An opportunity to cut harmful air pollution from coal

Coal in the UK is in terminal decline. The fuel that powered the industrial revolution and has been a staple of our economy for over a century is on its way out. Recent Carbon Brief analysisfound that last year coal use more than halved. This in turn contributed to an impressive six per cent annual fall in carbon emissions. Excluding the general strikes in the 1920s, emissions are now at the lowest level since the Victorian era.

But the job of phasing out coal from our energy mix is not complete. There are still eight coal-fired power stations on the British grid, with a combined capacity of around 14GW. In 2015, Bright Blue recommended that the Government regulate to close these last coal plants in the early 2020s. A few months later, the government adopted this policy and has just now finished consulting on its proposals to force their closure by the end of 2025.

This sharp decrease has several probable causes: anticipation of the 2025 coal phase-out, the abundance of relatively cheap gas, the build-out of zero-marginal-cost renewables, and the UK's 'Carbon Price Support', which charges power generators for each tonne of carbon they emit. But there is another factor that has helped to make the economics of coal challenging, over which EU Ministers are soon to make a decision at the European Council: the EU's 'Industrial Emissions Directive'.

The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) came into force at the start of 2016 and its aim is to reduce harmful air pollution from industry. It sets legal limits on the levels of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and dust that large plants can emit. Of the highest emitting 30 plants affected by the IED, 26 are coal-fired power stations.

The damage to public health from coal is significant: across all EU Member States, air pollution from coal is estimated to contribute to nearly 23,000 deaths each year with a health bill ranging from €32bn to €62bn. But the IED is not realising all the promised emissions savings. Over half of coal plants in the EU have been given special 'derogations' by the EU, meaning that they do not need to apply them.

Under the policy, national governments must issue permits to all plants affected by the IED. These permits are issued with reference to guidelines that are set out in the EU's 'Best Available Technique Reference Document' (BREF). This document is currently being reviewed, and the European Council is soon to vote on proposals to amend the BREF that would make the application of the IED by national governments more stringent.

Put simply, if these proposals are accepted, many more plants will have to choose whether to make expensive upgrades in order to cut their emissions, or simply to close. The upgrade costs could be substantial: in the UK, government-commissioned research found that for a 500 MW coal plant, the cost of compliance would typically be between £50m and £75m.

So in many cases, this investment decision will lead to plant closures, with the investment generating insufficient returns to justify the costs. The three factors named above (cheap and plentiful gas, zero-marginal-cost renewables, and carbon pricing) assist and reinforce this dynamic.

With the UK's support at the European Council, it is expected that the proposals will be passed through qualified majority voting. However, without the UK's support, they are vulnerable to defeat. For this reason, the decision of UK Ministers is absolutely critical to the pace of the coal phase-out in Europe.

Not only would these regulations help to hasten the closure of the remaining coal plants in the UK. But they could help to bring about the end of coal generation throughout EU. The benefits would be great. In relation to climate, it would greatly reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions, for which coal is responsible for 16 per cent of the total. In relation to air pollution, the proposed new BREF would reduce the number of premature deaths from coal-related air pollution to under 9,000.

Supporting and championing these tougher environmental regulations is an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate international leadership post-Brexit. By committing to phasing out coal by 2025, the UK became the first industrialised country to burn coal for electricity and the first to commit to closing its coal fleet. We have recommended before that this significant domestic legacy should be leveraged internationally, in order to make a major contribution to reducing global emissions and tackling climate change.

In its coal phase-out impact assessment, the government listed UK international climate change leadership as one of the policy's main benefits. In the European Council, the UK has an opportunity to realise some of this benefit. It should seize it.

Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue

This article first appeared on BusinessGreen 

Conservative cities are leading the way on clean energy

For too long tackling climate change has been perceived as something that makes people’s lives harder, not easier. For that very reason, those elected politicians tasked with making sure that life runs smoothly, from emptying the bins to keeping the lights on, have tended to ignore or skirt round the subject. But as the economics of renewable energy become more compelling, pragmatic local leaders are seeing opportunity rather than inconvenience in pursuing this agenda.

Local leaders choosing to seize the clean energy agenda are doing it for a range of reasons: it makes financial sense since it saves the council money (and can generate income too), it’s a growth and jobs agenda, and it can create opportunities to tackle social injustice through smart technology and markets.

Peterborough and Swindon, both Conservative-run councils, are just two such authorities, using innovative financial approaches and practical public engagement to reduce costs, make money, and provide for the community they serve. Crucially this has been achieved through building public consent less through planet-saving and much more through place-making.

Aspirational voters don’t wish for a degraded environment: being close to nature is something that many people are prepared to pay for. And ensuring that the environment is safe for future generations is close to the philosophy of many local leaders, especially those leading their local communities at council level. As devolution develops, there will be more and more opportunity for local leaders to shape the response to these challenges that meets the needs of their local community now and in the future.

Peterborough has made a reality of the aphorism that where there is muck there’s brass. Crucially they have ensured the proceeds of their new energy from waste plant stay with the council. The contract is unique in that not only does the authority own the facility outright, funded through prudential borrowing, but also that it retains the full value of the energy generated by the facility.

Almost everything residents put in their black bins is converted into heat and electricity, and it has virtually eliminated waste going to landfill. This will save the authority over £1 million per year in gate fees and tax for landfill and generate 7.5MW of electricity for export to the grid (the equivalent of 15% of residents’ electricity use), sufficient to power over 16,000 homes.

Future proofing the plant ensures it has the capacity to deal with extra waste from 26,400 more homes due to be built over the next few years.

