Could sustainable energy projects provide a boost to jobs and skills across the country? A survey suggests they could but also highlights a number of obstacles to progress
It might be hard to believe, but amidst all the doom and gloom facing local government lies a positive vision for the future.
Nottingham, and Wrexham are just two examples of areas where sustainable energy projects are offering a way of both boosting ailing local economies and combating climate change. But such projects need to be properly and practically embraced at national and local level.
New research launched by Unison this week demonstrates the huge potential for councils to link efforts to combat climate change with the need to kick-start economic growth and create decent employment. The new green team: Local government, sustainable energy, jobs and skills was produced by the Association for Public Service Excellence (Apse) for Unison and is supported by the TUC.
The term ‘sustainable energy’ was used to cover renewable energy from wind, solar, tidal, biomass and geothermal sources as well as energy efficiency measures such as cavity wall and loft insulation and energy efficient heating. A survey of officers and elected members in councils across the UK found a hugely positive attitude towards sustainable energy projects exists in local government.
An overwhelming 99% of respondents said this would reduce their energy costs and 94% think there is an urgent need for such projects. And 82% believe the public in their area would be supportive of a high profile emphasis on sustainability and jobs growth through renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes.
There are a number of all too real obstacles to achieving the full potential of sustainable energy at present however. For a start, the majority of respondents do not believe sufficient skills exist to respond to sustainable energy opportunities – and only 12% think the national skills development programme is moving rapidly enough to equip people to meet green economy opportunities.
With the global economy for green goods and services predicted to expand to £4.3trn by 2015, the UK therefore needs to ensure political, professional, managerial, technical, trades and communications skills are in place to respond to opportunities this presents.
Considering the economic and environmental threats we face, it is also worrying that 94% of respondents think there is a need for closer links between environmental and economic policies nationally. Less than half believe there is sufficient strategic emphasis on the sustainable energy agenda at local level and lack of coherence between councils’ environmental and economic policies was evident from the research.
If there were ever a case for a truly joined up approach to the problems we face, this is it. Our new research contains case studies that demonstrate how bringing together measures to reduce carbon emissions with efforts to create employment can be an engine for economic recovery. Yet changes to levers such as Feed in Tariffs (Fits) are creating uncertainty for local government, with a review earlier this year hitting schemes over 50kw and rumours that potential cuts of 30% to 40% will impact on smaller projects after 31 March 2012.
Uncertainty also surrounds the new Green Deal energy efficiency programme. The government needs to ensure the Fits regime provides clear incentives, and to work with local authorities to establish how the Green Deal can best operate to stimulate economic growth.
Local government leadership is also crucial. A total of 79% of survey respondents believe councils should have a direct delivery as well as a facilitation role in sustainable energy projects. The establishment of new green teams would be a fruitful alternative to cuts.
Apse’s ‘revolving fund’ model, outlined in the report, shows how councils can provide income streams by tapping into renewable energy generation assistance packages. Although local authorities will be understandably cautious about any expenditure at the current time, our number-crunching proves such investment is ultimately self-funding.
Local and national government coming together for joint, practical actions to overcome barriers would enable sustainable energy projects to offer a long-term, local solution to some of the economic as well as the environmental challenges we face globally.
Councils are enthusiastic and have made a good start, but budgetary pressures, lack of knowledge and skills, the Fits review, and lack of political leadership are all thwarting their efforts.
Paul O’Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence and David Arnold is national policy officer at Unison. For a copy of the report The new green team: Local government, sustainable energy, jobs and skills contact Mo Baines (Mbaines@apse.org.uk)