“It’s important to place people at the centre of energy transition”

Andrew Hunt, Green Energy and Sustainability Manager for Oldham Council, tells elemental about the council’s exciting plans for the area, outlining the details of their Green New Deal and ambitions for their delivery partnership scheme, whilst highlighting the citizen centric philosophy which lies at the heart of each project.

What is your department’s main focus?

Our key initiative is to establish an Oldham Green New Deal delivery partnership. We’ve got a Local Area Energy Plan for the borough, and we’re seeing more and more local authorities establishing similar plans. Oldham’s initiative was done as part of the local energy market scheme, which is a Greater Manchester Combined Authority project funded by Innovate UK. Within this, each of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester was allocated a plan, and I believe Greater Manchester was the first city region area to receive one.

Effectively, these plans set out all of the infrastructure required to eventually reach net zero. This really covers everything you can think of within industry, including district heat networks, heat pumps, solar farms and much more. The cost of putting this infrastructure into place, in Oldham alone, comes out to about £5.5 billion So, if we really want to reach net zero, we within the Council understand that we will have to create a partnership within the private sector, to ensure that we obtain the necessary investment for the level of ambition within our plan. We have concluded that the Oldham Green New Deal delivery partnership model will be the only feasible way upgrade Oldham’s energy infrastructure for the 21st century.

Our Green New Deal also sits within a wider council regeneration programme, known as ‘Creating a Better Place’. This is our capital programme, which includes the regeneration of town centres, and is roughly a £300 million scheme as well. The whole Creating a Better Place programme is absolutely key to the decarbonisation of the borough as it enables sustainability to be embedded in the regeneration of the borough at a strategic level.

What recent successes or innovations within Oldham Council are you particularly proud of?

One thing that I’ve been really excited about is a project we’ve done in Oldham in collaboration with an organisation called Carbon Co-op. They’re a Manchester-based organisation but are also a key partner of ours here in Oldham, and we supported them in the implementation of a project called Oldham Energy Futures recently. Within this, two pilot trials were held, one in Sholver and one in Westwood, which have two very different demographics and geographical set-ups, with one quite rural and the other more urban. Oldham Energy Futures engaged with and made local residents much more interested in discussions around energy transition.

It helped individuals within these areas become more aware and conversant in various energy debates, through bringing in training and presentations to get them up to speed. Once that was accomplished, the next stage of the scheme was to invite residents to imagine their own neighbourhoods transformed into low-carbon areas, and to ask them how they would like this transition to look. Each of the areas’ residents then created what we call a ‘Community-led Energy Plan’, which are substantially sized documents, outlining what local people’s needs and priorities were for any energy transition that might take place. The plans covered everything from improving the energy efficiency of housing, to electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, and even the upgrading of local green spaces and walking routes. This was truly an innovative and pioneering approach to including local opinion in energy planning.

There’s a toolkit online for other councils that want to do something similar in their own areas, and I think this collaboration with residents will prove critical in all and any aspects of energy transition.

From your research, what will be the most important future trend within the energy market?

I think the local benefits and value of energy transition will be key. I’ve found that people are generally open minded and interested in living more sustainably, but they also need to know that there will be positives for them and their quality of life, too, in committing to making changes.

For example, the development of local energy markets will provide opportunities for neighbourhoods to actually benefit directly from renewable energy generation within their own boundaries, through the buying and selling and peer-to-peer trading of energy at a very local level.

Ofgem recognises how significant local interests will be moving forward too and is doing work on the concept of locational pricing, where it examines how local people benefit from various sustainable projects, such as a wind farm on a local hill. The government, to its credit, has also acknowledged this sentiment, and has made available a new £10 million fund for Community Energy Groups to set up community energy projects. A similar grant has existed before, with a focus around tackling climate change, so it’s interesting to see a change in pivot with a fund now solely dedicated to energy security. I think this reflects how important placing people at the centre of energy transition will be moving forwards.

Are there any particular challenges you are concerned about?

I think progress on low carbon is not necessarily being driven by government policy anymore. For example, car manufacturers recognise that electric cars are the future and will be channelling their long-term investment there. Across sectors, so much money and research is being driven into creating clean energy technologies, and any government deadlines won’t affect the overall direction of travel.

In terms of the challenges, I would again return to the consent of ordinary people.

The approval of net zero is essential, as well as ensuring that any low carbon agenda has a perceived democratic legitimacy. We need to secure buy-in from communities on these sorts of changes, by providing transparent information and encouraging debate. We have seen some opposition to certain schemes within Oldham, such as to low traffic neighbourhoods and low emissions zones. Some of this is caused by legitimate concerns, and perhaps some of it stoked by the rumour mill. However, at its core, there’s a very significant point that people, at heart, need to want this to happen and to be part of it.

