Greg Clark, Minister for Cities in the UK, is championing the low carbon economy
Greg Clark has long been an advocate of sustainability and having been appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in 2008, he was responsible for two landmark papers in Energy and Climate Change policy: The Low Carbon Economy and Rebuilding Security, which set out how Government would make Britain a leading player in the low carbon economy.
Now working as both the Minister for Cities and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Clark is helping to implement real change across the country with the City Deals initiative. Launched in December 2011, City Deals aim to empower entire regions of the country and give them added responsibility for their own policy decisions.
Clark spoke to William Brittlebank at Climate Action about empowering local communities and taking the low carbon option.
You have been a long-time advocate for issues and causes in the sustainability sector – what originally drew you to the field of sustainable development?
Well you're right I've always been interested in the idea that what you can do at a political level can contribute to a solution for national problems in sustainability. When I was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary one of the things that became abundantly clear was that the improvements that could be made, in terms of carbon emissions and saving money on bills, had a lot to do with equipment and energy efficiency. This involved retrofitting existing buildings and also the sustainable life of future buildings and structures, and really, my long-term interest in low-cost solutions has always gone hand in hand with sustainability.
It's interesting that you mention how cutting emissions and being more sustainable is seen as good sense economically. In the past, being environmentally responsible and applying sustainable solutions was often been perceived as a cost, rather than a benefit.
I think you're absolutely right, there has been that perception for many years, and in a world of high energy prices, designing homes and workplaces to naturally consume energy efficiently makes sense economically as well as helping the environment. It's important to make this connection that you can save in your energy bill as well as being environmentally responsible.
Reducing our carbon output and capturing carbon emissions is becoming a lucrative business sector. Given that the political sphere has not made sufficient progress on climate change, will the business world be able to instigate radical gains in moving the world closer to a carbon neutral economy?
Well I think there is a lot of change with regard to economics aligned with the environmental imperative, and in the energy world perceptions are changing about clean energy being very expensive. Businesses are looking for ways to use less and to be less wasteful. And of course, in troubled economic times, people want to make sure their running costs are as low as possible, without causing undue damage to the environment.
What steps should a procurement department - eager to implement sustainable solutions in an urban project - take in order to make progressive, beneficial decisions that won’t backfire in economic terms?
Well planning is the key area of any policy that is to have any strong benefits for environmentalism and for the economy. So if you are planning new-builds, whether residential or commercial, it’s vital to include from the outset, energy efficient solutions. For example, the heating, optimal levels of insulation and the use of combined heat and power. Essentially, planning ahead is the best way to be able to embrace the environmental improvements that lead to economic gains. Retrofitting is necessary but it will always be second best to getting it right the first time.
The final draft of The National Planning Policy Framework was published in March 2012 – why was it necessary to produce a new policy document?
The NPPF was something that the coalition committed to at the outset of the coalition agreement – that we would revise what we inherited in terms of planning policy. The problem with it was that it was so voluminous and so technical that it wasn't achieving its purpose, which was to allow local people to choose the best policy for their areas. If you need a solicitor to interpret it and it's over 1000 pages long then it’s very difficult for people in local communities to get to grips with it. So by transforming and simplifying it, and by reducing it to 50 pages and presenting it in a way that I think almost everyone applauds, has the result that it's getting people in communities and businesses back into planning.
We've already had three times as many local plans being submitted. So planning is really being kick-started as a result of this. The planning reforms are part of the same thinking that focuses on putting local people in charge, to have their own plans for regeneration and for reflecting a local sense of place. Those thoughts are very much to be found in the City Deals as well. The need for City Deals is that, for too many decades, power has been taken away from local people in cities and been addressed by people in Whitehall and Westminster who were a long way from the places they are making policy towards. And as a result I think you had an overall lack of local connection and input into the potential of the city. So what we’ve done with City Deals is to say, ‘we want you, the people of the city, to make the decisions. Let us help you to address the challenges that are particular to Liverpool to Leeds and to Bristol’.
It's only really by knowing the city intimately that you can have a clear view and tell us what the problems are. And then we can give you the power to resolve them.
There has been some criticism of the City Deals project, in particular that it allows Local Enterprise Partnerships, dominated by private sector representatives, to direct the new powers it conveys. Isn’t there a chance that private company policy could conflict with broader sustainable concerns that are in the public interest?
What we've seen with the City Deals, from all participants - the government, the private sector and the public sector - has been a huge amount of interest in environmentally sustainable policies. To take an area from the next wave of City Deals which is Humberside, Hull and surrounding areas, actually what unites the vision of the local communities and businesses is to make use of the unique potential that the Humber offers.
A lot of that is in clean energy - servicing the off shore renewables industry and providing manufacturing facilities. It’s brought the participants together and there has been no tension between the objectives.
Local enterprise partnerships are a combination of business and local authorities and I can't think of a single case where decisions have come to a halt because there's been a conflict between business on the one side and local authority on the other. One of the encouraging features is how much common ground there is between the business interests in the city and the civic leadership.
Now that the UK is about the enter the second phase of City Deals – inviting a further 20 cities to apply for the opportunity to shape their own priorities around transport, skills and development – are there any checks or balances in place to ensure each city achieves the same benchmarks of sustainability in each of these sectors?
Well part of the objectives of the city deals is to have cities look to themselves - the participants are all elected and so they can look to their to their own electorate - rather than look to central government for approval.
You’ve recently said that “Cities are the building blocks of the global economy” and that the drive for growth – for Britain’s economic future – needs to be most energetic in our cities. But with cities generating 70 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and carbon emissions, despite accounting for only 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, doesn’t sustainability have to be of paramount importance?
Cities have the potential to be the most sustainable places on Earth because you have large numbers of people living and working in very close proximity to each other in a concentrated geographical area. The precise conditions that you need to have networks in public transport for example, that can cleanly and efficiently get people from one place to another. As cities are changing there is a lot of new development there that can be from the outset that can be designed in the highest environmental standards. All the conditions are there in cities to be a great contributor to environmental progress, but this involves planning. We know there are cities around the world which are not as sustainable as they could or should be, where people have to travel very long distances in very wasteful ways environmentally, but done properly, cities can not only be engines of growth economically, but also instrumental in environmental progress.