Climate policy and local government

Climate politics, writes Richard Hatcher, are always local, as well as national and international, and the local is not just the national writ small.


The climate policy process and local government: the example of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Birmingham City Council and home retrofit

This article uses retrofit as a case study to examine how the policies of the Combined Authorities and Birmingham City Council on climate change are interlocked with the politics of their decision-making processes.

A case in point is the Combined Authorities, and their climate policies need examining. Ten combined authorities have been established so far, with two more approved – North Yorkshire and York, and East Midlands. Together they cover most of the industrial regions of England apart from London, which has its own form of regional government. The ten Metro Mayors collectively represent more than 20 million people and nearly 50% of England’s GDP. In the north of England three out of five people are represented by a Mayor. I am going to focus on the West Midlands CA as an example, though each CA varies in some ways. The WMCA has a population of 2.8m and has 7 constituent authorities, including Birmingham with a population of 1.1m.  

The CAs have authority over strategic housing planning, transport, and adult education and skills. In addition the GMCA is responsible for health and social care. And of course all are committed to promoting investment and economic development in the context of Government policy, which includes climate and environment issues.

The erosion of local democracy

One of the defining features of neoliberal capitalism is the ongoing erosion of democracy, including at the local level. One instrument of this of course is the year on year cuts in council budgets. But the creation of Combined Authorities is another, in two ways. First, they are even more closely shaped and evaluated by Government than local authorities are, and funding is dependent on their satisfying Government objectives.

And secondly, the local councillors on the governing Boards and committees that control CAs are not elected to that position, they are appointed by the Cabinets of their local authorities. The Board of the West Midlands CA comprises 2 members elected to their positions – the Mayor and the Police and Crime Commissioner – and the Leaders of the 7 local councils: 4 Labour (Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton) and 3 Conservative (Dudley, Solihull, Walsall). The WMCA’s perspective on economic development is indicated by places on its Board for a voting representative of each of the 3 Local Enterprise Partnerships in the West Midlands. There is also a representative of the Midlands TUC.

So the WMCA has only two directly elected members, the Mayor and the Police and Crime Commissioner. There are no elected assemblies to which CAs are accountable, even ones as limited as the London Assembly. Metropolitan county councils run by elected councillors were abolished in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher, following several high profile clashes, mainly with Labour metropolitan county councils, including over spending and rates charges. This means that the citizens of the CAs have no democratic right or mechanism, and therefore no power, to directly hold to account the councillors who run the CAs. And the only mechanism for the citizens of the CA to hold the Mayor to account is an election every four years.

The alternative to electoral accountability that the WMCA is offering is various consultation and ‘co-production’ mechanisms such as the Greener Together Forum and the planned Citizens Panel. In fact ‘co-production’ has increasingly become the favourite public management strategy of local government. Consultation and other forms of direct democracy are vital provided they are meaningful, but they need to be accompanied by structural public power in policy-making because consultation is only advisory and can be ignored or overridden when it suits those in power.

The crisis of Retrofit funding

The need to make homes much more energy efficient is one of the key demands to address the climate emergency. It has become even more urgent during the past year as a result of rising costs.

Poorly insulated homes will have to pay almost £1,000 more than others on their energy bills this winter, according to research by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). The analysis found that homes rated band F on the energy performance certificate (EPC) system are likely to have a gas bill £968 higher than a home rated EPC band C. Those that are rated band D will have to pay £420 more for their gas compared with the higher rating. The dual-fuel price cap has been forecast to reach £3,958 this winter, which will plunge many households into fuel poverty.

(Guardian 10 August 2022).

Recent estimates predict that one in three households will be living in fuel poverty this October unless the government takes effective action. According to Councils and the energy crisis – a plan of action, a new report by the New Economics Foundation for Friends of the Earth, Birmingham and Sandwell rank in the top 5 areas worst affected by the energy crisis in England and Wales. The other 5 LAs within the WMCA also appear in the top 30. Birmingham is also in the top 3 in terms of proportion of households. These at-risk neighbourhoods are not only home to a higher proportion of children than other areas, but people of colour are also twice as likely to live in them, highlighting the disparities that exist across local areas.

In the West Midlands region overarching power lies with the WMCA because of its size, the functions and powers assigned to it by Government, and and its links to Government, with its Tory mayor and majority. Its intended regional dominance in climate policy was made clear in the WMCA’s Five Year Plan (FYP) 2021-2026 – Executive summary,  March 2021: “The WMCA’s role in systems management & governance” is that “In order to ensure a cross-cutting approach to net zero delivery, it is proposed that a new WM2041 Net Zero Delivery Board is established that will: Take responsibility for the achievement of net zero goals across the region and advocate for the necessary resources and powers to achieve this.”

On 19 March 2021 the WMCA Board approved an 88 page Five Year Plan Executive Summary for 2021 to 2026 “to deliver energy efficient homes for up to 294,000 dwellings, with low carbon heating in 292,000,… reducing energy bills, fuel poverty and creating jobs” – “up to 21,000 by 2026”. According to the WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board in March 2022, “to meet the 2041 target and interim targets set out in the Five Year Plan, one home every two minutes will need to become net zero” on the basis of a 40 hour working week.

Birmingham has about 40% of the population of the WMCA region. On 11 January 2022 Birmingham’s Labour Council approved its 50 page Route to Zero Action Plan – Progress Report. It included the following:

4.2 Implementation of city-wide retrofit plan

December 2020 status

We need to give due consideration to the size of the undertaking in retrofitting all of Birmingham City Council’s properties, it will need a large strategic commitment. The retrofit of 60,000 homes over 30 years equates to 2,000 properties per year every year (40 homes every week). Our key next step will be to create a plan for citywide retrofit to include a trial in 2021, with a view to scale up towards 2030.

