We need mass public pressure for Government funding for the retrofit crisis in the West Midlands. Will Labour councillors and the WMCA take the lead or leave us in the cold?
The WMCA’s ‘Five Year Plan 2021-2026’ aims “to retrofit 292,000 homes by 2026 to stay on course for net zero”. The WMCA estimates the investment required to 2026 to fund the Five Year Plan is £3,853million. The WMCA’s Environment and Energy Board announced in March 2022 that the total funding gained so far was £26.6million. The first retrofit project approved is £7.5million to retrofit 622 homes in Elmdon, Solihull and Foleshill, Coventry, to begin in summer 2023. This is a drop in the ocean of nearly 300,000 homes in the West Midlands to retrofit by 2026.
We need large-scale investment in retrofit by business
The explanation for the failure of the Five Year Plan is that it relies on two sources of funding which haven’t delivered. One is Government grants to home-owners, mainly delivered via local authorities. The amount of grants has been too limited and the application system for both local authorities and home-owners has been erratic. The second source of funding was intended to be private investment, but this has not been forthcoming. The WMCA Energy and Environment Board’s report ‘Environment Behaviour Change Update’ on 9 March 2022 explains the reason: “Energy infrastructure spending is not aligned with local economic priorities which is proving a significant barrier to business investment.” In other words, business can make more profit by investing elsewhere rather than in retrofit. What the WMCA doesn’t say is that only a massive increase in Government funding can fill the gap and make large-scale investment in retrofit attractive to business.
The ‘West Midlands Levelling Up Growth Prospectus’
The CA is now pinning its hopes on the government’s flagship ‘Levelling Up White Paper’, announced by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in February 2022, “setting out a plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it.” “Twelve bold national levelling up missions, given status in law, will shift government focus and resources to Britain’s forgotten communities throughout 2020s”. Remarkably, tackling climate change is not one of the 12 Missions but the CA says that retrofit will contribute to some such as Health.
The CA is also relying on the government’s Trailblazer Devolution Deal, which promises more powers for the WMCA and the Greater Manchester CA.
On 3 October 2022 the WMCA launched the ‘West Midlands Levelling Up Growth Prospectus’*, a “far-reaching blueprint setting out what is needed to level up the region”, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.
WMCA officers oppose call for more Government funding…and Labour gives in
A couple of weeks later, on 17 October, the CA’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee discussed its ‘Trailblazer Devolution Deal Scrutiny Working Group – Summary Report’. This item was supported by 7 papers including the 65-page ‘West Midlands Levelling Up Growth Prospectus’, which repeats the aims of the FYP for retrofit.
The Scrutiny Committee consists of 15 Councillors – 8 Tory, 7 Labour including the Chair and Vice-Chair – plus a business representative from the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership. The officer (described as ‘Accountable Employee’) at the Committee was Ed Cox, Executive Director, Strategy, Integration & Net Zero. The Notes of the Scrutiny Committee discussion are not very detailed but there is one significant point about funding:
5.1 Investment sought compared to the scale of the ambition
The Working Group welcomed the scale of ambition outlined in the proposals in terms of the areas that were being addressed, but in some instances queried whether the investment being sought from Government was bold enough to ensure delivery. Although clearly greater sums would be welcome, in the main, officers considered that the financial asks were figures that would be more likely to be deemed reasonable by Government departments and in particular HM Treasury.
It was also noted that Government had firmly stated that there would be ‘no new money’.
So, in short, some councillors – not named – said we weren’t asking Government for enough money. We should ask for more. But officers – also not named – said we shouldn’t ask for more because the Government would say no. And Labour councillors backed down.
Our future strategy for retrofit
This shows us what our future strategy has to be for retrofit. It requires far more money, for two purposes. One is to greatly increase the number of grants available to home owners (and greatly simplify the procedure). The other is to greatly increase the funding for local government to spend on retrofit. This would create a market which would attract private investment into large-scale neighbourhood retrofit projects. (Ideally we might prefer them to be carried out in-house by local authorities and by non-profit organisations, but the need is far too great and too urgent. Only the private sector has the capacity.)
The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) is “an industry network with a mission to radically improve the sustainability of the built environment”. In October this year it published a 26 page document – the ‘UKGBC Response to Net Zero Review: Call for evidence’, which is very critical of Government policy. “Current rates of renovation will need to increase by around 7 times if we are to meet the Government’s target of upgrading as many homes to EPC Band C as possible by 2035.” The report concludes that
“It is critical that Government therefore introduce and support a large-scale, transformative domestic retrofit strategy and programme that is fully coordinated with local authorities, industry, consumers and other relevant stakeholders, and does not disadvantage lower-income households.”
Only mass pressure can force Government policy to change
They are right. The question then is what can change Government policy? Only mass pressure can force Government policy to change. What is needed is a public campaign by the WMCA to demand a huge increase in Government funding for retrofit. Such a campaign would get huge public support, but mass pressure is needed to force the WMCA to launch it. (Perhaps its Tory leadership might be motivated by the thought that the failure to deliver retrofit might be a factor in it losing the Mayoral election in 2024.)
That raises the question of the role of the Labour Party in relation to the WMCA. It may well have been Labour councillors at the Scrutiny Committee meeting who said we need more Government money, but the officers said no. So what will these councillors do now? If the answer is nothing, in effect they are telling their fuel-poor constituents in cold homes ‘you’ll just have to put up with it’ until there’s a Labour government. That’s what in effect Labour councils are saying too. Brigid Jones, deputy leader of BCC and the WMCA, says in her foreword to the CA’s Prospectus “The Government must lay solid foundations for real recovery with sustainable and fair funding for local government”. But there is no sign that she intends to mobilise a campaign of public support for it, or even to publicly criticise the CA’s stance (even though it would actually win public support for Labour).
There is a retrofit crisis in the West Midlands because of Government failure to fund it. Only mass public pressure can change it – and that includes public pressure on the WMCA and on the Labour Party and its councillors in the West Midlands to campaign publicly and forcefully for enough Government funding to get retrofit done with no more delay.
*Link: ‘West Midlands Levelling Up Growth Prospectus’ https://governance.wmca.org.uk/documents/s7673/Levelling%20Up%20Growth%20Prospectus.pdf