Often local authorities do this and don’t shout about it. But they are missing a trick. It is important to tell a story that speaks to the hearts as well as the heads of residents. While saving the planet is rarely the main driver of voters’ behaviour, feeling they are part of a city’s mission to do the responsible thing increases the chances of residents supporting this activity, especially if it is combined with more immediate tangible benefits for themselves and the wider community.

Mainstreaming environmental policies is essential to their widespread deployment.  Early engagement with residents was vital for the success of this project: they were involved in every step of the process, helping to choose the technology involved and residents continue to meet on a regular basis with the council.

Making the most of the waste from the growing city is key to the vision of Peterborough as the environmental capital of the UK, and generating energy in a safe, efficient and sustainable way saves money and reduces the impact on the environment.

If the fact that it reduces the amount of CO2 equivalent the city produces by 10,000 tonnes per year sounds like an add-on, that matters less than that it is being done, while telling a story that links environmental policies with city pride and sensible savings.

Swindon Borough Council has a solar strategy that makes money for the council and for residents, issuing solar bonds to create a financial incentive for residents to buy in to the project. Their unique target of installing 200MW of renewable energy by 2020, the equivalent to 100% of all energy used in local homes has driven innovative approaches to finance, to removing red tape and bureaucracy and to working with communities to retain support.

They launched the first bond available to the general public in over 100 years, and the first “Green ISA”. The council’s first “solar bond” sold out within two months, a month earlier than the deadline. This success continues with the Green ISA. The current offer is the UK’s first council-backed Innovative Finance ISA (IFISA), giving investors an effective rate of return of 6% tax-free over the 20 year life of the investment. The minimum investment is just £5, to make the offer available to as many people as possible. The first dividend from the Swindon Common Solar Farm solar bond has just paid out, at exactly the rate that was predicted when residents signed up to invest.

The project received planning consent through the council’s innovative use of local development orders. This speeded up the planning process, provided an incentive for developers to come forward and show their hands early, remove inappropriate sites and avoided large concentrations around villages, while allowing for a full public consultation to take place.

As a result Swindon is on track to meet its stretching 2020 target. When the second farm is finished (due this month), Swindon will have achieved building 167 MW, equivalent to 83% of all energy used by local homes. And £45,000 per annum from the rent, and business rates from the second solar farm, will be used to finance a £600,000 1300m noise barrier along a dual carriageway.

Cities like Peterborough and Swindon have much to shout about but they are aware they also have much to learn from other local leaders who have also spotted the opportunities available in renewable energy and energy productivity. That is the reason UK100 was established – a network of UK cities and communities committed to 100% clean energy. Not just because it is good for the planet but for the people we serve, in terms of jobs, prosperity, health and wellbeing. Connecting the leaders to accelerate the shift to clean energy is essential so that their innovation can be implemented at scale. Local leaders on clean energy are potential allies of a government which has stretching climate change targets to meet and an industrial strategy it needs to forge that meets the challenges of the 21st century, from skills to manufacturing. A localised response to energy generation and efficiency will enable leaders to shape a programme of national renewal that meets the challenges of a post-Brexit Britain.

Polly Billington is Director of UK100, the network of cities and communities committed to 100% clean energy by 2050.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Building places that work for everyone

In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted the plight of ordinary families ‘who can just about manage but worry about the cost of living’ or ‘who have their own home, but worry about paying the mortgage’.  And in her foreword to last month’s Housing White Paper she identified the ‘broken housing market’ as one of the biggest barriers to progress in Britain today.

Her concern is our concern too.  Mrs May knows that we urgently need to build new homes that are within reach of those being left behind.  We must reduce energy bills for those who are just about managing.  We must reduce the burden on the NHS by maximising the health and well-being of UK citizens.  And in a post-Brexit Britain we must create jobs, improve skills and grow our export opportunities. 

This is a vision that we share. And in our brand new paper, Building Places That Work for Everyone, we show how the built environment is already playing a key role in delivering on the Government’s aims.  We shine a spotlight on refurbishment projects that have delivered warmer, healthier homes and workplaces alongside significant fuel bill savings.  We show how high-quality design and smarter construction methods are already delivering new homes at scale and at speed.  And we demonstrate that the construction industry plays a crucial role in creating jobs, improving skills and growing our exports of cutting-edge products and services.

Let’s start with new buildings.  It is a common – but false – assumption that high-quality buildings take longer to build and are more expensive.  Offsite manufacture can substantially reduce construction waste and speed up delivery.  And well-designed developments, in which communities have had a real say, can sweep away planning objections – especially when they bring with them new amenities, green spaces and wildlife havens.   Take igloo Regeneration’s Dundas Hill development in Glasgow, which sailed through planning because of local community involvement in the development process right from the start. Delivering, sustainably, the numbers of new homes the country needs is well within our reach.

But it’s not just about new buildings. Around 80% of the buildings that will be occupied in in 2050 have already been built. If we are to meet our 2050 carbon target, we need to retrofit almost 25 million homes – that’s 1.4 homes every minute between now and 2050. Refurbishing homes can bring down bills for hard-pressed families; and for firms large and small more efficient use of energy frees up money to invest in the core business. A great example comes from Land Securities who over the past year have invested £2.6 million in energy reduction initiatives across 23 leading commercial and retail sites around the UK, saving customers 8.2 million kWh of energy, equal to £940,000 per annum. This includes Lewisham Shopping Centre, where lighting upgrades to LEDs will reduce landlord energy consumption by 20% - with benefits shared with customers including Marks & Spencer, Clarks and H&M.

