I’m convinced and really optimistic for a change. Despite the staggering cuts that local authorities face, our biggest conference room was jam-packed with councillors and officers talking about sustainable energy for six hours today. It was the launch event of Compare renewables, a resource that helps local authorities understand their sustainable energy options. Based on the enthusiasm in the room and discussions during workshops, I’m fully convinced that councils still see energy as a priority.
The audience mentioned several clear challenges that are stopping them from leading on decentralised energy. These are familiar barriers: high start-up costs, uncertainty over government incentives and community opposition.
The most convincing response to these concerns came from our local authority speakers. There is nothing like hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. I invited the leader of Stockport and two senior officers, from Bristol and Croydon. Their presentations were honest, pragmatic, and inspiring. They admitted to the challenges and the hard work they’ve undertaken to convince civic leadership and communities to support new energy schemes. It was the strongest call to arms I could have possibly relayed.
After lunch we had a panel session that asked ‘what is the biggest sustainable energy opportunity for local authorities?’ Richard Crawley (Programme Manager, PAS) gave us the planning perspective. His introduction was simple:
- we are going through a period of unprecedented change;
- money is scarce;
- there are ‘fake’ markets with ‘easy answers’; and
- renewable energy developers say planning is the problem.
Even the Prime Minister says planning is the problem! We are the so-called ‘enemies of enterprise’. As planners, we know that we’ve been put in an impossible position – battling climate change whilst giving consent to endless growth. Nevertheless, Richard was surprisingly optimistic in his main message. He said (under the heading it’s not easy):
- put a clear vision in your local plan;
- use your planning powers;
- be flexible and trusting;
- and ‘just begin’.
It’s a bit like the Nike slogan, just do it. This is a typical Crawley-ism, but it’s in line with PAS’s ongoing message since they were set up to assist local planning authorities in core strategy development. Given the onset of neighbourhood planning, the message has never been clearer. You need to get your local plan in place.
I think this message holds true for sustainable energy projects as well. Zero Carbon is coming and developers will be looking for ways to offset their development’s unregulated carbon emissions by paying into a fund (this is one of the proposed ‘allowable solutions’). Clever local authorities will have evidence in place that tells them their best opportunities for cutting carbon with this money. This could mean insulation to start, but it is about low and zero carbon energy projects as well.
This conversation has rapidly moved on from talking about what local authorities should be doing, to sharing success stories of what they are doing. If you want to read some, there are 25 examples (a couple are led by schools and community groups) on the Compare renewables case study library. These include examples of councils that have used planning policy, decentralised energy studies and energy strategies to drive their work.
The case studies are nicely summarised throughout a short publication as well: Sustainable energy options: How do you choose the right solutions for your area? If you have other examples to add to the case study library, please get in touch.