Former chief scientific advisor says the West Midlands can lead the UK in a clean energy revolution

David King, former government chief scientific advisor, explains why a new initiative is going to make the West Midlands a clean energy hub. 

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The industrial revolution that took hold in the West Midlands made Britain the world’s foremost economic power, but almost two centuries later the region is in need of ingenuity once more. Native industries such as coal mining, which once dominated the Black Country, and the car industry that supported Coventry and Wolverhampton, have experienced steady decline, and the economic identity of the region has been eroded. The West Midlands is now one of the poorest parts of the UK; almost a quarter of its citizens were classed as living in relative poverty between 2014 and 2017. But David King, the government’s former chief scientific advisor, is adamant a second industrial revolution is happening: the transition to clean, green energy. “It’s of that sort of magnitude,” says King, who believes the West Midlands can carve out a new niche for itself in the energy transition market. “I think it’s going to be a big part of the regeneration of the region.”

For King, who has also been the government’s special representative for climate change, energy transition is “the biggest and most important global endeavour”, but it is also a huge opportunity for economic growth. King estimates that the market for transition products could be worth $3 trillion in just a few years, and he wants to put the West Midlands at the heart of this growing economy. 

As chair of the West Midlands Regional Energy Policy Commission, King hopes to pioneer a regional approach to energy transition, which he says is becoming possible thanks to devolution. “The creation of regional mayors,” he says, “is the instrument for delivery”. In March the commission and its partners – Energy Capital, The University of Birmingham and the Energy Systems Catapult – released a report entitled Powering West Midlands Growth: A Regional Approach to Clean Energy Innovation. Central to the report’s recommendations was a call to establish four “Energy Innovation Zones” across the West Midlands. 

These zones will provide the infrastructure for “industry, universities, innovation agencies and local authorities” to work together, under the “guidance of the mayor”, to develop clean energy technologies, implement them and commercialise them. King says that the zones will focus primarily on “green energy, clean growth, new energy infrastructure systems and improving the competitiveness of energy-intensive manufacturing firms.” 

The zones are a concept for now, but King is confident a pilot scheme in the West Midlands would be “followed up with developments of energy innovation zones across the country.” As in other economic zone projects, public money would create the conditions for wider economic growth. The new Conservative metro mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has already begun lobbying the government for financial support. 

King suggests that, should Street be successful, the funds provided by central government would come in part from green taxes paid by energy companies. The commission will also seek out private investment, and are currently hoping to secure an initial £500m fund. This capital is expected to be allocated largely to energy infrastructure, including pipes, wires, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and cutting edge low-carbon energy technologies. 

The commission views the zones as a natural implementation of both the government’s Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy, so King argues that the request for funding “isn’t a big ask”. “The energy innovation zones,” says King, “are going to be a critically important part of the UK’s overall strategy to meet [carbon] targets.”

Despite having had no particular previous attachment to the West Midlands, he has taken up the role of regional cheerleader with gusto. “It’s quite possible the West Midlands will pick up a significant fraction of [the transition market] by getting into the game early.” He believes the industrial and manufacturing heritage of the area has primed the region for its next industrial revolution; “it has many of the manufacturing industries that are of crucial importance to this whole rollout.” 

Fuel poverty and air pollution are both pressing issues in the West Midlands, and King is confident that the green technologies developed in the innovation zones will be felt locally. When asked if the zones could prize energy out of the hands of big companies and into the hands of local authorities, King replies “that is definitely the aim.” If the zones become a buffer between consumers and the forces of the energy market, then, will this signify further energy subsidisation by the state? “The state or the region,” King concurs. “It’s the redistribution of wealth, so the taxpayers who can afford it are managing energy poverty.” 

In the shorter term the zones will aim to support investment in up-to-date electricity and gas infrastructure “ahead of demand”, offer local tax incentives and bring the allocation of infrastructure costs under local regulation. They will try to gain more control over energy company housing efficiency obligations, and support innovation in construction. 

Further down the line, however, King envisages the zones becoming clean energy suppliers, following the example of companies such as Bristol Energy – a council-owned energy supplier that promotes green energy usage, undercutting the big six.

Improving air quality is a clear example of the catalyst the zones could be for regional and mayoral empowerment. “The quality of air that people breathe in the West Midlands region is some of the worst in the country,” King explains. “The switch to clean energy is going to enormously improve the health of people in the region, so getting local ownership for creating a healthy environment is critical.” 

While local authorities have been defunded and demoralised for years, can something like an innovation zone help reverse the trend? “I hope so. I think that this is why I’m so keen on this concept of empowering the local mayors. Their budgets are still quite small, but nevertheless this is a very important way of stimulating growth.” To enable this energy “empowerment” of the region, “regulatory and cultural barriers need to be pulled down,” he argues. Developing new regulation will be an important task for the zones, especially when it comes to reforming housing stock. “New housing would be greened by using less energy and switching over to renewable energy wherever possible. This is a question of local authorities having the ability to create these regulations for the built environment.”

Looking at the bigger picture, King thinks the old energy suppliers are in denial. “The clean, green energy economy in Britain is the biggest growth sector. It is turning over in excess of £50bn a year and employs more than half a million people.” Only the companies that “pick up the slack” and get stuck into the green energy market will survive, he says. By creating the climate for businesses, local authorities and academics to capitalise on this global shift, innovation zones could re-energise a region that has been left behind.

 

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.