Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. The LGA conference is certainly getting its money worth out of the coalition - I’m pleased to be following my colleague Eric Pickles who spoke to you yesterday. I hope you see that as an indication of the importance we give to the role of local government- and this is no more true than in the area of climate change.
I’ve been in post now for eight weeks and already, the Prime Minister has tasked my Department with leading Whitehall in becoming the greenest government ever. On his second day in office, I think that shows how high on the agenda this issue is.
Our task is to create the framework for a move, over the next four decades, to a low-carbon economy. We have to meet the challenge of climate change, to establish energy security and to create new jobs, new export opportunities and shared prosperity. This will require a radical transformation of the British economy , society -in fact all of us; local and central government, devolved administrations, local communities, Whitehall and Westminster, have a role to play. We can only meet this challenge by working together.
Local and central government in partnership
The coalition’s programme for government makes our commitment to decentralisation clear - as it says, ‘a radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy’, including giving councils a general power of competence. We are tearing down the structure of centrally set targets, and returning genuine power to local authorities.
And of course you all understand the acute financial constraints we are working under. Even if we wanted to create new responsibilities for local authorities, we don’t have the money to give you to fulfil them.
But at the same time everyone here understands the over-riding urgency of tackling climate change. We have, through the Climate Change Act, a legally binding requirement to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. What we need to do now is to construct a new partnership between local and central government, which enables us to meet these goals in the fastest and most cost-effective manner possible.
I understand and appreciate the LGA’s ‘offer’ to central government to reform the way in which public services are delivered, using an area-based budgeting model, delivering services which are both of higher quality and more cost-effective. What I want to ask you to think of today, and in the weeks to come, is whether you can put forward to me another ‘offer’, outlining how local and central government can work together to meet our national climate change targets.
I also appreciate that we need to lead by example and get our own house in order first. That’s why our first step is cutting Whitehall’s emissions by 10 per cent over the next 12 months. We can learn lessons there from those local authorities which have already taken action, and help to exchange examples of best practice.
Green Deal - the overarching plan
What we must do in central government is to set an enabling framework to allow local authorities - and communities, and business, and individuals - to take more ambitious action.
The heart of the Energy Bill which I will be introducing later this year will be the Green Deal - a mechanism to make it easy for individuals and businesses to save energy, reduce emissions and cut their costs. Energy efficiency has traditionally been the Cinderella at the energy policy ball, but it is absolutely key area.
Our Green Deal aims to make home insulation affordable to all. The aim is that householders will save money by insulating their home. The process will be simplified for customers and the work paid for upfront. Householders will then pay back over time on their energy bills from the energy savings they make.
We have already announced an extension of the CERT - the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target, refocusing on domestic energy efficiency so that 3.5 million extra homes will be helped with loft and wall insulation.
Some people - such as the fuel-poor, and those in hard-to-heat homes lacking cavity walls - will need extra help because energy savings alone will not be enough. We intend to provide that help by refocusing the obligations on energy companies.
There is a clear role for local authorities in this new framework. Local councils could join with energy companies to reach those who live in houses that need it most; insulation measures are often cheaper if implemented a street at a time.
We want to work with you to learn the lessons of the existing Community Energy Saving Programme - or CESP.
These schemes have already demonstrated how energy companies, local authorities and community groups can work together. Through focussing on local supply and demand, which you can gauge best, it can deliver local solutions. We want to build on your experiences in developing the Green Deal legislation. I want to see local authorities playing a central role in delivering the Green Deal and we would very much welcome your ideas. And of course, don’t forget that this is a way of creating tens of thousands of jobs in the home insulation market, everywhere round the country.
Local communities and energy generation
Our other top priority in building a low-carbon economy is to develop renewable sources of energy. And here as well, we want to see communities and individuals owning a stake in our collective low-carbon future.
The coalition programme sets out our commitments to more community-owned renewable energy schemes, and to allow communities that host renewable energy projects to retain the additional business rates they generate.
But I want to be able to do even more. My political ancestor Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s, developed the doctrine of municipal liberalism, using the power of local authorities more actively to improve the conditions of life of the local population.
Among other things, he established a successful municipal gas supply by purchasing two gas companies on behalf of the borough.
We can learn from that experience. It is frankly ridiculous that the 1976 Local Government Act prevents councils from selling electricity from local wind turbines, or from anaerobic digestion.
I want to see this repealed. By the end of the year, I hope local authorities will be able to sell electricity from renewables - generating revenue to help local services and keep Council Tax down: local communities, truly benefiting from the low-carbon transition. This will allow local authorities to take full advantage of the incentives that are available through feed-in tariffs to invest in renewable energy on their own buildings. We are also keen for local authorities to work with other partners on community scale renewable electricity schemes which can be supported by FITs.
Getting the framework right
There are many areas in which local and central government can work together to construct the new low-carbon economy and society.
To provide both clarity and flexibility, we’re proposing a new National Planning Framework. It will replace the plethora of existing guidance with one straightforward document.
To support this new framework we will help local authorities, working together, to assess the potential for renewable and low-carbon energy development in their areas. This will ensure a robust and consistent evidence base for planning for renewables at the local level.
I referred before to the UK national target of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.
Within this overall target central government departments have their own carbon budgets covering their own areas of policy. What we need to do now is to discuss with you the appropriate structure through which local authorities can take the lead in accepting responsibility for carbon emissions in their own areas. We do not want to dictate local targets or carbon budgets to you. Equally, we have a responsibility to ensure that central and local government, working together, hit that 80 per cent target. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in this area, including what obstacles you can identify which we can work with you to remove.
A key part of this process is having the data available on which to base decisions. For the first time today carbon emissions data from English local authorities’ own estate and operations have been published, covering the 2008/2009 financial year. This I know has taken a great deal of effort by local authorities and shows how seriously the need to measure and assess carbon footprints is taken. I am pleased that pilots on data on local carbon budgets are continuing.
Learning from local government
I know that there is much we can learn from the actions taken by many of you.
My own local authority, for example, Eastleigh Borough Council, has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by the 2012 London Olympics by introducing a programme covering all areas of the council and its buildings.
Eastleigh recognised the fact that they won’t be able to get to zero carbon, so they have decided to compensate for their residual emissions by tackling issues locally through a scheme that residents, businesses and the council can invest in.
Their first priority is additional insulation in older homes, tackling fuel poverty as well as carbon emissions. Over 150 homes have now had loft insulation or cavity wall insulation or both, paid for by CarbonFREE.
This is just one example. Many other local authorities have similar stories to tell, from building low-carbon housing developments, to installing local renewable schemes, to converting their vehicles to run on low-emission fuels, to promoting household and street-level energy efficiency schemes. Others, however, have been less ambitious, and it is clear that the country as a whole is not yet on the path to meeting our 80 per cent target by 2050.
I am determined that we will rise to this challenge. I also know that we cannot achieve it without you. I want to create the framework that ensures that local and central government together meet that target, that allows local government and local communities to deploy the innovation, ingenuity and creativity that I know you possess to meet local needs. I want to ensure that government at all levels - local as well as central - meets our pledge, to become the greenest ever.
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