Duncan Brack writes: Introduction to ‘Green liberalism: a local approach to the low carbon economy’

This is the introduction to the recently published collection of essays, Green liberalism: a local approach to the low carbon economy. Similar collections are being published under Green Alliance’s ‘Green social democracy’ and ‘Green conservatism’ projects as part of the Green Roots programme, which aims to stimulate green thinking within the three dominant political traditions in the UK.

This collection of essays builds on two Liberal Democrat core beliefs: environmentalism and localism.

As David Howarth argued in The green book: new directions for Liberals in government (Biteback, March 2013), Liberalism is not only compatible with environmentalism, it requires an environmental approach. In the UK, the Liberal Party, and then the Liberal Democrats, have consistently shown themselves to be the greenest of the three major political parties.

Equally, British Liberals have always been strongly decentralist: we believe that citizens should exercise the greatest degree of control possible over the institutions that affect their lives, which requires decentralised government. If communities have a degree of control over energy decisions, rather than having schemes imposed on them from above, they are likely to be better decisions with a greater chance of successful implementation.

The views expressed here demonstrate the need and the potential for local and regional low carbon developments. Simon Roberts argues powerfully for the consent and involvement of the public in delivering a low carbon, reliable and affordable energy system: simply asking people “how can we best make our contribution to a low carbon future around here?” is a good start. Juliet Davenport similarly highlights the need to engage communities in the transition from a centralised fossil fuel powered energy system to a dispersed renewable network, recognising that, as with any significant infrastructure change, some will object.

Lord Shipley, a former leader of Newcastle City Council, sets out the potential of the city deals introduced in 2012 in eight major English cities, with more to come. The new freedoms to experiment and innovate that these deals bring have led to low carbon developments such as Birmingham’s local authority led Green Deal, Manchester’s joint venture company with the Green Investment Bank and Newcastle’s drive to secure private investment in marine and offshore renewables. What is particularly encouraging is that each of these cities now sees carbon reduction as an embedded policy, underpinning their planning and investment decisions.

Keith House, leader of Liberal Democrat Eastleigh Council, shows what even small local authorities can achieve, given leadership and vision; the simple policy of not charging planning application fees for renewable energy schemes, for example, has helped to encourage solar photovoltaic and combined heat and power schemes. Christoph Harwood outlines the ways in which local authorities can attract finance for the local low carbon economy, by setting targets, convening the right partners, using their assets to de-risk projects and providing enabling finance.

The relationship between the private sector and local authorities, city deals and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) is crucial. Companies, both existing and new, will develop and adapt faster with a supportive framework to help them understand the policy environment and grasp the opportunities available.

Merlin Hyman argues that most LEPs lack the expertise and the capacity to understand these markets; he and Colin Skellett demonstrate how regional agencies are bridging this gap and providing specialist local support to enable local businesses to realise low carbon opportunities. The experience of Regen SW and the Bristol city deal in supporting innovative technologies, training and apprenticeship programmes, renewable energy investments and local transport solutions is hugely encouraging.

Duncan Hames is more optimistic about the potential for LEPs, pointing in particular to the New Anglia LEP’s actions as a ‘green economy pathfinder’, but also calling for LEPs to work together, as well as with local authorities and the private sector.

Julian Huppert focuses on the need for local low carbon transport, not only to reduce carbon emissions but also to improve health and quality of life, while Martin Garratt highlights the potential for companies to work together, citing the experience of the high tech and cleantech clusters around Cambridge.

These thoughtful contributions also start to set out an agenda for future Liberal Democrat policy development: the need, for example, for a Regional Growth Fund focused on long term support, not short term ad hoc initiatives; for a partnership structure for LEPs and the private sector; and, for the means to spread best practice from city deal and LEPs’ low carbon experiments. Taken together, these essays draw a compelling picture of how localism and low carbon development can be combined to create a vibrant local economy.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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