This post is by Andy Williams, director of business, investment and culture at Coventry City Council.
All the documents the government released on its recent ‘Energy Security Day’ on 30 March are heavy in clusters, accelerators, frameworks and delivery milestones. Given the level of ambition, promise and detail in them, it seems a shame the government waited until the day Easter recess started to publish them. The media reporting was unsurprisingly reduced by much of the broadsheet press to around 400 words of analysis, focused on net zero targets and some pretty infographics, rather than the opportunities ahead and the challenges we face.
Local government has long been at the vanguard. We recognise the urgent need to tackle climate change, and understand that we are central to transitioning our cities, towns and villages, and empowering communities and businesses, to get ready for a net zero future. With our established local networks, community knowledge and influence over procurement, we know we have to play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting.
We can’t wait 14 months for spending commitments
The government’s sectoral focus on emerging technologies and commercial opportunities is welcome. Biomass, solar, nuclear reactors, electric vehicles, carbon capture and hydrogen are all well served with a clear direction of travel. The strategy enjoys senior political support, and will act as a powerful statement of intent, for example at the Second Global Investment Summit later this year.
Locally, the Coventry Climate Change Board has plenty to capitalise on and there is a lot we need to do differently. Coventry has a long history in the automotive industry, so we are particularly interested to see the strategy set an ambition for electric vehicles (EVs) to be 22 per cent of new car sales by next year. But there is little detail on how to achieve it, as sales of EVs have flatlined at 15 per cent. Much more could be done to attract private sector investment, something we are acutely aware of, given the West Midlands Gigafactory at Coventry Airport is the UK’s first and biggest gigafactory to get planning permission.
In the lead up to the publication of its strategies, the government engaged in a briefing war around President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). But the chancellor’s description of it as a “distortive global subsidy race”, in which the UK can’t go “toe-to-toe” with the US, fundamentally misunderstands the global nature of the automotive industry and its supply chain. Eight months have passed since IRA was signed by President Biden, and the UK won’t be making spending commitments until the autumn statement. Fourteen months is an extraordinarily long time to wait for global investment decisions, when businesses are being wooed elsewhere with incentives and tax breaks. Competition for investment and jobs in green technology will see the UK left behind if we can’t move faster.
Retrofit programmes are standing ready
The government’s review does acknowledge the importance of local government in delivering net zero, but we need solutions that can be rolled out quickly. The 3 cities Retrofit programme (Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton) stands ready to insulate homes, reduce energy costs and provide skills and jobs. We need to accelerate heat pump technology, provide greater incentives for businesses, especially SMEs, to decarbonise and urgently tackle the barriers to onshore wind. For the UK to retain its position as a world leader in renewable energy, whilst protecting consumers and businesses from volatile energy markets, there has to be a policy shift to greater local powers and funding around energy and planning, as UK100 has argued.
We also can’t do it without having the right workforce with the right skills in the right place, a pipeline of skilled workers and more certainty and clarity for investors, and more apprenticeships, are central. But this needs to be owned locally by local authorities. We can use our convening power to bring together further and higher education institutions, training providers and businesses. Skills development and job creation must be co-created by local partners. The Green Jobs Delivery Working Group can’t just be a Whitehall-owned endeavour.
So, while these strategies have been conceived in Whitehall, their delivery has to be local. There can’t be a disconnect between national promise and ambition and local delivery. There is plenty of best practice taking place around the country with high replication potential. The government has set an ambitious strategy, now it needs to give local government the tools, resources, incentives and funding to deliver it.