October 2021 update

This project has not yet started as is dependent on the Thermal Impact / Energy Efficient

Survey project above which has not been completed.

There are two issues here. The first is that BCC’s aim of 60,000 homes by 2030 is completely different from the target of the WMCA’s Five Year Plan of 292,000 homes in the West Midlands by 2026. The WMCA plan means retrofitting about twice as many homes as Birmingham Council’s plan in half the time. The CA and BCC claim to be working in collaboration but in fact they have produced very different plans because there is no effective coordination between them – in fact, they are in competition as the CA aims to assert regional dominance and Birmingham Council attempts to protect its independence. And the combination of no direct accountability of the WMCA to citizens and the deliberate failure of BCC to hold the CA to account through its own Council bodies means that citizens are kept in the dark and powerless.

The crisis of retrofit funding

The second issue is funding. The reports from the WMCA and BCC over the past few years show that their plans for retrofit are repeatedly held back almost to a standstill by lack of funding. The WMCA estimates the total investment required to 2026 to fund the Five Year Plan as £3,853million.

The WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board announced in March 2022 that the total funding gained so far was £26.6million. In May 2022 Andy Street said in ‘Conservative Home’ “The real solution to cost of living pressures lies in schemes like retrofitting, which will cut household bills. In the West Midlands, we are leading the way in this innovative field. A consortium led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been awarded £7.5m to make hundreds of social housing homes more energy efficient.” £7.5million will retrofit 622 homes, to begin in summer 2023.

There are 145,000 Local Authority owned dwellings in the West Midlands so the WMCA’s funding is a drop in the ocean. The reality is that there is almost no Government funding and the WMCA’s Five Year Plan relies very largely on “developing investable propositions to stimulate the market” in private investment. This was made clear in the WMCA’s presentation of its “Net Zero Strategy – Themes” at COP26: the first theme was a “Strong emphasis on private investment and ‘green finance’ – need for investable propositions”. And the problem is that this investment is not forthcoming, as the WMCA report Environment Behaviour Change Update on 9 March 2022 explains: “Energy infrastructure spending is not aligned with local economic priorities which is proving a significant barrier to business investment.” In other words, business can make more profit by investing elsewhere rather than in the green economy. What the WMCA doesn’t say is that only a massive increase in Government funding can fill the gap.

Social housing represents only 13% of homes in the WMCA area – 87% is privately-owned homes, which account for the vast majority of carbon emissions in the housing sector. The Government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme is offering a grant of up to £5,000 to replace old gas heating with an air source heat pump in homes in England and Wales. But this grant is aimed at home owners with ‘disposable income’. According to the Energy Saving Trust it can cost between £7,000 and £13,000 to install an air-to-water heat pump in your home. Many home-owners will not be able to afford this, resulting in a further increase in social inequality. Furthermore, that grant doesn’t cover all the other energy efficiency measures that are needed, such as solar panels and wall insulation. And what incentive is there for private landlords to do it if they don’t have to pay the heating bills?

It is obvious that what is urgently needed is a game-changing increase in Government funding for domestic retrofit, both to local authorities and to private home-owners. This can only be achieved through a campaign of mass public pressure on the Government. The WMCA should be playing a leading role in building this in the West Midlands. But Mayor Andy Street does nothing to challenge the Government over climate funding. His 2021 Mayoral manifesto stands for “Working with Government to win investment and make things happen, rather than criticising Government and getting headlines, but being ignored” – as though these were the only two alternatives.

Labour’s collusion in the Tories’ policies

The figures show that Street’s strategy obviously isn’t working. But what is Labour’s strategy? Why aren’t the Labour councillors on the WMCA Board and its Environment and Energy Board publicly challenging Andy Street and campaigning among the citizens of the West Midlands for a major increase in Government funding to tackle the climate emergency in home retrofit (including backing in-house local authority or non-profit retrofit providers and comprehensive skill training)? The answer, in effect, is that Labour councillors’ silence has been bought by the Tories.  This is what was agreed when the WMCA was set up on Tory government terms:

The way we make decisions recognises the varied economic, political and geographical make-up of our constituent and non-constituent local authorities together with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and other key stakeholders. The WMCA makes decisions by consensus […]

(The West Midlands Combined Authority Annual Plan 2018/2019, p6)

That consensus has not been challenged since then by its Labour Councillor members even as the economic crisis has deepened and the climate emergency has become more urgent. Instead Labour members have chosen in practice to collude in imposing on the people of the West Midlands a consensus of the policies which are acceptable to the Tory government, the Tory Mayor and councillors and the business representatives in the WMCA who support them.

And the Birmingham Labour councillors involved in the various bodies of the WMCA generally choose not to account for what they do there to the citizens of Birmingham at meetings of BCC bodies. To do so would make public their collusion in the CA’s Tory policies and their failure to challenge them. It demonstrates how in local government policy issues, including climate, and issues of democratic accountability are always interlocked.

Meanwhile climate campaigners in the West Midlands continue to build a movement for change on the ground and press for change within the WMCA. The West Midlands Climate Coalition is calling for citizen representatives on the WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board and also on the CA’s Scrutiny Committee with at least an advisory role, especially when climate-relevant issues are on the agenda. Whether the WMCA accepts these proposals or not is a test of how serious they are about public engagement and citizen participation.

This article has focused on just one one issue in one Combined Authority and but they all differ in composition and context. To what extent do their policies differ too? We need to develop a comprehensive picture, including positive developments we can leverage such as Greater Manchester CA’s Mayor Andy Burnham’s support for picket lines and for Enough is Enough at its launch in Manchester on 31 August.

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