We also mustn’t forget the health benefits of a well-designed, high-performing building.  A healthier, happier workforce means a more productive, successful business – it’s as simple as that.  Our members Skanska UK eliminated hazardous substances and made full use of natural daylight when rebuilding their Doncaster facility – leading to a more comfortable workplace and a huge drop in building-related sick days.  Meanwhile, in their landmark Boilers on Prescription pilot, social housing provider Gentoo provided energy efficiency upgrades for vulnerable residents.  The results were staggering: after 18 months GP appointments had decreased by 60%, and the project has generated widespread interest from healthcare professionals nationwide. 

These shining examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  And they show not just what might be possible in the future, but what is possible right now.  With the right combination of industry expertise, community engagement and a clear steer from Government, they can be the norm rather than the exception.

And I’m not the only one who is saying it.  It was standing room only when we launched our paper in Parliament on 28 February – and I was particularly thrilled by the welcome it received from Conservative politicians.  Our keynote speaker was Chair of the No. 10 Policy Board and Bright Blue supporter George Freeman MP.  He commended our ‘powerful, fact-based paper’, saying that it would be ‘really valuable in shaping policy’.  He highlighted how we must ‘build not yesterday’s boxes but tomorrow’s homes’ and mooted the interesting idea of rewarding local councils for delivering housing that uses less energy.  Meanwhile, another Bright Blue supporter James Heappey echoed George’s words, adding that truly sustainable homes can make people happier and healthier, reduce demand on the NHS and enable communities to be more cohesive.  Music to my ears!

So hopefully this is just the start of our new conversation with Government as we spread the word about the multiple benefits – social, economic and environmental – that high-quality buildings and neighbourhoods can deliver.  UK-GBC is uniquely placed to help Government achieve its vision in close partnership with the built environment industry whom we represent.  We look forward to working with them and all our partners to deliver on our shared vision – to build places that work for everyone.

Julie Hirigoyen is CEO of the UK Green Building Council

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Our man-made countryside requires wildlife management

Traditionally, the Left has always seen the Tories as the defenders of various field sports, predominately hunting and shooting. For those who are unfamiliar with the activities, the accusation fits perfectly the image of ‘cruel toffs killing for fun’.

For decades the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), attacked the Conservative Party for defending such sports and made no secret of its support for the Labour Party, which involved substantial donations to party funds. The Hunting Act was nothing less than payback for this support, but now, with Labour in disarray and the Conservatives likely to be in government for the foreseeable future, further progress has been stymied and repeal of the hunting ban became a possibility; a change of strategy was needed.

It’s no surprise that ‘Conservative’ groups have now been formed, all designed to create the impression that the views expressed are held by the mainstream of the Tory Party. But look a little harder and some uncomfortable facts emerge, the first being that these groups have been formed and are run by the same few people, the ‘founder’ being a committee member of the LACS – an organisation that has been censured a number of times for producing anti-Tory material in contradiction of Charity Commission rules. There are also links with Brian May’s Save Me Trust, a body that has also strongly criticised the Conservative Party; requests as to who is funding these groups are consistently refused.

Sir Edward Garnier, the former Solicitor General, has written to Conservative Party Chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, raising these concerns. Andrew Rosindell MP, a long-time supporter of animal welfare, has added his voice to those criticising the misuse of the Conservative Party logo, saying, “these groups appear to be more in keeping with the animal rights agenda promoted by the Labour Party.”

Rather than a scientific basis to their claims, whether it be hunting with dogs, bovine TB and the badger cull, grouse shooting and raptors or the issues surrounding rewilding, the arguments tend to rely on the results of carefully worded public opinion polls. The internet, in particular social media, allows a very false impression to be given, both in terms of supposed support and the realities of managing the countryside and its wildlife.

It is only when the question is turned around and the campaigners are asked what they stand for, rather than against, that the debate becomes more interesting. Do they, for example, accept any form of wildlife management? “Leaving it to nature” sounds attractive, but actually means no disease control, no protection of crops or livestock, no population control and no saving of vulnerable or declining species.

If improving animal welfare was the aim of the Hunting Act, where is the evidence? Surely, research would have been commissioned by anti-hunting groups and, regardless of the millions of pounds spent in support of this law, the debate would be over. The fact is, other methods of control, many unregulated, moved in to fill the vacuum and, with the status of the quarry animal having changed, far more have been killed in other ways– it’s just that this doesn’t fit the animal rights agenda, so they ignore it.

When asked what they actually stand for, one argument sometimes put forward by these groups is rewilding - the re-introduction of species that have died out - but while this is an attractive idea to many, it is certainly more complex than some would have us believe. In short, it depends on three things: what, where and how. What species is to be re-introduced? The wolf or the beaver? The consequences for each are very different.  

Where is the species to be located and is it appropriate? Scotland may appear to some to be suitable for the wolf but it is not a wilderness like Yellowstone National Park, where re-introduction of the wolf is indeed a success story. How re-introduction is undertaken is crucial and to make it work local people who are directly affected must be part of the process, as must the consequences of reintroduction and the possibility of subsequent population control.

Clearly, the fundamental problem with rewilding relates to the changes in the relatively small British countryside over many years, creating what is now a man-managed environment, while the natural system of top (apex) predators, middle (meso) predators and prey animals has been disrupted. Re-balancing that system, known as the trophic cascade, could be a good thing if possible, but the clock cannot simply be turned back unless meticulous planning is done.

