Philip Box, UKGBC
Philip Box UK Green Building Council
Sheffield sky line
Built environment
Built Environment
UKGBC's Public Affairs & Policy Officer Philip Box explains why the 2021 English local elections will be critical in unlocking the potential of the built environment to drive a local green recovery, and explores what local authorities can do to ‘build back greener’.

English Local elections are often judged to be more about the state of local services than broader issues such as climate change.  Yet, with the UN Climate Summit this year in Glasgow, and with public concern about climate change still at an all-time high, could this year be different?

Somewhat irrespective of the outcome, these elections will be critically important for environmental action, not-least given the widespread calls for a green recovery in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. With so many authorities having declared Climate Emergencies and ambitious local net zero targets, the next few years will require an urgent shift in focus to delivering local commitments, not just setting them.

For local authorities of all sizes, success will inevitably require ambitious action to address the environmental impacts of the built environment. Around 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions are connected to the built environment, a pattern frequently repeated locally, when local authorities profile their local area’s emissions.  Likewise, any habitat loss or fragmentation caused by new development can have a significant impact on local efforts to reverse biodiversity decline.

The role of local authorities in a green recovery

Local authorities have a vital role to play in addressing these challenges, given they control many of the policy levers necessary to deliver action on the ground. This includes their planning and enforcement roles, housing, procurement, regeneration, and economic development activities; as well as their responsibilities in relation to education, skills, services and investments. Furthermore, they can also play a much broader role in facilitating local partnerships, public engagement, and communications. 

On an individual level, elected representatives can be a vital catalyst for driving action across a local authority, either by having responsibility for key policy areas, or by scrutinising current approaches and challenging established practice. 

To help inform local candidates, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has produced a briefing outlining key policies, initiatives and examples of best practice to help improve the sustainability of the built environment. The six key areas covered include: unlocking home retrofit (energy efficiency); new build energy and carbon standards; climate resilience and biodiversity; local authority leadership; social value; and reducing waste.  

Why greener homes are key 

Of the areas highlighted, both home retrofit and new build standards will be particularly important for delivering a green economic recovery. Research by the Local Government Association and Ecuity has revealed that thousands of local jobs could be supported in relation to both energy efficiency and low carbon heat by 2030 and 2050.  In some areas, these jobs could account for over one third of all of those associated with achieving a net-zero transition. However, these jobs will not simply appear without proactive local action. 

For new homes, UKGBC has produced extensive guidance on both stretching and minimum requirements that local authorities should introduce to successfully deliver sustainable new builds in their area, all of which go beyond what is required by national policy. Each section is accompanied by a practical set of policy examples already in place, and collectively these recommendations can play a vital role in driving the development of local supply chains and the capacity of local low-carbon industries, as well as accelerating local progress towards net zero.  

On retrofit, following the fate of the Green Homes Grant, ambitious local action has become more important than ever. Last year UKGBC’s Accelerator Cities programme began to explore this area in detail, including the key elements of a successful local authority-led retrofit programme.

There is much that ambitious local authorities can do locally. For example, they can bring together local stakeholders to formulate local retrofit strategy; develop a ‘one stop shop’ service; or use their communications channels and extensive reach to engage with residents. Unsurprisingly, common concerns raised about delivering a local retrofit programme often focus on both finance and skills.

On finance, UKGBC has worked closely with the Green Finance Institute to explore a range of different and innovative financial options relevant for local authorities. Likewise to address the skills gap, local authorities should create an Action Plan to develop and support local skills and the supply chain. This could be done by setting up a task group including representatives from across the supply chain. Data on local building types and tenures will also be required to ensure the local supply chain and skills plan matches with the requirements of the area. 

What we need from national government 

However, despite the promising innovation of leading local authorities, certain barriers to building back better can clearly only be overcome with support at the national level. 

Following the demise of the Green Homes Grant, organisations across the sector have increasingly called for a national retrofit strategy to help rebuild industry confidence; accompanied by adequate long-term funding and with sufficient local flexibility to support innovation.   

On skills and training, the UK Government has unveiled a whole range of employment support and (re)training schemes in the wake of the pandemic. These should now be focused on supporting the net zero transition, particularly in the construction and property sector, in order to develop the skills and supply chains we need.  Likewise net zero skills and jobs should be at the centre of any new funding deals or ‘levelling-up’ funds. 

As voters head to the polls in May, the question of what comes next means the spotlight must be on sustainability. If local authorities of all sizes are to fulfil the promises of their Climate Emergency Declarations, and to meet their local net zero targets, then candidates must now start to spell out their plans for improving the sustainability of the built environment. 

The UK Green Building Council’s briefing for local authority candidates is available here.