Build Back Better

The Chancellor is due to publish a stimulus package next month. The fight against COVID-19 is far from over, but the first phase and economic measures that anchored it are coming to an end. Short-term measures will need to be replaced with a long-term strategy to rebuild the shattered economy. The OECD predicts that even without a second spike the UK economy will shrink by 11% this year.

The pandemic has distracted attention from the climate crisis, but the imperative of tackling that overwhelming threat has not diminished. In recent weeks, many groups across the private and public sectors have been calling for a recovery that delivers on global climate goals. Yesterday, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its annual progress report to Parliament in which it expands on the advice it gave to the Prime Minister in May, setting out the principles for building a resilient recovery from COVID-19. These include the principles that climate investments should support jobs; and, that we must ensure that the recovery does not lock-in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a growing body of evidence that green stimulus measures are among the most beneficial for the economy as well as having strong potential to cut emissions. Ideal investments are those that put newly unemployed people to work quickly, delivering a high short-term multiplier, while producing valuable assets that meet the needs of the future, so as to also deliver a high long-term multiplier. The Smith School in Oxford has shown that clean energy investment, for example, has positive high long run multiplier impact and a positive climate impact. By contrast airline bailouts without attaching climate conditions score lowest on both counts.

In its annual Progress Report, CCC sets out some clear investment priorities for the recovery and calls for strong co-ordination across Whitehall.

CCC’s recommendation that the full phase out of petrol and diesel cars and vans be brought forward to 2032 had been widely briefed and covered in media. To support this objective, one of the key investment priorities is that energy networks must be strengthened for the net-zero energy transformation. Infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely is another key investment priority. Previously in April, the CCC recommended that the £27 billion roads budget should be spent on broadband. This call was supported by the AA which predicts a permanent reduction in demand for travel because people have learned during the crisis to use home-working technology.

Resilient digital technology will be needed if home-working is genuinely to become widespread. There is a strong green investment case for switching the roads budget to broadband. The Smith School study found that traditional transport infrastructure investment (such as road building) has high long run multiplier impact but potentially has a negative climate impact. Connectivity infrastructure investment, by contrast, has both a potential high long run multiplier impact and a positive climate impact. The investment case for road building has also been weakened by change in travel demand caused by the COVID-19. Professor Greg Marsden at the University of Leeds argues that the traffic growth predictions underpinning the road programme now look unlikely and Government should prioritise rebuilding public transport and switching more vehicles to zero emission.

Top of the CCC’s investment priorities for the recovery are “low carbon retrofits and buildings that are fit for the future”. Clearly this would deliver on the key priority to support jobs. However, if these investments are truly to avoid locking in greenhouse gas emissions it is vital that they are fully integrated with sustainable transport. This is a policy area which also requires strong co-ordination across Whitehall, and which plays into the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes per year to address the housing crisis.

Higher density housing in locations well served by public transport must be a central part of the solution to the housing crisis. New developments in urban centres well connected by public transport can generate 50% more positive economic impacts than similar developments located on the fringe, whilst dramatically reducing pollution and congestion. A 10% improvement in public transport connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation.

There are, however, big barriers to the integration of sustainable transport with housing. For example, the planning and delivery for local public transport and new housing too often operate in silos. A fragmented, short-term funding regime prevents Local Areas from planning strategically. This is a very difficult area to get right, despite often the very best of intentions. Transport for New Homes recently analysed the Government’s Garden Communities Prospectus, which sets out some great visions but are let down by transport provision. The 20 Garden Communities TfNH investigated will create up to 200,000 car-dependent households.

If we’re serious about achieving net zero every aspect of how we do things is going to have to change, and nowhere is this more the case than in how we tackle our housing crisis.

The Committee on Climate Change has urged Ministers to seize the opportunity to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change. Let’s hope the Chancellor is listening.

Claire Haigh is one of the speakers at The Planner Live Online: Planning for a Post Pandemic Recovery, 29th June – 3rd July 2020

About the Author

This post was written by Claire Haigh. Claire is the Executive Director of The Transport Knowledge Hub

Claire Haigh

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