In the absence of a widespread apex predator such as the wolf in the UK, we have the next best thing – its cousin the dog. Hunts operate in a manner similar to wolves when they are hunting and form a unique part of the wildlife management process. The hound is selective (through its remarkable scenting ability), is testing (through the chase) and, importantly, is non-wounding (the prey is either killed or escapes unscathed). By these means the old, sick, injured and diseased animals are generally removed. This form of hunting therefore fits perfectly into the wildlife management process, leaving a smaller but healthier prey population.

Yet hunting with dogs is the method that the Labour government chose, above all other methods, to be outlawed. Why does anyone, other than the Leftist class warriors, go along with such nonsense?

There is nothing inherently wrong in using dogs in wildlife management – it’s how they are used that matters, which is a condition that should apply equally to any other method of wildlife control. This could be addressed by a sensible wild mammal welfare law under which proven cruelty would be an offence, but such a move is opposed by anti-hunting groups because of their obsession with those who go hunting with dogs. Isn’t it odd that the supposed terror of the chase and the pain of being ripped apart by hunting dogs is claimed to be so terrible, but yet exactly the same process is fine when it comes to rewilding?

The anti-hunting groups are frustrated because the law they designed isn’t working as they imagined. The reason is clear: their case is flawed, their claims are false, their methods sometimes deceitful and the consequences of a ban are detrimental to the welfare of wildlife. No one, least of all Conservatives, should believe them.

Jim Barrington is a former director of the League Against Cruel Sports and is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance and the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Regional devolution: a new frontier for low carbon retrofit?

The UK government is not currently doing enough to decarbonise the housing stock and protect householders from rising energy bills. In their 2016 progress report, the Committee on Climate Change concluded: "Progress improving the energy efficiency of buildings has stalled since 2012." This was echoed by the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s report on energy efficiency which urged government to “[…] promptly demonstrate a renewed commitment to tackling energy efficiency”.

It is also widely recognised that current levels of investment fall far short of what will be required to meet our 2030 national fuel poverty target: as Policy Exchange identifies, there is a funding gap of £700m a year. But potential for national government action seems limited largely due to the high profile failure of the Coalition government’s Green Deal policy. Ministers have become reluctant to put home energy efficiency at the top of their priority list.

With this in mind, it is interesting to look at devolved governments across the UK, not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also at the English regions. Six combined authorities will be getting new directly elected mayors this May: Liverpool city region; Greater Manchester; the West Midlands; the West of England; Tees Valley and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The combined authorities are new political structures sitting above the multiple councils in each of these regions. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, for example, encompasses Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan. Of course there’s one big established precedent for all this, the London Mayor and Greater London Authority which has been in place since 2000.

What can the new mayors do to promote low carbon homes?

Each combined authority has a different devolution deal so powers do vary but if we look at the precedent that London has set we can get a sense of what could be done on energy efficient housing as more powers are devolved. Some of the key areas we think the future mayors should be pushing for are:

  • Zero carbon new builds. In 2015, George Osborne axed a long-standing commitment to national zero carbon newbuild standards. But London’s zero carbon new build standards came into force last October. New developments have to comply with tough emissions standards or pay to offset the carbon.
  • Retrofit programmes. London set up RE:NEW and RE:FIT, retrofit programmes for residential and public buildings, respectively. Although RE:NEW hasn’t quite transformed London’s housing stock yet, the fact that the Mayor is committed to domestic retrofit is important – and it’s never easy to get it perfect the first time around!
  • Municipal energy companies. Bristol, Nottingham and London have all being developing local energy companies and while having a metro mayor is not a requirement to do so it means that it can have more reach and over time grow and expand into other services.
  • Boiler scrappage. While not necessarily achieving large carbon savings replacing old, polluting boilers with new, more efficient boilers can be important in tackling fuel poverty.  
  • Heat planning and district heating. Tees Valley Combined Authority is already doing work matching up waste heat from industrial sources with local demand and the Mayor of London has been vocal about waste heat. With heat being one of the hardest areas to decarbonise and local conditions varying so much, combined authorities can really get their teeth stuck into this.
  • Making the most of national policies. There is £640 million per year on offer through the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) and combined authorities can do a lot to attract as much of this as possible to their areas.

While the specific “devolution deal” signed with Westminster varies region to region, and they will not be getting masses of new funding (each combined authority will get access to 30-year investment funds representing between £15 million and £36 million a year) the new metro-mayors will have significant powers. Their portfolios will cover economic strategy in their region and powers over areas such as transport, health, skills and housing.

An important part of combined authorities’ work will be to join up activity across a larger area and pull in different budgets in innovative ways. This will be particularly effective in tackling cold homes. Investing in energy efficiency can save on health budgets by reducing hospital admissions, GP visits and prescriptions. Mayors can join up energy efficiency and health budgets through schemes such as “boilers on prescription” in recognition of the fact that cold, draughty homes aggravate health problems.

An additional (and important) part of the metro-mayors’ arsenal will be soft power – the ability to bring business and civic leaders together and exert moral pressure to take action on carbon reduction and energy saving. In London, for example, the Mayor’s Business Energy Challenge awards made the most of the Mayor’s public platform to encourage businesses to cut down their energy consumption and move to cleaner energy sources.

Crucially, the mayors’ strategic role will mean they will be able to take a region-wide approach and align different objectives and departmental remits to cater to local requirements. Nowhere could this be more important than in driving a new regional approach to low carbon/low energy housing.

As such we believe that the regions can take the lead and prove that strategic investment in energy efficiency improves people’s lives, boosts local economies and supports security of supply. This evidence will help us keep up the pressure on national Government to make the right policy choices and make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority.

