Last year ended in a flurry of global energy politics.
At COP26 in Glasgow, Boris Johnson called on world leaders to make more ambitious national commitments. But these calls were undermined by domestic plans to develop a new oil field in the North Sea and a new open-cast coal mine in Cumbria. As the conference ended, a last-minute push by India and China (backed by the EU and the US) watered down the wording of a new commitment to phase out coal.
As 2022 gets underway, the grandstanding of COP26 has already faded. But energy politics continue to dominate, as soaring global gas prices drive sharp increases in household energy bills. For millions of less well-off households, this has already made the cost-of-living crisis even worse.
And against this volatile backdrop, cities across the country are grappling with pledges to transform their own energy systems. In Bristol – famously the first major city to declare a climate emergency – the council now has eight short years to make the city carbon neutral by 2030.
We already have the ‘One City’ strategy, a vision for sustainability, which includes proposals for decarbonising Bristol, and plans for building England’s tallest wind turbine in Lawrence Weston. Now a big project on the horizon is City Leap, the council’s ambitious plan to stimulate £1bn of private sector investment to help decarbonise our energy systems.
What is City Leap?
City Leap is an unprecedented public/private partnership for the city, designed to make good on the bold promises contained in Bristol’s climate emergency declaration. From heat pumps, to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, solar panels, smart metered appliances and household insulation, the City Leap prospectus sets out how potential partners can invest in decarbonising Bristol.
There has been a lengthy period of procurement as the council vetts applications from potential commercial partners, and another delay was recently announced in choosing the final partner.
The shortlist is down to two contenders (Ameresco Limited with Vattenfall Heat Limited and E.ON UK PLC with Marubeni Corporation – see boxout), and the prize is a contract to work with the council for 20 years to stimulate private sector investment and activity across transport, heat networks, energy efficiency, renewable energy generation, and more.
Nicola Beech, the council’s cabinet member for climate policy, describes City Leap as a plan to confront head-on the challenge of decarbonisation: “We’ve got a decade of experience with things like the existing heat network, the solar and wind turbines out in Avonmouth, and the Lawrence Weston turbine is on its way. But as great as they are, they are simply not enough. City Leap is a ramping up of our endeavours, to take seriously our climate emergency declaration.”
Beech is also clear that private sector investment is an absolute necessity. “Is it realistic to meet those 2030 targets based on business rates and council tax alone? It is a fallacy to even consider that a council alone could do it.”
Green councillor Tony Dyer has a similarly pragmatic view. “This is beyond the pocket of any local council. Ideally we would have had the prime minister saying, ‘Here’s the funding to implement a proper green new deal’, 15 years ago, making billions available, but that didn’t happen.”
For cash-strapped local councils, reeling from more than a decade of central government austerity policies, it is hard to see how they could raise the funds needed without private sector investment. But the costs incurred by City Leap will reach £7.3m before a corporate partner has even been selected – underscoring the importance of oversight and transparency in the initiative.
Transparency, scrutiny and safeguarding the interests of the city
But while the Greens and Labour seem largely in agreement on the necessity of leveraging private investment, there have already been some heated exchanges in the chamber around a potential lack of transparency in the City Leap partner selection process, and here the council’s recent experience with Bristol Energy looms large.
Created in 2015, Bristol Energy was wholly owned by the council, rather than a public/private partnership. But it quickly encountered problems and struggled to compete with the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. It required an injection of more than £35m of council money, and the company was sold in 2020, ending the council’s ill-conceived foray into the energy supply market.
It may be a different type of project to City Leap, but questions raised around the governance arrangements surrounding Bristol Energy are drawing even greater attention to how City Leap is managed. An independent auditors’ report on Bristol Energy focused on ensuring the cabinet has access to all the information it needs and the importance of clear communication with the public.
The lessons from multi-million projects like Bristol Energy should be clear: when budgets are in the millions or even the billions, oversight really matters. Where the profit motive of private companies potentially comes into conflict with the public good, there must be accountability.
“Scrutiny is important to the democratic process,” says Councillor Beech. “It is important that people know what City Leap is. But at the same time, it is a partnership with the private sector, and it’s important that we go through this process of procurement in a way that is appropriate.”
Engaging the public on a decade of decarbonisation
If initiatives like the City Leap succeed, they could underpin a long overdue period of decarbonisation for Bristol. “It is exciting but frustrating as well!” says Councillor Dyer. “A lot of this is the stuff we have been fighting for for ages, as Greens. What’s finally happening now in Bristol is not exactly as we wanted when we called for it originally, and the best time to go carbon neutral was 20 years ago. But the second best time is now.”
But at a time of mounting fears about energy bills, is there a risk that seemingly costly schemes for decarbonisation are ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people’s concerns?
For Councillor Beech, City Leap is a response to the vulnerability of Bristol households to the volatile global energy market: “We need to stimulate an economy in Bristol where, if my boiler packed-in tomorrow, I could actually afford a heat pump in my own home. At the moment this isn’t feasible for most people. And we need to be clear that decarbonised district heating systems can pull people out of fuel poverty. They’re a win-win.”
The scale of the financial challenge can’t be overstated. The £1bn that the City Leap initiative seeks to mobilise is, soberingly, only 10-15% of the projected costs for cutting the carbon out of our home energy, travel and transport systems, buildings (old and new) and elsewhere.
But this isn’t only a financial challenge – City Leap will touch on almost every aspect of residents’ lives. If the project is to succeed, it must have the consent of the city’s citizens. Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an expert on public engagement with climate change at the University of Bath, puts it this way: “There is a risk that without engaging people and imposing change, those changes will be rejected by residents and businesses. It’s vital that the people of Bristol have a say in wide-ranging infrastructure initiatives which will impact on communities in important ways.”
Encouragingly, there are signs this is starting to happen through engagement with groups like the community-led Bristol Energy Network. But there will be many in Bristol who instinctively reject the idea of limited companies taking on the challenge of decarbonising our city. In the absence of a time machine or a radical uplift in funding of local authorities from central government, however, the bill for tackling the climate crisis is going to have to be split with the private sector.
In this context, what matters is ensuring we don’t hand over the keys to the city to companies who answer to their shareholders, rather than the citizens of Bristol. This means transparency and scrutiny from the elected representatives on the council, but also accountability to the public. Because the transition to a truly sustainable city is not something that should be buried in technocratic procedures or opaque bureaucracy – it is something that should involve and inspire us all.