A Green Recovery will fail without rebuilding local capacity to deliver

By Will Eadson, Sheffield Hallam University

The Covid-19 pandemic and related social and economic crises have prompted calls for governments to catalyse a green recovery. This blog aims to complement these proposals, drawing on a recent article written with Aidan While about the differential capacity to act on low carbon goals across people and places.

This blog emphasises how thinking about a green recovery needs to recognise that first, (as our article shows) the existing policy framework in the UK has eroded local capacities, and second, that this has important implications for social justice in any green recovery package.

People and places have different capacities to act

We developed a ‘households-in-place’ approach to understanding social and spatial impacts of urban low carbon energy transitions across four policy dimensions. Households-in-place focuses on:

  • how the position of individual households in terms of employment, housing, health and so on …
  • … is overlaid by the relative position of places (communities, towns and cities) regarding economic development, financial resources/investment, planning and increasingly variable social support architecture.

We argue that a just low carbon transition requires urban scale intervention, and that this intervention might come from an array of sources within and beyond state institutions.

But a focus purely on variable capacities for urban-scale intervention says little about the differential impact on individuals. For example, which households in different localities are advantaged or disadvantaged by low carbon energy transitions, and in what ways?

Why this matters to a post-pandemic green recovery

Over the last decade UK government policy on urban low carbon transitions has overlapped and interweaved to produce distinctive patterns of social and spatial inequalities. These all have significant implications for how we consider prospects for a green recovery:

1. We have witnessed growth of an expanded field of energy supply investment. Scope for new entrants and business models has been opened-up by fiscal incentives from central government and rising energy prices. This has been particularly the case for investment in decentralised electricity generation. But these incentives have largely privileged individuals and household who can afford to invest.  

A just green recovery programme needs to combine targeted packages at disadvantaged households, alongside measures that empower urban governments and civil society to develop collective energy supply solutions in ways that meet local needs.

2. National domestic energy efficiency policy has included focus on tackling inefficient housing for those most exposed to the costs of heating, including the fuel poor and those with health conditions. But this has varied over time and in recent years the overall sums of money available have reduced. This means less support for improving domestic energy efficiency among the poor and vulnerable.  

Fragmentation of delivery combined with policy flux and short-term projects has led to difficulties for support providers and individual households navigating energy efficiency support. The lower end of the private rented sector is most disadvantaged because poor housing quality is highest among this group.  

A just green recovery programme requires investment through local government and civil society, given flexibility to deliver according to local needs, and backed by more stringent legislation to encourage uptake in the private rented sector and resources for local enforcement. Any programmes need to be guaranteed over the long-term to allow local organisations the security and continuity to plan over time.

3. Local governments can steer development and consumption through traditional forms of authority via regulatory powers, sanctions, spatial planning and initiatives such as congestion charging. But overriding emphasis in national planning policy on facilitating development has led to the more demanding dimensions of low carbon and energy planning being downgraded.  

The recent planning White Paper places this in starker relief. The inability or reluctance of urban governments to use authoritative powers has ensured that the ingrained injustice of non-redistributive national policy is not easily addressed locally.  

A just green recovery requires more (not less!) emphasis on local and regional spatial and development planning. It also requires that local organisations do more to ensure participation of local people in decision-making to ensure that households understand and back any authoritative measures.    

4. The heavily centralised nature of English government has critical implications for the capacity of individual places to respond to the impacts of economic restructuring that result from low carbon energy transition. There is currently very little to protect disadvantaged citizens from the impacts of potential job losses or to enable uptake of jobs in new industries. This is exacerbated by a lack of strategic intervention at city-regional and regional levels of government.  

A just green recovery would focus on maximising potential for those currently unemployed, at risk of unemployment or in poor quality employment to gain employment in newly created ‘green’ jobs. This requires investment in local support provision and local authorities exercising existing powers through the planning and procurement processes to ensure that employers work with local communities to bring jobs to those who most need them.  

A green recovery needs local capacity-building

Overall, the UK approach to low carbon energy transition largely relies on individuals (municipalities, households and firms) to access support on offer through disconnected policy measures. Urban institutions need to provide platforms to assemble knowledge and resources, as well as enable citizens and communities to access government investment.

Yet, over the last decade the UK government has dismantled the institutional and financial support required to coordinate a green recovery across these multiple dimensions. Local authorities are denuded almost beyond recognition. City Regions remain poor replacements for Regional Development Agencies and Regional Assemblies in terms of resources and freedoms available to them.

Employment and skills support is much reduced and ill-prepared for the needs of a Covid-recovery programme. Planning is being stripped back without heed for evidence of the need for more and better not less coordinated approaches to place-making. And energy supply remains both fragmented and centralised with incentives weighted towards people who can most afford to invest at the expense of those who can’t.

The relative weakness of UK urban scale coordination is therefore a central issue for a successful and just green recovery. A just urban green recovery must prioritise strengthening urban scale coordination and ability to support citizens at its heart or it will fail to deliver.

The full article, published in European Planning Studies, is available here: please contact me if you cannot access it and would like a copy.

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