Joseph Cosier is a policy officer at the Energy Saving Trust

The views expressed in this essay are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

More green homes: building houses and improving the environment

The UK has a housing crisis. The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election pledged to build one million homes over the course of the parliament, or 200,000 new houses a year. But many believe this is insufficient. For instance, an independent report by KPMG found that, owing to demographic change, 250,000 new homes a year are required. But current building rates lag well behind even the Government’s modest target, with just 140,000 new build homes completed last year.

The Prime Minister wants to rectify this. On the steps of Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister, she included in her list of burning injustices facing modern Britain the fact that young people now find it harder than ever to own a home. In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference, she named housing as a dysfunctional market that government needs to step up to correct.

But, as it is responsible for around 11% of land use in England, housing’s relation to the environment must also be considered. The most recent State of Nature report, published by RSPB and a range of conservation organisations, finds that in the UK 56% of the species they studied have declined over recent decades, with more than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. The Government has committed to turning this around, with its pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. But it needs specific policies if it is to realise this vision.

This was the context for this month’s housing white paper. And, while many of the measures contained within it are welcome, it is a missed opportunity for both housebuilding and the environment.

Positives from the housing white paper

Let’s start with the positives. First, the Government strategy places greater emphasis on the quality of design of new developments. Under the proposals, local and neighbourhood plans must contain expectations about design standards. Local residents will be able to object to new developments on aesthetic grounds. According to government polling, 73% of people say that they would be more likely to support new homes if they look nice and are in keeping with other properties in the area. This measure will both boost numbers of homes and improve the appearance of the built environment.

Second, the Government plan supports high-density housing. The National Planning Policy Framework will be amended to advise against low-density developments in areas of high housing demand, increase scope for high-density developments in urban areas by redeveloping low-rise warehouses or extending buildings upwards, and increase flexibility over planning restrictions, such as daylight requirements. Greater density of buildings could increase the volume of new homes and improve the environment, as it frees up more land for nature and enables more sustainable transport solutions to be utilised. But this must not mean sacrificing access to urban green spaces, nor must it mean sacrificing high-quality design standards.

The negative: the Green Belt

But the white paper’s greatest shortcoming was that it maintained a very rigid approach to the Green Belt, with councils told not to allow any development except in very special circumstances. The Green Belt was first established around London in 1938, and in 1955 was extended to other cities. Its purpose was to prevent urban sprawl. The Green Belt has largely failed on its own terms.

Cities like London are characterised by low-density housing, a fact that government acknowledges in the housing white paper. For instance, Paris has a population density of 213 people per hectare, while Islington’s (London’s densest borough) is 128 people per hectare. This is because, instead of living in more densely-built homes in central London, London’s workers have just leapfrogged the Green Belt and bought homes in commuter towns throughout the South East of England. This has led to a proliferation of low-density housing developments across a much broader area, and an increase in carbon-intensive commuter journeys to work each day.

The Green Belt shouldn’t be abolished altogether. Its benefits include reducing air pollution, mitigating the impact of flooding, and providing urban residents with access to green space, which can bring positive effects on mental health. But if homes are to be built where people want to live, then some of the Green Belt will need to be built on. Many have proposed limiting these sites to ones within a certain proximity of a train station.

But there is an upside for the environment in allowing building on the Green Belt, beyond merely reducing the number and distance of journeys travelled by commuters. At the moment, much Green Belt land is of poor environmental value. Just over 7% of London’s Green Belt consists of golf courses, for instance. While this isn’t an excuse in itself for scrapping the Green Belt, it demonstrates the urgent need to improve its natural capital. Therefore, in return for being allowed to build on these highly valuable plots of land, developers should have an obligation to improve the stock of natural capital elsewhere in a local authority area, for instance by planting more trees or creating nature trails. This investment should more than reverse the loss of natural capital entailed by the new development. This would deliver more homes and improve the stock of natural capital in England.


Building more homes and improving the environment are not in opposition. More homes, more densely built, should be accompanied by major investment in natural capital in the outskirts of our major cities. As it considers the consultation responses to its white paper, the Government should be bold.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Could a diesel scrappage scheme solve the air quality issue?

Last week, it was reported that the Department for Transport is considering introducing a diesel scrappage scheme. Under this policy, the government would give cashback to motorists who trade in their old polluting diesel vehicle. A diesel scrappage scheme would help to accelerate the shift away from diesel vehicles, removing one of the biggest sources of harmful air pollution from the roads for good.

What’s the problem?

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the issue: each year around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK are linked to poor air quality. A recent EU report found that in the UK six million workdays were lost each year to air pollution and that the health-related externalities totalled €28 billion. Air pollution is damaging people’s health, and adding costs to public services and businesses in the process. The source of the problem in pollution hotspots is road transport, which produces over 95% of the toxic fumes in these areas. And diesel vehicles in particular are responsible, as they emit many times more nitrogen dioxide than petrol alternatives.

The Government urgently needs to find a solution to this problem, following their latest defeat in the High Court last year. The judge ruled the Government’s air quality plan was inadequate. The Government now has until April 2017 to produce a new draft plan to bring the UK into full legal compliance by 2019 at the latest. This strategy must be confirmed by July 2017. Air pollution is also being driven up the agenda by the Government’s decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow. Local campaigners say they are planning to use the air quality concerns to block the project in the courts.

Context for the scrappage scheme

The UK had a vehicle scrappage scheme in 2009, introduced in response to the financial crisis. Rather than an environmental measure, it was a stimulus for the domestic car industry, which had seen new vehicle registrations fall by 30% between the first quarter of 2008 and the same time in 2009. Under the scheme, vehicles over 10 years old could be scrapped in return for a £2,000 discount off a new vehicle. The Government allocated a £400 million budget for the scheme.

