economic crisis whilst also delivering a green recovery. But, despite some welcome measures on energy efficiency, his statement did not have green priorities running through it.
In the light of this, the third and final phase of the government’s economic response, which Rishi Sunak says is the phase where “we will rebuild”, is the opportunity to put climate and environment at the forefront of the government’s plans. This will be particularly important for the UK’s international standing as it prepares to host the UN climate summit COP26 in November 2021.
Any changes made as part of these plans must play a role in preventing the most vulnerable in society from being disproportionately affected or disadvantaged. It is these communities in the UK that are disadvantaged by both transport and fuel poverty, yet they have also been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic, including Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, those on low incomes and those with serious health and mobility problems.
Warmer home plans need a longer term programme
This has to an extent been addressed by Rishi Sunak’s £3 billion package for home energy efficiency which could help to lift people out of fuel poverty, particularly as it will allow low income households claim back the full cost of measures that will help to cut energy bills up to a maximum of £10,000.
But to ensure a just low carbon transition, this £3 billion, available until April 2021, must be just the start of a long term retrofitting programme, rather than ending next year as planned. Ramping up such a scheme will also require significant effort to upskill the construction workforce to be ready and able to roll out the programme across the country at the scale needed.
The New Economics Foundation recently suggested that a four year national retrofit programme could boost economic activity by £27.96 billion, create an average of 515,000 new jobs between 2020 and 2024, and cut emissions from UK’s homes by 21 per cent from a 2019 baseline. It would also usher in significant private investment, a key part of shifting to a low carbon economy which has not yet been strongly pursued by government.
Piecemeal plans on transport won’t deliver a step change
There have been piecemeal packages through the past months to prevent the UK’s public transport services collapsing. In addition, the newly announced £2 billion walking and cycling infrastructure package has already begun to support a number of local authorities in improving their active transport networks. Hopefully, this is the start of longer term, consistent funding in active travel. Boris Johnson’s new strategy outlined how the £2 billion would be spent, as well as other measures to get people out of cars while also tackling transport poverty, including the £50 voucher scheme to repair old and unused bikes, free cycle training and more on-street cycle storage racks.
Yet before this money was promised, spending on active travel was just 1.5 percent of overall transport spending and, even with this package, it is nowhere near the five per cent of overall transport spending recommended for the UK to bring about major positive changes.
The prime minister says he wants 12 new areas to become ‘Mini Hollands’. That’s a great ambition, but to reach the levels of cycling seen in the Netherlands, it must be matched with long term financial support. The Netherlands spends £26 per person a year on cycling, compared to the £6 per person a year currently spent by English local authorities outside London.
The government’s recent announcement of £27 billion for road building will also damage the prospects of a significant shift to low carbon transport. Whilst hailed by supporters as a way to increase the uptake of electric vehicles, it has been heavily criticised for cancelling out any green benefits due to the overall emissions that would result.
Reallocating some of that £27 billion to support cheaper modes of transport, make more efficient use of road space through walking and cycling infrastructure and improve air quality would improve the lives of others in society, aside from just car users. This, alongside more support for the wider roll-out of electric buses and trains, would help to make communities cleaner, healthier, more sustainable places to live, at the same time as making transport more affordable.
In February, the transport secretary announced a £50 million fund for one local authority to become the UK’s first all-electric bus town, which will be good news for one lucky local authority. But imagine if some of the £27 billion allocated for roads was instead redirected to more places and projects like this? As well as improving many more people’s lives it would mean the transport sector could finally start to play a central role in decarbonising our economy.
Green Alliance is supporting an academic consortium looking at the intersections between fuel and transport poverty. More details available here.