Councillors with cash for carbon cuts seek good news story

The Council got a grant from the national government to install solar panels and heat pumps. We put the story in context (hint: it’s a small part of the total action required). 

Works will soon begin on a £20m scheme to reduce the carbon emissions of eleven public buildings in Manchester, councillors heard at the July meeting of the Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee

The Council got the funding from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and will spend it on solar panels and heat pumps to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by roughly 2,000 tonnes per year. The majority of the buildings are leisure centres.

The committee heard that the main challenges are now:

  • to deliver the projects on time – works must be completed by March 2022, but have not yet started;
  • to deliver on budget – the cost per ‘lifetime saving of a tonne of CO2’ needs to be slightly less than £500. 

These are real challenges, especially when modified plans need to be approved by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and BEIS. Already one of the eleven buildings cannot be upgraded because it is being used as a vaccination centre (the Manchester tennis and football centre). 

Councillors seek publicity

Many councillors praised the scheme. Councillors Bernard Priest (Ardwick) and Andrew Simcock (Didsbury East) asked for it to be publicised more widely. Councillor Tracey Rawlins (the new Executive member for Environment) agreed and said a priority for her in the new post was to ‘get those real good news messages out’. Councillor Veronica Kirkpatrick (Charlestown) asked if local jobs or apprenticeships were linked in. Councillors Ben Clay (Burnage) and Sarah Russell (Committee Chair, Northenden) asked about the potential of other, more innovative technologies which might be used at lower financial cost. Cllr Clay asked if information about the carbon cuts could be presented in terms of the percentages of these buildings’ carbon footprints. Councillor Annette Wright (Hulme) asked if information could be presented in terms of the overall public estate, and wondered if more funding would be available and how Manchester was being strategic to access it. Councillor June Hitchen (Miles Platting and Newton Heath) asked about the aforementioned football and tennis centre which is missing out on upgrades (the centre is very close to Cllr Hitchen’s ward). 

Officers pleased 

The officers were clearly pleased to be in the councillors’ good books. They pledged to promote their activities more, contextualise its significance in terms of the whole of the public estate, and present information about local jobs and apprenticeships when they have it. They said more innovative technologies can be used in other circumstances, and mentioned a hydrogen boiler installed in Gorton Library at low cost to the Council. They said partnerships and a pipeline of projects mean that other grants can be captured when available. For the tennis and football centre, they said other sites are being considered to try and avoid losing that part of the funding, and they hope to be able to do the envisaged works at the centre some time later.

Decarbonisation in context

It is clearly a good thing that the Council has got enough capacity to secure significant grant income from BEIS to fund decarbonisation of its estate (some of which will tie into expensive refurbishments planned for the Aquatics centre and possibly the Velodrome). Councillors are keen for a good news story packaged neatly to the public. One elected member complained ‘we get lambasted when we are said to not be doing things’ (did they know we were watching!?!) so asked for more celebration of this work. But officers will not have much time to be distracted by communications plans yet, if they are to ensure the works are completed by March, which is the (already extended) deadline for spending funds. Perhaps when (if) it is all completed and the data about local jobs and apprenticeships is ready we’ll see a glossy report prepared in advance of the local elections in May 2022, readied for some ritual Green-bashing or as we like to call it ‘red is the new green’. 

The Council has set targets to reduce its own emissions by 13% each year between 2020-25. Cutting 2,000 tonnes per year from an annual emissions ‘budget’ for the Council of c. 25-30,000 tonnes is a meaningful contribution, if successfully delivered. The much bigger, trickier question remains what to do about the 98% of Manchester’s emissions that are not directly related to the Council’s operations and estates. The city’s emissions need to be slashed by 14.8% per year, and the annual 2,000 tonne cut to be delivered here is less than 1% of the total annual reductions required at present. There is a significant role for the council to influence its residents and businesses as well as providing the political leadership sorely lacking to accelerate action. Feel good stories about in-house decarbonisation should not distract us from the overall scale of the challenge.

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