The idea of a scrappage scheme for polluting diesel vehicles has been around for a while. But, until now, the Government has always been dismissive on the grounds of cost. In April last year, a source from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was quoted saying that there was "no proportionate way to appropriately target such a measure to the areas where it would be most needed and it would be prohibitively expensive, as well as an ineffective use of resource to offer a scheme indiscriminately".

Factors to consider when designing the scheme

The effectiveness of a diesel scrappage scheme will depend on its precise configuration. There are three issues in particular that the Government has to consider: first, how it is going to pay for it; second, how it is going to target it geographically to ensure the scheme eases pollution in hotspots; third, what types of vehicle trade will be eligible for a grant.

First, a diesel scrappage scheme has the potential to be very expensive, unless it is part of a suite of policies that is revenue neutral. One suggestion is to increase Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) on new diesel vehicles to fund the scrappage scheme. This would also serve to disincentivise purchases of new diesels, most of which continue to fail to achieve EU air pollution limits when tested under real-world conditions. Another approach could be to levy a “toxicity charge” on motorists entering pollution hotspots in old, polluting vehicles, like the Mayor of London is introducing in the capital later this year. This levy would ensure motorists pay the full social costs of their pollution, as well as providing a revenue to fund charges.

Second, a diesel scrappage scheme must be targeted to remove dirty vehicles from where pollution is illegal. If an old diesel car that only ever drives around rural English villages is taken off the road, then it won’t help bring cities like London and Birmingham into compliance with the law. One approach could be to restrict eligibility for the scheme to vehicles registered to properties in or near a pollution hotspot. However, there would be no guarantee that these will be the only vehicles travelling into hotspots. The Government could also explore ways of linking the scheme to its new Clean Air Zone network so that the cashback is available to those who are affected by their introduction.  

Third, the Government must carefully consider which vehicle trades are eligible for cashback. One condition could be that the old diesel must be exchanged for an ultra-low emission vehicle, such as a pure electric car. But some drivers of old diesel cars may want to scrap their car altogether and switch to just cycling or using public transport. Others may still need a vehicle with an internal combustion engine because of the long distances they are driving. But while a petrol car would reduce air pollution relative to a diesel, it would not help cut carbon emissions, another important government policy objective. The less flexible the scheme is, the fewer old diesels it will successfully take off the road.


If implemented correctly, this policy could form a big part of the Government’s response to the air pollution problem. It should complement smart regulation, such as an increase in the number of low emission zones. Bright Blue has campaigned for central government to devolve more powers and funding to English cities to enable them to set up low emission zones in pollution hotspots.

Replacing diesels in the vehicle pool is a major challenge: there are over 11 million diesel cars on the roads in the UK, or 38% of the whole car fleet. In terms of new vehicles, sales of diesels have started to decrease, with the most recent data showing a 4% drop relative to the same month in 2016. This is gradually unwinding efforts by policymakers since the 1990s that encouraged diesel over petrol, because of perceived lower carbon emissions. For instance, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown cut vehicles taxes for diesels in the 2001 Budget.

The benefits of this shift away from diesel are broader than the purely environmental. As the industrial strategy confirmed last month, ultra-low emission vehicles are a priority sector for the Government, and crucial to the UK’s long-term economic prosperity. Now is the time for the Government to be ambitious with its domestic policy framework, so that it can establish a leading position in these new technologies.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

We need a mobility renaissance to make London a cycling city

By now you will be familiar with the story. London’s air quality is both illegal and lethal. Not only does it continue to breach EU legal limits, it’s much worse than the standards called for by the World Health Organisation. The equivalent of over 9,000 Londoners die prematurely every year from simply breathing. Doctors are becoming unprecedentedly vocal about the serious, irreversible long-term impacts to the health and development of London’s children. It’s a situation that has been tolerated for too long.

Politicians of all stripes have finally agreed that this cannot be allowed to continue, and the Mayor of London has promised to reduce air pollution, consulting on a raft of important measures to get a grip on this crisis. But we shouldn’t underestimate how radical the programme to clean up London’s air will need to be: only action commensurate with the scale of the problem will do and the Mayor’s current proposals, creditable as they are, still have some way to go.

The policies on the table largely focus on a new charging regime to penalise dirty cars, taxis, private hire vehicles, coaches, and heavy goods vehicles, as well as renewing London’s bus fleet with cleaner models and investing in localised pollution abatement. But of themselves they won’t be enough. For example, a large proportion of particulate emissions arises from road, tyre and brake wear: this alone indicates that switching away from current volumes and patterns of motor vehicle use will be as important as tackling tailpipe emissions.

This is all part of a broader piece. London’s surface transport system needs to meet multiple objectives, such as keeping London’s growing population moving, delivering goods and services efficiently, reducing pollution and carbon emissions and achieving zero road fatalities and serious injuries. Improving our streetscape and how our roads are used also has a pivotal role in making the capital an even more vibrant, attractive, productive and world-class place in which to live, work and play.

Yet the current configuration won’t cut it, and profound change is required: walking and cycling must be allowed to flourish as the principal modes for everyday journeys; access to a car must be encouraged over car ownership; smarter delivery of goods and services must be incentivised; “multi-modal” journeys must be made easier and affordable; the bus network must be reorganised – the list goes on. Whatever the future system of surface transport looks like, if it’s going to be up to the job, then it won’t look like it does today.

