COP26: Trust local leaders to build greener future – Polly Billington

WITH the weather turning colder, most people’s minds will be wondering how to heat their homes this winter, rather than what politicians will be debating at next month’s UN climate change summit in Glasgow.

Should the Budget and COP26 be doing more to tackle fuel poverty and home insulation?

Cop26 may not have yet captured the public imagination, but if politicians were to take a lead, they could end our costly dependence on imported gas and cut our energy bills by an average of £270.

I think most people would feel that would be something to cheer.

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Polly Billington is chief executive of UK100, a network of local leaders.

In recent years we have been urged to regularly switch our energy supplier to find one with the lowest price. But we need to make a more fundamental shift – as our homes are some of the leakiest in Europe.

Our research found that people in Yorkshire and across the country could make savings of £7.5bn off their energy bills through energy efficiency measures. That doesn’t just help the people paying the bills (on average it would save each family around £270), but means they have more money to spend, and the least well off are most likely to spend it locally, supporting the local economy.

UK100 cares about this, as we are a network of local government leaders, acting on climate and determined to make sure our communities benefit from climate action. It would also mean using a quarter less energy – that means we need to import less too.

There is no shortage of technology or kit to make this a reality, but the rules do need to change, especially around how the Government spends our money and Chancellor Rishi Sunak should have used his Budget to do more to change the rules to give sufficient weight to the health and environmental benefits of decarbonisation.

Should the Budget and COP26 be doing more to tackle fuel poverty and home insulation?

The rules are contained in the ironically-named ‘Green Book’ – which allocates cash to many projects through local councils.

For instance, the Department for Transport measures economic activity by the amount of vehicle movements. So more cars is said to equal more prosperity – even if it means choking us with air pollution, and even though walking and cycling can help us reduce traffic and support local businesses.

While the rules put a high value on free-flowing vehicles and almost no value on active travel, it’s hard for us to measure the benefits of leaving the car at home. As such, the funding rules are skewed against metro, tram and local rail systems, as the modelling often underestimates passenger numbers.

This was a major barrier to proposals for a rapid transport network in Leeds – the largest city in the EU with no mass transport system. Its twin city of Lille, very similar in many ways, has two metro lines, two tram lines and international high-speed rail connections.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak outside 11 Downing Street before delivering his Budget.

In order to deliver Net Zero on the ground, and to help level up, we need 
to financially support less affluent 
areas to reach Net Zero. Currently, emissions are very different in different areas, with wealthier areas like the South East emitting the most emissions per capita.

Yorkshire and the Humber is the third highest region for emissions, which is no great surprise if you think about its major polluting industries. The region could benefit from greater central support to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and polluting road transport.

At the same time, we need concrete action to build up the infrastructure for an increasing number of electric cars and vans. New research shows that the UK’s charging infrastructure is likely to creak under demand as there are only 12 rapid electric vehicle chargers in each local council area, fewer than one charger for every 15,000 people.

According to the Climate Change Committee, we will need 325,000 public charging points by 2032. But at the current rate of growth, there will be only 76,849 chargers by then, a ‘black hole’ of nearly a quarter of a million over the next decade. Local authorities should be given greater funding and powers to force energy companies to install electric vehicle charging points.

Furthermore, local councils have the knowledge about their communities, are more trusted than national politicians and have the democratic mandate to deliver Net Zero.

But they desperately need a level playing field of funding and powers to build back better. It’s clear that if we are going to have a green ‘levelling up’ agenda, central government has to work harder with local leaders to deliver that.

Polly Billington is chief executive of UK100, a network of local leaders.

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