It’s been more than two-and-a-half years since Kirklees declared a climate emergency. Since then, what has been done – and what more needs to be done in the months and years to come? Tony Earnshaw reports.
Huddersfield Town Hall, January 2019
Cheers and applause greet a vote to declare a climate emergency to tackle “unsustainable” levels of carbon emissions in Kirklees.
It means Kirklees Council commits to creating a policy and embedding environmental good practice into all areas of its work.
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It’s now 31 months later. The council has appointed its Climate Commission, an 18-member independent advisory group set up to “shape and guide positive and supportive climate action” across the district.
Because the authority is clear about one big thing: hitting its ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2038 isn’t just about the council itself, it’s for the whole of Kirklees and its 450,000 residents.
Leading the council’s climate change portfolio is Will Simpson, one of the youngest members in the chamber. Elected in 2018 aged just 22, he was appointed to the decision-making Cabinet in May this year.
He says the new Climate Commission is just part of the jigsaw forming “a whole borough intelligence-led approach” towards hitting the carbon neutral target in just 17 years time and adds: “The council has a huge role to play [but] we can’t do it by ourselves, nor would we want to.”
According to Clr Simpson the last two-and-a-bit years have seen Kirklees hosting a climate youth summit, planting more trees – 35,000 in the first year; double that in the second – and leading the White Rose Forest programme, investing £1m in public electric vehicle charging points, improving biodiversity, ensuring all the council’s energy comes from renewable sources, and the £1m “greening” of the council’s fleet of vehicles.
That constitutes Phase 1. The focus now, he says, is on accelerating delivery and meeting those lofty ambitions for the phases to follow. The commission will help create the roadmap going forward. Simpson describes it as a challenging but “really exciting” time.
A big part of that challenge is in communicating the meaning of the climate emergency to people in the street.
Shaun Berry, the council’s operational manager for air quality, energy and climate change, says community engagement is “extremely important”.
“Speaking about climate change to one area of Kirklees may not actually mean anything to them. They may not think it’s relevant. We need to work with residents and help highlight some of the key challenges we face.
“One of those challenges is addressing key climate change hurdles across multiple populations and how we can win the hearts and minds of residents and explain that what we’re doing is eventually going to be important to them as it is important to us now.”
The commission, comprised of people from different industries, and faith sectors, will help build key contacts.
Green campaigners want the council to embrace the low carbon approach in its own housing stock by adopting the Passivhaus standard, which reduces a building’s ecological footprint.
Whilst it is already adopted by other local authorities, Kirklees is piloting Passivhaus via around 100 homes. In the meantime it is “retro-fitting” many of its properties, spending £130m since 2005/06 in tackling inefficient domestic buildings.
Given that the authority owns more than 21,000 properties across the borough ranging from 6,464 one-bedroom flats to five six-bedroom houses, the scale of the task is immense.
Says Clr Simpson: “Living in a Passivhaus is different to living in a normal house. It’s not just a well-insulated home. It’s a lifestyle. It does change the way that you live. We need to bring people on that journey because it is a very big change.
“Also, it costs considerably more [than normal housing]. If we’re going to spend a significant amount of money we need to know that it’s right for our tenants.”
That’s the council looking to do its bit. What of developers? Can they be brought in line and made to improve their new-build homes? That is a trickier prospect.
Developers cannot be forced to do anything outside legal planning policy. They can be invited – and they can refuse. That means they can’t be compelled to incorporate aspects of sustainable development such as solar panels on roofs, heat pumps and rainwater catchment.
That paints local authorities like Kirklees into a corner as their recommendations carry no legislative weight. Morally such improvements would be of benefit to the council’s zero target aspirations. For developers, it could eat into profit margins.
Clr Simpson says: “When it comes to planning we often are painted into a corner. We are constrained by the National Planning Policy Framework, which is frankly much more in favour of developers than it is local authorities.
“We can only do things on sites that have a willing landowner and a willing developer. They’ll do that in their own interests.
“Unless there’s some legislative backing that means we can force them to make sure [their houses have] the best climate credentials we will end up at the planning inspectorate losing appeals and paying developers for the privilege of doing low-quality housing.”
Where the council does have some control is over its support for road-widening scheme aimed at cutting congestion and slashing carbon emission rates on major routes.
One of those routes is the A629 Halifax Road linking Huddersfield with Halifax. Part of it represents the key link between Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and Calderdale Royal Hospital.
It is presently the focus of a tug-of-war between the council and tree campaigners seeking to stop the felling of scores of mature trees along the carriageway.
Greens on the council have called for the £13m scheme to be paused. The council has refused and has continued to defend the controversial and unpopular proposal with claims that reducing queuing and slow-moving traffic at bottlenecks between the town centre and Ainley Top will reduce air pollution.
It says achieving at least a one-minute journey time saving from every one of the tens of thousands of vehicles using the route every day and is “a massive positive for congestion reduction as well as the environment”.
Clr Simpson says: “The A629 suffers from extensive delays, congestion and poor air quality. The scheme is Phase 5 of a five-phase scheme. The other four are in Calderdale. All of those are going ahead and will reduce congestion.
“If the council doesn’t deliver on Phase 5 it will result in bottlenecking of all of that other improvements and congest worse on our side coming down past the hospital and into town.”
He said the trees on the side of the A629 have a canopy that “traps in” poor air quality, which will worsen with additional congestion and bottlenecks.
“It’s impossible to make that carriageway any wider without losing those trees. If it was possible to do it without it, the council absolutely wouldn’t be doing it.
“The fundamental issue is [that] worse congestion means it’s more difficult for our local residents to access hospital services.
“The question is: is the impact it’s going to have worth it? I think it’s absolutely fair to come down on either side of that argument.”
He adds: “We’ve got these incredible ambitions both for regeneration and the climate emergency. I believe that we will deliver them and that that will be an absolutely exceptional achievement given where we’re starting from: losing £197m from our budget every year [due to government austerity measures].
“It’s quite scary: 2038 is not far away and we have got a considerable amount of work to do.
“I’d love us to be the best – and I do hope we are – but it’s no good us being the best and others not achieving it. The climate emergency isn’t just Kirklees. It’s all of us, isn’t it?”
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