Think global, act local. It’s been a slogan for the Green Party and many others in the environmental movement for decades.
The problem is that here in the UK, this mantra couldn’t be further from the reality. We are one of the most centralised advanced democracies in the world. In this country, having the power to “act local” can seem like a distant dream.
We face a polycrisis: a climate emergency, cost-of-living scandal, energy crisis and constitutional dilemma. We also have climate targets that need to be met – the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution has committed to cut carbon emissions by 68 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030.
But up against challenges of such magnitude, more of the same centralised Whitehall thinking simply won’t cut it. Just this past year, this Conservative government has overseen sky-high gas prices, chronic food shortages, desperately failing bus services and a chaotic response to Britain’s hottest-ever day last July. Put simply, only the radical now looks reasonable.
The end goals are certainly reasonable: warm and comfortable homes, abundant and affordable energy, healthy and low-carbon food, cheap and clean transport. We know these are not only what people want, but what will solve the challenges we face. The question is – how do we deliver them, when central government won’t?
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal, which I co-chair alongside the Labour MP Clive Lewis, sought to find some of these best-practice radical and local solutions by scouring the length and breadth of home and abroad – from Cornwall, to Cardiff, to California. Our inquiry held three evidence sessions, across policy areas including energy, food and transport – speaking to metro mayors like Manchester’s Andy Burnham, and small-scale non-profits like the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership. What we found was eye-opening and infuriating in equal measure.
Take Scotland, where the Warm Works programme is retrofitting 30,000 fuel-poor homes – taking advantage of a seven-year contract period, and requiring a shift from gas to heat pump installations. For contractors, this provides certainty for investment, planning and training. But local authorities in England don’t have the power to make heat pumps the default requirement for boiler replacement schemes – meaning the opportunity for rapid carbon reductions, new skills and high-quality jobs across the nation goes untapped.
In Bethesda, north Wales, locals formed a cooperative energy company whereby households pay the community hydro plant when they use local hydroelectricity – which is less than current grid prices, but more than the plant would get if it sold on the open market. A community-wide win-win. But the UK’s over-centralised approach to energy generation, storage and distribution – and prioritising of big generators over local ones – means these schemes aren’t being replicated across the country.
Sheffield’s “regather cooperative” uses land acquired at the edge of the city to supply local food to 600 households per week, using electric trikes for last-mile delivery and donating any surpluses to community kitchens. The government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs offers funding for such projects, but a 15-acre minimum size eligibility requirement presents a real barrier to the growth of similar community agriculture schemes.
In Nottingham, the city’s workplace parking levy offers a national exemplar by helping fund the development of its highly popular tram system. But in the time it took Nottingham to build Line 1, the same contractor had built a whole city network in Porto, Portugal. Whole-city planning is an essential underpinning of any shift to low carbon transport – common in Europe, but a rare exception in Britain.
Instead of these solutions being rolled out across the UK, they’re being stifled. All the witnesses to our inquiry stressed that a lack of finance, resources, powers and regulatory frameworks from national government were severely limiting their ability to drive change.
It is almost an irony that Rishi Sunak has just created a new Whitehall department for Science, Innovation and Technology – when so much of that innovation isn’t coming from Whitehall, but from Wales, Warrington, west Oxfordshire and elsewhere.
When we have “a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future”, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must acknowledge that the fossil fuel era is over, and change is afoot. Meeting our 2030 climate target isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a no-brainer. And Green New Deal policies – from community renewable energy schemes, to free public transport, to incentives for locally sourced food – will help us get there.
But this inquiry has shown us that our national government cannot do it alone – we need to harness all the skills, expertise and resources in every corner of the country. It’s time for our government to power up our communities, and let local people lead.