Councils & the climate emergency

On 16 April, over 200 attendees joined Future of London for the digital launch of its Achieving Net Zero programme. Responding to the fact that at least 26 of London’s boroughs, along with the GLA, have passed ‘climate emergency declarations’, our first ever webinar brought built environment professionals from both the public and private sector together to explore what the climate emergency means for councils and housing associations, and what the wider sector can do to support them.

Nicola Mathers, Future of London’s Chief Executive, opened the webinar with some of the key questions the programme intends to cover. What are the costs of achieving net zero and how will we pay for it? How can public and private sectors best work together? And what are the key themes that run across sectors and disciplines?

Nicola also stressed the importance of scale; London is a global city and the climate emergency is a global issue. But London also faces specific challenges – such as flooding and overheating – and we’re already starting to feel the impact of climate change. And at a local level, each borough has set different targets, is testing different approaches, and faces its own challenges and opportunities.

The scale of the challenge facing the public sector

We asked our first panel what the climate emergency means for the public sector. All the panellists drew attention to the scale of the challenge, particularly the cost of carbon reduction; Harold Garner, Head of Sustainability, Air Quality & Energy at LB Camden reckons a 67% carbon reduction by 2030 will cost the borough almost £1bn. Other challenges include the need for new skills and ways of working, and the lack of strong political mechanisms for dealing with long-term policy challenges.

Diana Lock, Head of Energy & Environment at Optivo, also pointed out how quickly policies and guidelines become out of date, as new data emerges and new legislation is passed. “There have been so many seismic changes within the sector in recent years that the Energy and Environment Strategy we wrote two years ago is already out of date”. Optivo is now working on their new strategy.


Diana Lock presents a slide on how her housing association is tackling the climate emergency
Diana Lock explaining Optivo’s approach to sustainability. Source: Future of London.

Leading and enabling: the role of local authorities

Hannah Jameson, Assistant Director for Sustainable Growth & Climate Change Response for LB Lambeth, stressed how important it is for local authorities to show leadership – and one way for a council to do this is to tackle the carbon emissions from its own estate and housing stock. All  the panellists explained how their organisations are doing this. LB Camden, for example, has switched all electricity across its schools and corporate estate to 100% renewable. Likewise, LB Hounslow is switching all the council’s fleet of vehicles to electric.

But they also acknowledged that a local authority’s own emissions only account for a tiny percentage of a borough’s total (3% in LB Lambeth, 5% in LB Hounslow). “As some of the most significant carbon reductions aren’t going to come from our direct interventions, we need to put as much emphasis on our convening power and enabling role,” said Hannah.

Inspiring behaviour change and empowering communities

Getting your own house in order is key, but so too is inspiring behaviour change amongst residents, local businesses and partner organisations. Gareth James, Senior Transport Planner at LB Hounslow, gave the example of reaching out to residents through an environmentally-themed issue of the council’s quarterly publication Hounslow Matters. This explained what the council is doing to reduce its own emissions and what it’s asking residents to do to tackle theirs, such as buying an electric car or using a car club. Optivo organises regular Retrofit Roadshows to help residents understand the new tech that’s being installed in their homes, and give them a chance to talk directly to consultants and contractors.

But to encourage people to change their behaviour, organisations must think about how they communicate the scale of the crisis, and the possible solutions, to people. “The infrastructure picture – insulation, retrofit, the scale of carbon reduction – is obviously important, but it misses the connection with people,” said Harold. In response to this, last summer LB Camden held its first Citizens Assembly on the climate crisis, the result of which was a new environmental plan. LB Lambeth is also organising a Citizens Assembly, and Hannah was keen to acknowledge how much LB Camden’s work has inspired other boroughs.

This slide shows images of Camden councils climate emergency citizens assembly
LB Camden’s first Citizen’s Assembly on the climate crisis was held last summer. Source: Harold Garner.

However, as Gareth pointed out, community engagement isn’t easy, especially when it comes to complex policy issues. Despite the urgency of the climate emergency, a consultation on a residents’ parking scheme has got more responses than the consultation on LB Hounslow’s Climate Emergency Action Plan. “What is really encouraging though,” says Gareth, “is how much more engaged young people are in responding to this issue. It’s usually only older residents who respond to consultations.”

Crisis and opportunity

Co-chair Bevan Jones, Associate at Greengage Environmental, kicked off the Q&A by asking panellists about the skills that staff in their organisations need in order to achieve a net zero economy. Both Harold and Hannah agreed that collaboration and partnership-building skills were critical, so that local authority sustainability teams could bring not only the public along with them, but all the major investment teams working in the council as well.

The panel acknowledged that as local authorities turn their attention to economic recovery at the end of Covid-19, integrating climate change and sustainability into all council policies will be more important than ever. “It’s clear that there will be a need for economic renewal,” said Harold. “How can we ensure the uplift is as green as possible?”

The Q&A also raised the controversial question of offsetting. “Offsetting needs to be meaningful and measurable,” cautioned Bevan. “Otherwise we’ll get people taking the easy route.” But Harold suggested that offsetting can offer both a carbon benefit and social value. LB Camden is exploring how the value from the economic redevelopment of Euston could be redistributed to the surrounding large estates that need energy improvements.

