Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Today, in the West Midlands, history is being made, in an event that hopes to shape how our nation tackles the threat of climate change.
Our region, working with UK100, is co-hosting the UK’s first International Net Zero Leadership Summit, bringing together metro mayors, core cities, and local authority leaders from around the world.
The aim of this summit? To deliver a clear message to Government that local leadership can play a crucial role in achieving net zero ambitions – but local leaders must be given the power to take greater responsibility over energy. It’s time to energise England’s regions to tackle the climate emergency.
I want to use this column to explain how a shift in power from Whitehall will not only set us on track to a greener future, but will also generate thousands of new jobs across the UK, helping the economic recovery post pandemic.
According to a recent report from the Local Government Association, regional leaders either control or strongly influence over a third of the nation’s carbon emissions and are already driving change.
Here in the West Midlands, we have set up five energy innovation zones which are pioneering new approaches to managing energy demand; all working to develop greener practices that can be rolled out across the UK.
Our public transport is evolving to provide greener ways for residents to get around, whether that’s through the fleet of electric buses set to take to the streets of Coventry, the battery-powered trams that run on our growing metro network or the cycle and e-scooter hire schemes that have been delivered across our seven boroughs.
And, as the home of the nation’s biggest automotive cluster, we are also pioneering the de-carbonisation of transport with state-of-the-art technology, through the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre and the work of companies like JLR.
All of this locally-led ambition – which is mirrored up and down the country – shows that our regions and cities are ready to lead the way on reducing emissions, while also ensuring that the burgeoning green economy helps level up the nation by creating new jobs and opportunity.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the need to “retrofit” old homes, to make them more energy efficient.
The West Midlands has the highest fuel poverty gap in the UK, due to the high average age of local housing stock. We have thousands upon thousands of homes that need to be updated in this way, from modernising heating methods to improving insulation and glazing.
Indeed, it’s the same in every corner of the UK. But while this is a national issue – which has been recognised by the Prime Minister – local leaders are best placed to tackle this huge challenge. Local leadership could deliver the changes needed at pace and create thousands of jobs in the process. A devolved national retrofit programme would make the Government’s mammoth task more manageable.
What’s more, our existing devolved powers can ensure local workers have the right skills to move into the jobs that will be created. As we plot the economic recovery, we are already organising courses and bootcamps to give residents new digital skills or to prepare them to service the electric vehicles that will be rolling off production lines in the near future. It is a natural step for us to expand this provision to include retrofit skills such as insulation and double glazing.
We are ready to take this retrofit revolution on – in the West Midlands we are starting to retrofit more than 240,000 homes. A devolution deal would enable local leaders to get on with the job, simultaneously addressing emissions while helping the economic recovery, generating half a million jobs across the UK with 40,000-plus jobs in the West Midlands alone.
And crucially, a green devolution deal would also allow local leaders to invest in local innovation and potential. I have seen first-hand the ground-breaking ideas being developed by local start-ups, from renewable batteries to 5G-connected wind turbines.
This kind of innovation will play a role in helping the West Midlands reach its carbon neutrality target of 2041, but we want to be able to act quickly and back it with investment, to maximise its potential. Again, we need funding to do this.
Where could this cash come from? Well, one potential solution is by allowing local leaders to retain energy levies. Consumers already pay levies – so it would come at no extra cost to them – but Government could decide to have these funds retained locally rather than centrally.
By spending that locally-collected money locally, we could re-invest it in lower carbon energy solutions, supporting untapped local innovation. It could also provide a key link between energy providers and users to ensure energy is being provided where it is most needed.
With today’s summit, local leaders from across the UK and the world will come together in the West Midlands, the place where the Industrial revolution began, to discuss the green industrial revolution which is just beginning.
Here in the UK, the Government has set out ambitious targets to achieve net zero by 2050, and we want the West Midlands to play its part in that by meeting our net zero target by 2041.
We are already delivering practical change – from decarbonised transport and energy system solutions, to state-of-the-art battery technology and zero-carbon building techniques.
But as the communique signed by the delegates at the summit today emphasises, a devolved energy model could empower the UK’s regions to do so much more.