COVID-19 response: Why government must accelerate a green recovery at the local level – and how you can help

Worker installing roof-insulation material from sheep's wool
Worker installing roof-insulation material from sheep’s wool (c) 2005 Ashden Award winners, Ashden Foundation

Dr Neil Jennings, Partnership Development Manager at the Grantham Institute, considers how a coronavirus recovery plan that prioritises climate action can reinvigorate the economy and create a resilient society – and why local authorities are best placed to deliver this.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought significant changes to our day-to-day lives and, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, have shone a light on underlying inequalities in society. Climate change threatens to exacerbate health, social and economic inequalities via the damage and disruption that rising temperatures and more extreme weather events cause to societies around the world. The COVID-19 recovery offers a unique opportunity to tackle multiple societal challenges at once but failure to do so could mean that our response to one crisis simply makes other crises much worse.

Councils play an essential role in supporting the most vulnerable members of our communities as they understand the local issues faced by their citizens and how they interact with each other – how air quality is worse in areas of high social deprivation, for example. They also understand where resources can best be directed in response to the COVID-19 and climate crises – for example, to households who are struggling to feed their children or pay their energy bills. Councils have, however, experienced significant funding cuts over the last decade that may limit their capacity to deal with these crises.

That’s why the Grantham Institute supports the recommendations of the ‘Blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level’. This report calls on the government to provide local authorities with sufficient resources and power to create local jobs and reinvigorate the economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are heating our planet. This includes making homes more energy efficient, reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of transport, protecting and enhancing nature, reducing waste, and building resilience so we are less vulnerable to future crises.  Here we explain some of the actions that local authorities could take, and which you can share with your MPs or councilors.

Homes everyone can afford to heat

Each winter, thousands of people die in the UK due to living in a cold home. The precise number of deaths is difficult to calculate but the figure for 2016/17 was estimated at around 10,000 people. Those on lower incomes are more likely to live in a cold home – in response to a national survey, 40% of low-income respondents stated that they faced the choice between ‘heating or eating’, while nearly a fifth of all parents responding said that they regularly go without food to ensure that their children have enough to eat. Given that the UK is the sixth biggest economy in the world, something clearly needs to change.

If directed appropriately, the recovery from Covid-19 can accelerate this change. The government have signaled their intention to focus on ‘shovel-ready’ projects that can upskill the workforce and create jobs while helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such projects should include retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient via loft and wall insulation – work that can be often be undertaken while maintaining social distance. Local authorities are uniquely placed to identify where these projects are needed most.

A great example of the kind of project that could be replicated is the Seasonal Health Intervention Network (SHINE) run by Islington Council. SHINE engages a network including GPs and health visitors who refer vulnerable householders to the SHINE housing team. The team give advice to householders about energy efficiency, tell them how to access a grant to pay for a new boiler or insulation, and show them how to reduce their fuel bills. SHINE helps to upgrade homes so they become places that people can afford to heat, it improves the health of residents, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the energy required to heat the home. It gets to the root cause of health problems (cold homes) rather than just dealing with the symptoms (respiratory illnesses) and sending the vulnerable person back to the very house that made them ill in the first place.

Further peaks of COVID-19 are likely to be most challenging for the NHS in the winter months when they coincide with peaks of other illnesses, such as winter flu. To avoid overwhelming the NHS, it makes sense to look at interventions that can reduce winter hospital admissions. Improving the energy efficiency of our homes is one such measure that can simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs in retrofitting homes and reduce inequality by breaking the relationship whereby people living in poverty are more likely to live in a poorly insulated home.

Cleaner air for all

Father and daughter cycle down a road in Sunbury-on-Thames
Father and daughter cycle down a road in Sunbury-on-Thames (c) Romans Kosinskis

Each year there are around 40,000 air pollution-related deaths in the UK and in 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that more than 40 towns and cities in the UK reach or exceed air pollution limits. Air pollution levels in the UK are higher in more deprived neighbourhoods and in areas with a larger proportion of non-white residents, so there are significant inequalities in the exposure of different communities to air pollution. A growing body of research suggests that higher levels of air pollution may have raised the risk of dying from COVID-19 and reports have shown how Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities have been hardest hit by the virus.

Travel restrictions imposed by the lockdown have significantly reduced levels of air pollution from motor vehicles and surveys suggest that that the public don’t want to go back to pre-COVID-19 levels of pollution – they support profound changes in transport to protect clean air.

Although this clearly isn’t the way that anyone would have wanted it to have happened, the crisis has forced us to reconsider where we work (more home working) and how we get to work (more walking and cycling). Making it easy for people to keep some of the positive changes they have made in getting around, such as via segregated cycle lanes, can provide a practical way to reduce health inequalities directly caused by air pollution, while encouraging people to increase their physical activity levels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

Again, local authorities have a key role to play in building infrastructure where it is most needed. Projects like the Waltham Forest Mini-Holland project provide a fantastic example of how such changes can also improve people’s health. The Waltham Forest project used cycle lanes, road closures and cycle training to help create an environment where walking and cycling are the norm. Research by King’s College London estimated that, as a result of the cleaner air caused by the project, the local population could gain around 41,000 life years over the next century.

Bike locker for local residents of the borough to leave their bikes in the London Borough of Waltham Forest
Bike locker for local residents of the borough to leave their bikes in the London Borough of Waltham Forest (c) 2019 Ashden Award winners, Ashden Foundation

Building back better

Only 9% of the public want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown is fully lifted because they appreciate the cleaner air, closer connection with the natural environment and stronger communities getting together to help one another. Before the crisis, cold homes and dirty air were damaging our health and hitting the poorest hardest. We must focus the COVID-19 recovery to build back our society in a way that tackles the failings of the past and we can all play a role by letting our elected officials know that we want to see this change.

Local authorities deserve our thanks for the incredible work they have been doing over the last few months to support communities across the UK in these extremely challenging times. They also have a key role to play in the recovery so it’s essential that they are given the necessary resource and power to rebuild our economy, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If resources are directed appropriately, we can look back on this terrible time as the moment that we finally turned the corner on social inequality and created a resilient, climate-friendly society – so why not let your MP and councillor know that you want to see a green recovery?

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