Birmingham’s Green Commission: Is it the Step Change we need?

I

SUMMARY An important document for a vitally important subject area. The Commission outlines in effect a work programme to tackle above all CO2 emissions. It summarises the significant work handed over by the previous administration; takes a comprehensive approach and shows some commitment to the agenda. It largely ducks the thorny issue of resources and central government policy stance and doesn’t outline the hard political choices ahead; some of which can be put in place without huge costs; but it is a restart to be approved of and we must hope the Commission and the City Council follow through on a radical agenda 

Green Commission

Introduction

If Birmingham City Council were to be judged on the glossiness and slickness of its publications it would get full marks but what is behind the latest publication from the City Council and its Green Commission. What is it seeking to do. This is a short summary/ review.

Well firstly why is it necessary. There is really no doubt that the globe faces severe environmental challenges with the key one being global warming. The city and the country needs to take radical action to reduce carbon emissions as well as action to mitigate against climate change. If you are in any doubt about the need to tackle CO2 emissions read the latest from Nicholas Stern  where he warns of over 200 million people needing to migrate with a 2 degree rise in temperature: a rise that he now thinks we will well exceed.  If you are also in any doubt about the necessary changes we need to take to meet agreed targets take a look at this insightful lecture by Julia King Vice Chancellor of Aston University (member of the Green Commission) talking about the challenges around urban transport and cars.

Cities is where we can do the most to tackle climate change and so Birmingham’s ambition to be a leading international green city is to be applauded.

The Vision

So the City has a new Green Vision;

‘Our vision is to create a leading green city for a better life and make Birmingham more prosperous, healthier, fairer, resource efficient and better for business. In doing this we will enhance the quality of life and well-being of all our citizens’

All strategies need visions but the phrase  ‘Motherhood and Apple Pie’ comes to mind initially. But lets not judge it too harshly and too quickly.

It is worthwhile saying that the city has made progress in recent years and this is detailed in the report. The Combined Heat and Power network in the City Centre is impressive for UK cities, the ambition of the established Birmingham Energy Savers programme is unmatched in the UK and has already won international independent plaudits. The trials of electric cars and installation of charging points in key city centre locations was amongst the first for any city. However the complete review of the Cities actions was necessary as action needs to step up and there were significant gaps in tackling this agenda.

So what is planned. Well firstly a whole bunch of new strategies and plans are going to be developed to directly or indirectly deliver on this vision. These are

  • A Carbon Road Map
  • A Birmingham Mobility Action Plan
  • A Green Living Spaces Plan
  • A Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan
  • An Economic and Employment Strategy for the Green Economy
  • A City Energy Plan
  • Influencing the City Council’s Birmingham Development Plan
  • Your Green City Supplementary Planning Document
  • A new reference framework to measure performance

Certainly action in all these areas is needed but one must wonder whether they all are needed, how they all interlinked and whether there is a tad of silo thinking going on here. For instance the work of the Smart Commission is only referred to once – with a indication that they should collaborate going forwards but these agendas overlap significantly and so that collaboration should have happened already. I understand however it is starting to happen behind the scenes.

The Carbon Road Map and Mobility Action Plan are perhaps the most important documents. The road map will be as it implies a framework for action across the board on tackling carbon emissions. This is promised by October 2013 and is being discussed at the BASE Conference on April 11th 2013 in Birmingham. It will have four prioirites

  • It will layout how the city should be heated and powered – but this will be detailed in a later Energy plan
  • Creating decarbonised local energy generation capacity building on existing solar energy installations
  • How we travel and get around – but this will be detailed in  the Mobility Plan
  • Improving energy efficiency and affordable warmth of our buildings – effectively delivering on Birmingham Energy Savers

So the Carbon Road Map apart from being a framework seems to be just a first stage with the really detailed work and the tough decisions coming later  through  strategies on Energy and Mobility. Dates for these documents have not seemingly been set but they are both vital agenda issues.