But returning to pollution, we must at the same time acknowledge that preventing loss of life and lifelong debilitation will be costly and disruptive. If people and companies with dirty vehicles are to be penalised then the money raised must be invested in cleaner, alternative travel options – from new cycling facilities to green electricity infrastructure for vehicle charging. It will also be unjust not to provide support for those hard hit, e.g. for small scale operators least able to convert or replace their vehicles.

So far as cycling itself is concerned, let me give some specific examples of the kind of facilitation required for it flourish: giving road space over to physically-protected cycle tracks (not just blue paint) installed on the busiest routes; so-called modal filtering schemes that allow local access but block through traffic in residential areas and town centres; a 20 mph speed limit as the general rule (a proven lifesaver for pedestrians also); making "direct vision" lorries - the safest type available on the market - the norm on London’s streets; and basing housing developments around cycling, public transport and car-sharing. There is also enormous scope to open up the business-by-bike market with the recent arrival of increasingly affordable and reliable electrically-assisted cargo bikes: these are already being used by carriers such as DHL and UPS and are perfect for last-mile delivery within freight consolidation systems (indeed “e-bikes” also at a stroke make longer commutes more achievable and enjoyable by cycle). Little of this will happen organically, however, and capitalising on the enormous potential of cycling to reduce congestion, pollution and travel costs will require concerted action by the Mayor, TfL, the boroughs and business.

A new, enlightened approach to transport, together with innovation and improving technology, is dragging our city out of twentieth-century thinking. But a genuine mobility renaissance will only be possible if it carries Londoners with it. That’s why it is so encouraging that consensus is building across politicians, transport authorities, businesses, health specialists and so on to get the right policies in place, and to engage the public in them. Unlocking the multiple benefits of making London a cycling city must necessarily be at the heart of that conversation.

Ashok Sinha is CEO of London Cycling Campaign

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily of Bright Blue.

A low-carbon modern industrial strategy

It is often claimed that to tackle climate change we must sacrifice some economic prosperity. The raw statistics clearly disprove this, and show that you can in fact have both. Between 1990 and 2014, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 35%. In the same period, the UK’s gross domestic product increased by 62%. So strong growth can go hand in hand with climate change mitigation.

But we should go further than this defensive position. We should instead argue that decarbonisation is an economic opportunity. This claim has two parts. First, cheap, efficient, clean energy reduces costs for business and households. Second, our leadership in the clean technologies of the future is vital for securing the UK’s long-term economic prosperity. And this was the narrative that is resoundingly endorsed in this week’s green paper on the modern industrial strategy.

Reducing energy costs for business

Energy is at the heart of the industrial strategy, and was one of the ten pillars under the heading “delivering affordable energy and clean growth”. The first half of the chapter focuses on reducing the cost of energy for businesses. It is true that UK energy costs are higher than many industrial competitors: in 2015, average UK industrial electricity prices including taxes were the third highest in the EU, behind Italy and Germany. A 2016 PwC report found that this is primarily due to higher ‘commodity prices’, such as gas and coal. So in other words climate policies are not the main driver.

However, it is true that levies to fund climate change policies, like Contracts for Difference or Feed-in Tariffs, are a component of energy bills. To ensure these are minimised, the Government is now committed to carry out a review on the cost of decarbonisation.

It is essential that we cut emissions in the cheapest way possible to keep businesses competitive and households’ utility bills affordable. Current policy already reflects this principle: a fundamental provision of the Climate Change Act 2008 is that the Committee on Climate Change advises the government on how to cut emissions in the most cost-effective way.

What should the new government review focus on? One of the simplest ways for the Government to reduce energy costs would be to encourage homes and businesses to use less energy in the first place. To do this, government must leverage more private investment into energy efficiency and decentralised renewables. Bright Blue has called for the government to issue 'Help to Improve' loan guarantees. This would reduce the cost of financing loans below the rate offered by the private sector.

But as well as reducing demand, we need to decarbonise the supply and replace ageing power stations. As argued elsewhere on this blog, Ministers could reduce the cost of this new energy infrastructure by enabling mature technologies such as onshore wind and solar to compete for zero-subsidy, fixed-price contracts. The Conservatives’ 2015 General Election manifesto commitment to stop subsidised onshore wind developments can be respected if fixed-price contracts are awarded on a competitive basis to whichever energy is cheapest.

Supporting the industries of the future

Many conservatives are instinctively hesitant about government choosing which industries are likely to be successful in the future. The Government’s modern industrial strategy sought to address these concerns by focusing on providing favourable conditions for growth to emerging sectors, rather than offer direct financial support to incumbents. Instead of subsidies, the Government’s preferred policy levers are skills, institutions, infrastructure, research, and regulatory reform. Three low-carbon sectors get particular mention in the plan: battery storage, ultra-low emission vehicles, and nuclear.

First, Ministers have commissioned a review into a new research institution to enable the UK to become a global leader in battery storage. Bright Blue strongly welcomes this; in our 2015 report Green and responsible conservatism, we called on the Government to initiate a major research programme on storage. Batteries will be key for guaranteeing security of supply with a higher proportion of our electricity coming from variable renewables. There is also mounting evidence that storage will save consumers money on their bills, with a recent Carbon Trust report estimating a £2.4 billion benefit by 2030.

Second, the Government appointed Richard Parry-Jones, former chair of Network Rail, to conduct a sectoral review for ultra-low emission vehicles. The review will propose changes to regulation, tax, infrastructure, and other policies, which will form the basis of a ‘sector deal’. One of the regulatory changes government should consider is enabling all English cities to set up low emission zones in pollution hotspots. This would provide a nudge to urban motorists to swap their diesel car for a cleaner, electric alternative. Infrastructure improvements are needed too, which means, above all, increasing the number of rapid charging points. Bright Blue has recommended that the Government issue loan guarantees to private providers to reduce their cost of capital and encourage them to invest in new charging points.

