The government’s recent adoption of a new target to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 put renewed focus on sectors such as international aviation and shipping which previously sat outside the UK’s Carbon Budget. But the adoption of recommendations from the Climate Change Committee also has major implications for an industry much closer to home. James Gore considers the decarbonisation challenge faced by the housing sector.
The UK has some of the most energy inefficient housing in Europe, a situation exacerbated by increased working from home during the pandemic. Many column inches have been devoted to the eye-watering cost of retrofitting existing housing stock, with the bill for the social housing sector alone estimated at more than £100bn. But, as the Climate Change Committee has pointed out, work is also needed to close the gap between design and actual performance of new homes when it comes to energy efficiency.
Improving the performance of new and existing homes requires a workforce skilled in low-carbon heating and ventilation and closing this low-carbon skills gap could provide opportunities for young people who have been hit hardest by the economic impact of Covid-19. But inspiring a generation to help make this happen requires a coordinated approach to communications from government and industry.
At the same time, the sector must do more to counter negativity around the potential cost to homeowners and landlords of meeting the decarbonisation challenge. Increasingly, organisations in the social housing sector are working together to procure services and develop the skills required to meet the decarbonisation challenge, and there is a strong case for this joined-up approach extending to the sector’s communications on this issue.
Copper’s research into public attitudes to net zero emissions in the UK suggests the public are willing to invest in new technologies if this is accompanied by some form of incentive from government. But negative media coverage about the effectiveness of replacement heating systems risks reducing people’s appetite for making the required changes. Without clearer articulation of the benefits for both individuals and society as a whole, the housing sector faces an uphill battle to convince the public the price is worth paying.
In the run up to COP26, the housing sector will have opportunities to shine a light on these challenges and showcase steps it is taking towards a low-carbon future. It is important that the sector speaks with one voice on this critical issue, making clear its ‘asks’ from government and communicating a positive message to the public about the opportunities that come from decarbonisation. By cutting through noise on this issue to communicate a clear and compelling message, the housing sector can emerge as a leader in the UK’s efforts to meet its net zero target.
In this blog Aliba Haque explores how cities in the UK and across the world are reimagining urban life and using their post-pandemic recovery plans to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, in the third and final part of a blog series following on from our ‘Reshaping Towns and Cities in a post-COVID world’ webinar.
Many urban economists call cities the engines of economic growth. Cities are the social magnets behind globalisation as well as the epicentres of new ideas and advanced technologies, the pools of high-skilled labour and dynamic manufacturing and the networks of goods, services and opportunities.
When the COVID-19 crisis brought cities to a halt, thriving public spaces emptied overnight. The pandemic altered the fabric of urban life and brought cities to the frontline of the response to the pandemic, with many adopting ‘agile approaches’ to overcoming challenges and implementing measures that support advancing environmental objectives as part of their recovery plans.
According to Capgemini’s (2020) ‘Fast-forward to the future: Defining and winning the post-COVID new normal’ 2020 report, the pandemic has ‘cemented technology’s role at the heart of transformation, driving new ways of interaction, sharing, engaging, and decision making’. Technology has been crucial to cities and how they have responded to the pandemic, implementing tools to measure contagion risk, social distancing measures and the continuation of vital services such as deliveries. Undoubtedly the COVID-19 crisis has renewed interest in the ‘smart cities’ policy approach where cities collaborate with the private sector to design, implement and encourage the use of technology across public infrastructure to “diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for citizens” (Smart City Index, 2020).
In the UK, Newcastle used smart city technologies and deep learning algorithms to measure whether social distancing measures were being followed by citizens and used such data to analyse mobility patterns following lockdown measures.
Seoul and Daegu used artificial intelligence and innovative technology to promptly develop a coronavirus testing kit and a smart quarantine information system where inbound passengers could be accurately tested for COVID-19 instantly. Passengers could then be isolated to stop the spread. Both cities also used geo-localised mobile technology for contact tracing. Mexico City partnered up with Google maps and Waze to monitor mobility throughout the city, whilst Budapest used smart city tools to control large gatherings and identify places where there were high concentrations of people.
Working from home and social infrastructure
For large parts of the population, the pandemic has normalised remote working, studying and shopping. Termed the ‘Zoomshock’ (University of Nottingham, 2021), productive activities are moving workers from high-density urban areas back to low-density residential neighbourhoods. Whilst the potential for remote work varies by occupation, sector and country, advanced economies such as the UK, France, Spain, the US and Germany have reported high levels of employee time spent working remotely (McKinsey, 2020). This is likely to become the ‘new normal’ where companies, businesses and institutions will make the most of agile working patterns due to lockdown and social distancing measures.
Breaking through the digital divide
Yet, one of the many inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 is the digital divide, specifically internet access and lack of adequate digital equipment or infrastructure. In New York, approximately 300,000 students did not have access to digital devices to complete their studies whilst in Yokohama, Japan, where students did not have access to the internet, some lessons were made available to watch on local TV stations. Milan called for the launch of donation services for devices and internet connections whilst the City of Toronto partnered with IT companies to provide free, temporary internet access to low-income neighbourhoods.
To prevent the risk of digital exclusion, it is important for projects in the UK to take lessons from these international cities and combine digital engagement with traditional methods such as newsletters, telephone surgeries and advertising projects in local newspapers and public information points.