Mobility Action Plan: Can we for instance be persuaded to radically change the way we travel about the city? There will really need to be a step change in

  • investing in public transport
  • investing in cycling and walking (the current overview and scrutiny report pulls its punches)     
  • restricting car based transportation and possibly introducing congestion charging. This TEDx video shows how the public in Stockholm were persuaded to vote for such a system.
  • promoting alternative fuel sources

Birmingham has never led in these fields and it needs to urgently. The investment for instance in the Metro is to be welcomed but it will have taken the city over 17 years to put in place one extra kilometre of track when it opens. What is important is what is planned next and how the City raises the finance. But it won’t all be about massive new investment, some of it could start now. The decision to start to enforce a few of the City’s bus lanes is not mentioned in this Vision, similarly the ambitious plans for widespread 20 mph zones are also not mentioned but they show that low cost actions which will have impact are being thought about. These investments both large and small will have environmental but also economic benefits.For example a recent visitor to Birmingham Klaus Bondam ex Mayor of Copenhagen talked about the economic and health benefits of cycling. Workers are significantly healthier and more productive! He talks here about the need for political leadership!

Energy Plan

Can Birmingham radically change its energy supply. Well it has done well in setting up a series of CHP engines in the City Centre and has made a commitment for all Enterprise Zone developments to be connected and to contribute to this heat and power grid. So behind the scenes the new Paradise Circus development by Argent will have a CHP Engine. Brilliant path breaking work for the UK and unlike with the mobility plan where Birmingham will be playing catch up Birmingham is leading and can set the standards.

Other Issues

There is little concrete and new been announced in this document. it is outlining what is to come. What is welcome is that it is targeting European and Research and Development funding to move the city forwards. This is tacit recognition that the City itself will have few if any funds. It might have been useful to be more explicit about funding and the challenges ahead. The City is able to borrow resources if there is a cashable pay back but will not have significant resources for other necesssary schemes.

The City is actively pursing via the City Deal and via the Heseltine Initiative the establishment of a single budget controlled locally by LEP local authorities.  The City must recognise that part of these investment funds must be invested in this Green agenda because it will not only bring environmental benefits but also economic ones. To some extent this is the case with the initial investments under the Enterprise Zone as money is being allocated to a further Metro Extension and to unlocking the Paradise Circus redevelopment (the latter which will further reduce road capacity in the City Centre and promote better walking connections as well as the CHP engine is quietly environmental)

The City is also hoping to gain control over new EU funding from 2014; Much of this  may be spent on this wide agenda

Conclusions

There is a lot of good work in this document and going on in the city on this topic and this review was over due but the forthcoming strategy documents will have to be radical; will have to serious engage with the resources issue (congestion charging is a case in point) and will need political leadership to move this city forwards.

We will need to come back to assessing the impact of this Commission in months and years to come. Is this a step change in coordinated thinking and action or just motherhood and apple pie? Lets hope it is the former!

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3 comments

  1. Nice article Patrick, look like Birmingham is going in the right direction as far as trying to reduce carbon emissions.
    One of the main challenges it faces is changing the opinion of the general public as far as going green is concerned, understandably a common conception of going green is its going to cost a lot of money, which for some measures it will but most of the measures pay for themselves in the long run, but it’s about getting the public to see the bigger picture ! I come across this quite often when quoting for external wall insulation, yes it cost a lot of money but it will pay for itself in a matter of time !
    The green deal is also a good idea for those who cannot afford the measures outright, but even this will take a while for the general public to realise the benefits, I have found by speaking to people that they don’t entirely understand the green deal yet, as already mentioned, this in my mind is one of the biggest challenges for the city to make these measures work.

    1. Thanks for this. I think you are right there is really no conception of what changes are necessary going forwards. How can we persuade people that big changes are needed. We have failed to date.

  2. There is a discussion going on on the UBM website on how joined up Birmingham’s Visions’ are; i.e this Green Vision and the Smart City Vision http://www.ubmfuturecities.com/author.asp?section_id=242&doc_id=524761&

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