Sharing expertise: the role of the private sector

The second panel explored what the wider built environment sector can do to support the public sector’s climate emergency declarations. Peter Bovill, Planning Partner at Montagu Evans, called for the private sector to share their global knowledge of this issue, through research, guidelines, case studies and best practice examples. “This is the time for resource-constrained local authorities to ask their consultants not only for help, but also for new ideas, innovations and insight,” added Bevan.

Peter Bovill shares a slide about the global insight his organisation has into net zero buildings
Peter Bovill explains how Montagu Evans can help the public sector achieve their net zero targets. Source Future of London.

Tom Dollard, Head of Sustainable Design at Pollard Thomas Edwards, also urged those working in the private sector not to wait for policy to arrive before they act. “Built environment professionals need to be pushing this agenda and offering their clients the opportunity to get to net zero before policy,” said Tom. Pollard Thomas Edwards gives all their clients the option of a sustainable design strategy for all projects at RIBA stage 2, even if they then decide not to pursue it.

Working collaboratively requires a shared language

“The public and private sectors can inspire each other,” said Nils Rage, Sustainable Design & Innovation Manager at Landsec. “For example, in France, all new public-sector buildings have to be built using 50% timber or natural materials. This provides a precedent and proof of concept that can then be applied across the sector.”

But for the public and private sectors to work towards net zero collaboratively and holistically, Nils emphasised the need for a common language and consistent definition of what achieving net zero means, as well as shared goals and targets. He called for local authorities to engage with developers as early as possible on projects, so that new development can be shaped to meet the sustainability needs and targets of the borough.

Balancing short-term priorities with long-term aspirations

One of the key issues with regards to achieving net zero, argued Ritu Garg, Senior Transport Planner at Arup, is how organisations balance their short-term priorities with their long-term aspirations. She suggested that the built-environment sector has an important role to play in empowering local government, and other private-sector organisations, to prioritise the actions they can take now.

“Comprehensive, long-term strategies are complex but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to take action today,” said Ritu. “But near-term measures that could be implemented are often held up because of a ‘business as usual’ approach to funding and decision making. A realistic strategy has to address immediate needs and ongoing disruptions, without losing sight of the long-term carbon reduction goals.”

Images associated with transport, like roads and trains
How can we move towards zero carbon transport? Source: Ritu Garg.

Monitoring performance is key – and you need data

In his summary, Bevan highlighted the importance of measuring how net zero buildings perform, whilst acknowledging that performance monitoring is often overlooked in the built environment sector. To monitor performance you need data, and one of the questions asked in the Q&A was how the private sector can share knowledge and data publicly, without compromising confidentiality agreements and laws.

While panellists shared these concerns, they were confident that there are ways to share data. Tom pointed to existing platforms such as Carbon Buzz, which asks people to anonymously share performance data about a project. In his work for Building for 2050, he’s been working with academics to develop a framework and online platform for anonymously sharing data about carbon and energy performance.

“Transparency in actual performance is a key parameter that we need to drive the net zero agenda forward,” added Nils. “To be accountable to our investors, we need to be able to show our tenants and leasing markets that buildings perform as they should.”

Driving behaviour change – both internally and beyond

The final question was how the panellists were driving behaviour change throughout their own organisations. Like their public-sector colleagues on the first panel, all of them acknowledged the reputational risk of being a sector leader on sustainability if their own organisation and its projects aren’t aligned to this.

Nils reiterated Harold’s earlier point that tackling the climate crisis and achieving net zero can’t just be the responsibility of the sustainability team; the whole organisation has to be on board. “It’s in our interests to do this,” added Peter. “Now, when we attract and recruit new staff and graduates, they look at our sustainability credentials.”

Panel answers questions about what the private sector can do to help councils address the climate emergency
Q&A with the second panel. Clockwise from top left: Nicola Mathers, Ritu Garg, Tom Dollard, Nils Rage, Peter Bovill and Bevan Jones. Source: Future of London.

Both Ritu and Tom stressed the importance of working across disciplines and building partnerships in order to drive behaviour change. Ritu gave the example of a pricing scheme that she’d worked on with psychologists, in order to better understand how the transport team could implement a scheme that resulted in behaviour change – rather than just thinking about how price affects behaviour from an economic perspective.

Looking to the future

There are, of course, technical challenges relating to the best ways to reduce carbon emissions. However, net zero is a complex issue. The local, the London-wide and the global scales are all interrelated; what happens at one scale can have a profound impact on the others. So we can’t tackle this issue in silos. And a key net zero challenge that we mustn’t overlook is how to collaborate and co-create.

Collaboration needs to happen within teams, within both public and private organisations, and across the sector. But, if we are to make net zero a reality, collaboration needs to reach further than this. As Tom said: “One sector doesn’t have all the answers. Bringing in organisations like the Green Register and Future of London provides those cross-sector learnings.”

Helping built environment professionals share challenges and ideas so that they can learn from one another’s experiences is Future of London’s main aim, and one of the key drivers of our Achieving Net Zero project. And the good news is, our panel are all looking forward to cross-sector collaborations in the future.

Watch the full webinar here, and find out more about FoL’s Achieving Net Zero project and how to get involved here. And if you’d like to receive invitations to more Future of London events, sign up to our mailing list.