The future of urban mobility
Urban planners and developers have had to pause momentarily and rethink their approaches towards urban space, opening doors to conversations about alternative mobility measures. The 1000 Cities Adapt Now initiative, launched earlier this year by the Global Commission on Adaptation, has exemplified this, with 1,000 cities across the globe examining climate adaptability measures alongside post-pandemic recovery options that will have immediate benefits for the most vulnerable communities.
Already many cities are exploring transformational urban mobility plans by turning roads into open streets (as outlined in our blog on ‘Re-imagining city spaces in a post-Covid world’) and investing more in active mobility infrastructure.
Milan’s ambitious transport scheme places more of on an emphasis on public transport safety and accessibility, Southampton is promoting low emission transport options such as electric vehicles and scooter usage, Montreal plans to increase green space available to residents and Valencia has increased protections surrounding its green belt, as part of a climate resilience strategy.
Cities across the globe have played a crucial role to complement post-pandemic recovery responses, approaching the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis as opportunities to actively reinvent, innovate and sustain urban life.
As they seek to move from responding to emergency situations to long-term post-pandemic recovery strategies, decisionmakers for our cities will need to harness tools that can accelerate recovery, such as innovative technologies and widening digital access and participation.
Doing so will allow urban planners and policymakers to address and tackle the widening gap between building back better and infrastructure investment, to make urban centres better for our public health, economies and our environment.
For our cities to be part of a sustainable green recovery, the planning approaches and policy responses needed will have to demonstrate long-term innovation and future proof for resilience that goes far beyond temporary measures that merely ‘kickstart’ economies.
Recovery measures will need to systematically reassess how our cities function, how to tackle socioeconomic inequality and environmental damages caused by urban living and, most importantly, how to not only build back better but build back smarter.
To find out more about the importance of planning, regeneration and urban design in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery for our towns and cities, please contact Aliba Haque, Account Executive within Copper’s Economic Development practice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This May, parties will face their first electoral test since the Covid-19 pandemic, and voters will decide who has the most compelling vision of Britain’s ‘new normal’. This will be a vision that needs to deliver for villages, towns and cities across the country, while addressing underlying changes to living and working structures.
We are following five battles across the UK, each of which will have significant implications for development and infrastructure plans locally and nationally.
The battlegrounds we are focusing on are the West Midlands Mayoral, the Tees Valley Mayoral, Northumberland Council, West of England Mayoral, and Thurrock Council. These elections provide an excellent platform to examine the influence and cut-through of the government’s levelling-up agenda, writ large in the commitment to ‘build back better’ through extensive infrastructure development.
About Northumberland County Council
Northumberland County Council in the north-east of England is a former Labour stronghold located in the heart of the ‘Red Wall’. The 2017 local election returned the first Conservative lead in the region for thirty years and this trend continued in 2019 with the Blyth constituency within the region turning Blue.
The upcoming election in Northumberland not only serves as bellwether to measure the cut through of Labour under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership in former Labour heartlands, but also serves as a test of the popularity of the Government’s infrastructure commitments with voters.
In line with the national levelling up agenda, the Conservative-led council has positioned themselves as a strong proponent of infrastructure and high street investment and making use of national initiatives such as the Future High Street Fund for towns like Blyth and others in the south-east of the county.
The election takes place amongst the backdrop of emerging questions around Advance Northumberland – the Councils’ investment and development arm. After a recent leaked report exposed the depth of the firms’ auditing problems, Labour have vowed to cut the agency and replace it with a ‘Northumberland Regeneration Trust’. Details on what this would mean for major projects are scarce, but nonetheless will mark a significant departure for how the county’s infrastructure and development projects are financed and managed.
Under a Labour council, the planning arrangements for major infrastructure projects in the region look also set to change. The Party have argued that current plans for the Northumberland Line rail project risk leaving ‘thousands of people behind’ in coastal towns like Bebside, Seaton Delaval and Woodhorn through poor access and connectivity – something that seems to have only recently been confirmed by plans to axe a proposed station near Bebside.
By contrast, Conservative Councillor and Northumberland County Council Cabinet Member for the Economy Richard Wearmouth has claimed the upgrade will act as something of a panacea for problems with Northumberland’s public transport infrastructure.
Such different perspectives on the scheme’s capabilities are not only emblematic of the divide on what is required for the county’s public transport infrastructure as it emerges from the pandemic, but also of the need case of future schemes against increased uptake of green private transport alternatives and higher levels of remote working.
The Conservative and Labour Party leadership will be tempted to view the Northumberland County Council election as a referendum on their own individual performance and their party’s performance. After all, these are both Starmer and Johnson’s first local elections as respective leaders of their Parties.
However, these are of course local elections, and many voters will be casting a vote that reflects local, not national political issues. Whilst the Government has promised vast sums of investment in infrastructure in ‘red wall areas’, voters will be judging parties on their ability to deliver new investment, employment and placemaking to their region. For either local Party to succeed, they must hone in their core messaging on how they will deliver these projects at pace, whilst ensuring their constituents views are at the heart of all future decision making. Doing otherwise risks creating a local recovery that does not deliver for all.
Copper Consultancy will be providing ongoing coverage of the May 2021 Local Elections. For more information, please contact email@example.com