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13 December 2012

While the Government delays, cities are taking radical steps to cut carbon

Cities are where the biggest experiments can take place; look to them to see the future of the UK.

By Alastair Harper

Our cities are the R&D facility for the country. From 4G rollout to community energy, they let us experiment with what’s possible. This is useful, because we’ve just agreed to change everything. The recent Energy Bill accepts how inevitable a low carbon future is for the UK. It also guarantees the money to deliver it on time – all we have to do now is actually do it.

Of course, some don’t seem to realise this. Some ministers hang desperately onto a gas over renewables strategy, like a hipster to a mini disc player, convinced its time will come again. No evidence will dissuade them back into reality. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the indecision and delay they introduce makes it harder to ensure that the UK will get the maximum benefit from a low carbon future – to own the patents, build the factories and get exporting to the others following behind. Luckily, we don’t need to wait for national government to get its story straight, because our cities are set to leap ahead.

A city has traditionally been something that demands a lot from a country and gives back money and jobs. London has around the same working population as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, and so it soaks up more electricity than any of those nations. Without freight coming in from the rest of the world, it would run out of food in four days. Sure, cities pay for this stuff, but it’s the rest of the country that has put up with its infrastructure: the power stations, water reservoirs, and industrial waste facilities all put into the countryside to serve the cities. However, this is changing.

The density of the population and the buildings make for a unique testing ground for the new kind of infrastructure we’re developing – the low carbon, resource efficient approaches to heating and power generation, transport and waste management. They all work best if done where the demand is greatest, and that means at the city scale.

This is what Green Alliance’s new report argues – cities are morphing themselves and what they do ahead of the rest of the country and they are well placed to get the economic reward for doing so. The recent city deals process, initiated by the Cabinet Office transfers new powers, control over funding and approaches to financing to the cities. The first eight cities have thought about what this means to reverse employment trends and attract inward investment which is why most have used their deals to grow their low carbon economy.

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Newcastle is going for £0.5bn of investment in offshore energy, bringing eight thousand jobs. Liverpool plans to accelerate £100m in wind and offshore energy, bringing three thousand jobs to the area. Manchester is using its ambitious emissions reduction targets to attract an additional £1.4bn into the UK’s economy and Birmingham has secured a £3m injection to its housing retrofit programme.

Many of these projects, which are central to how our country will work in the future, are already real in the cities. London will have 1,300 different electric vehicle charging points by next year and, in the capital, a Prius seems a more common sight that an Escort. Islington is rolling out council-owned Combined Heat and Power to 700 homes, a power station set up not miles away, but amongst the people that will benefit, protecting them from soaring bills. Meanwhile, Birmingham council is doing the same, trying to reduce the energy it imports every year at a cost of £1.5bn and replace it with energy they make themselves. In the centre of the city, on Broad Street, Birmingham’s CHP serves the ICC, the town hall, the new library and local hotels and theatres. Nottingham too, aims to double its district heating network in five years.

This is where the future is happening. It proves that green infrastructure is the model that keeps costs down for the public and profits up for businesses. All we need now is for Westminster government to realise this. As it plans a big push on renewing our national infrastructure, it should learn from and work with our cities, who are demonstrating that a modern, sustainable approach, employing ideas that reduce energy, reuse waste and simplify our public transport, will bring the biggest rewards.

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