Finally, a sector review for the nuclear industry to be carried out by Lord Hutton, chair of the Nuclear Industry Association, was announced. Tackling the shortage in STEM skills and technical education should be a priority for any nuclear sector deal. Bright Blue has argued that a lifetime tuition fee loan account, to enable anyone at any point in their lives to have the upfront funding to pay for any type of higher education, whether vocational or academic. The loans should be paid back through the PAYE system above a certain salary threshold.

The modern industrial strategy has set out a strong framework on which supportive policies to drive British industrial success can hang. That three of the five early sector deals announced were directly in the low carbon economy shows the industrial opportunity the government sees from emission reduction. Conservative peer Lord Deben has said that “economic self-harm would be to not have the Climate Change Act.” He’s right, and this week’s modern industrial strategy shows that the Government is in agreement too.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Cheap renewables should be at the core of our industrial strategy

The announcement of the new industrial strategy green paper is an exciting moment. The last few years have been defined by an almost total lack of joined-up thinking on energy policy and a bewildering raft of sudden policy announcements - including severe cuts to support for renewable energy - that have left little but uncertainty in their wake.

One of the strategy’s ten pillars commits to ‘delivering affordable energy and clean growth’. The government is setting out to ‘secure the economic benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy’. Bundled into this are plans to back ultra-low emission vehicles, ‘smart’ and clean energy.

So far, so good. But this is politics.

Look a little closer. There is no mention of our two cheapest low carbon energy sources: onshore wind and solar PV, even as both continue to tumble in price. Onshore wind already rivals gas as the cheapest new energy source of any kind - and the government’s own projections show it undercutting new gas as early as next year (latest 2020). Solar is not far behind.

Yet, it is almost impossible to build new generation capacity - fossil, nuclear or renewable - without some public guarantee. For gas this is provided through the capacity market auctions (the last of which was in early December). In contrast, the rug has been pulled out from under onshore wind.

Since the unexpected election of a Conservative majority government in 2015 financial guarantees available to low carbon electricity generators have been denied to onshore wind - complemented by the erection of unique planning barriers. It is not being allowed to compete, period.

Relegating the cheapest low carbon energy source to the bench makes decarbonising our energy supply more expensive. Citizens Advice found that for each financial support auction run without onshore wind £500m would be added to the public bill over 15 years (not including eye-watering sums being spent on Hinkley). With auctions running roughly annually it’s not hard to see that cost reaching the billions. In part that number is so high because of a little advertised fact: subsidy auction rules require that onshore wind cannot alone be excluded. Instead, auctions for more ‘mature’ renewables must be cancelled altogether to deny onshore wind access. But this blocks bidding rights to the next cheapest low carbon energy source - solar PV - too. Hobbling onshore wind means taking commercial scale solar down with it - inflating the cost of meeting our emissions targets.

Overpaying to decarbonise our economy makes no fiscal sense, and breaks another Conservative manifesto promise: to transition to low carbon at lowest cost. Worse, it pushes up costs for businesses - particularly large industrial users of electricity. By equivocating about the role of ‘green subsidies’ in energy costs - all the while sidelining the cheapest renewables - the government risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that could erode public consent for the huge investment needed to modernise our energy system.

The time has come to face facts: an industrial strategy for a competitive and low carbon Britain that excludes our cheapest renewables just isn’t very strategic.

So where next? The 2015 manifesto commitment has its roots in a letter from 100 MPs to David Cameron in 2012 protesting onshore wind growth. Though sources maintain that many of them signed it casually, without much knowledge of the issue, nevertheless there are local dimensions the government is wary of.

But, really, they needn’t be.

Government polling shows onshore wind is popular nationally - at 71% (the highest score yet) - while our research finds two-thirds support in rural areas (where people are most likely to live next to turbines).Yes, there will be always be vocal local opposition - but the government found just 2% strongly opposed in national figures.

Building an active constituency for onshore wind isn’t rocket science. But like rockets, it needs oxygen. Community wind projects, where locals can directly participate and benefit, transform turbines from perceived corporate impositions to community assets. Recent Cooperative Energy polling found 65% of 2015 Conservative voters would be likely to support local community owned wind turbines. Combining this approach with existing industry standards for commercial developments that offer direct benefits to communities (through anything from a local share offer to energy bill reductions) is a powerful approach to embedding local benefits and cementing local enthusiasm.

For this - as a first step - the planning barriers that block community-led wind projects must come down. This must be met with a re-doubled approach to enable a route to market for onshore wind (and thus solar PV). The government doesn’t have to choose between its manifesto pledges to halt subsidised onshore wind and to decarbonise at lowest cost. It can proactively support direct local supply projects, such as Energy Local, to create local energy markets that lower household bills while increasing payments to renewable generators. And it can provide long term contracts for onshore wind at or below the level needed to bring forward new gas. Under any reasonable analysis this is de-risking, not subsidising.

The government is right to identify affordable energy and clean growth at the core of our new industrial journey. There is simply no other way. But until it summons the leadership to bring our cheapest renewables in from the cold it will forever be trying, wastefully, to square this circle right at its heart.

Max Wakefield is lead campaigner on 10:10’s Blown Away campaign to stand up for onshore wind. Sign our petition before the spring budget to bring our cheapest renewables in from the cold.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily of Bright Blue