The scale of change as, as I mentioned, is placed at £5.5 billion worth of infrastructure, and thus  people will need to be enthusiastically in support. There will be genuine concerns about who is paying for this, which could turn the tide on the whole plan. To me, it’s not about investment or the technologies, but rather getting people on side which will be the real challenge.

Community-led energy planning is our way of putting local people at the heart of the energy transition. We like to think that this goes beyond the traditional terms of ‘engaging’ the community and ‘winning hearts and minds’, by actually placing people at the centre of energy planning. Once you prioritise being citizen centric in energy planning, it means individuals have a degree of control and feel as though they’re driving progress too, rather than just being impacted by change.

We’re really hoping the approach to community-led energy planning that Carbon Co-op developed for us is a blueprint for this philosophy, and we’re going to be rolling it out across the borough.

In regard to Oldham’s Green New Deal Strategy, do you feel on target to reach both your 2025 and 2030 targets?

In our target setting, we stated in our strategy that we wanted carbon neutrality for the council by 2025 and for the borough by 2030. As a council, we have set ourselves a very specific target, which is really just about council buildings and street lighting, so quite a narrow kind of scope. We want to do our best to improve all our major buildings, not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also to make them fit for the future, and we’ve already had some success in this. Over the pandemic, we bought the major shopping complex in Oldham, the Spindles, and we’re currently giving that a full, multi-million-pound renovation, which includes the decarbonisation of the building. This will become the main council building, with the council offices moving soon in along with a whole host of other facilities going in there.

We’re also looking at ways to purchase clean energy and examining all our options there. We probably will have to do carbon offsetting of some description for our remaining gas use, too It’s really just about seeing what we can do. We should also really phrase it as ‘from’ 2025, because carbon neutrality will be an ongoing challenge, and the more that we do, the higher quality our efforts will become.

The 2030 target for the borough is within the context of Greater Manchester’s 2038 carbon neutrality target, which of course is well in advance of the national 2050 target. Oldham already has the lowest carbon footprint out of the ten local authority areas, so while already an incredibly challenging journey, we have a plan, are giving it a really good go.

Based on your experience so far, what are you looking forward to most, and what do you feel the greatest challenges will be for you?

I’ve mentioned a lot of the exciting work already, such as the community-led energy planning and the Oldham Green New Deal delivery partnership that we’re developing. Regarding the latter, we’ve very recently put in an application to the Innovate UK Net Zero Living Pathfinder Places Fund Phase Two. A bit of a mouthful, but a bid we’re very pleased with. We’ve gone in as a consortium with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, who are the lead applicant, and also Manchester City Council. Our ambition is to be able to test out delivery models at three different levels: city region level, local authority level, which is Oldham, and then at a neighbourhood level, which will be Manchester’s project. We’re really excited about these models and we’re hoping to be successful in our bid for Innovate UK funding.

Obviously, funding is persistently a major challenge for us. Within local authorities and the public sector generally, we tend to be underfunded and under-resourced to deliver against all of our outcomes, though the government still expects results. Even where there are government grant funding schemes, such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation scheme, for example, they usually prove very difficult to navigate. They’re incredibly competitive, and quite often if you don’t press send on your application within five minutes of the fund opening, then all the money is gone. Even if you are successful, the council still has to provide the funding for feasibility work to develop these bids and, of course, provide the match funding for decarbonisation schemes, which can be expensive. While it’s obviously it’s the right thing to do, in these straitened times prioritising decarbonisation is becoming increasingly difficult.

Even our internal capacity within the council itself is constrained. We’ve got absolutely fantastic people working on the technical teams, but they’re simply aren’t enough of us generally, and quite often councils don’t even have the capacity to submit bids. It’s a very challenging sector to work in.

How have central government departments supported your efforts, and how would you like to see this collaboration develop?

As I mentioned, there are multiple government funds out there, such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, or the Levelling Up Fund.

However, they don’t necessarily solve all of our problems since so many of our difficulties arise from under-resourcing within councils. I really don’t want to be completely negative here, though, and would love to single out one particular fund which I think has absolutely got it right.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s Heat Network Delivery Unit, the section of the department that deals with heat networks, have really perfected their funding scheme. They make different funds available to support each phase of project development and offer support to applicants throughout the process.

The department provides templates for tender specifications and are there the entire way to offer guidance, while providing funds structured in such a way plugs gaps at the local authority level. This makes it possible for even local authorities with minimal numbers of officers working a bid to progress.

The scheme also benefits from a rolling application deadline, so authorities can apply every month or every three months. It’s not a competitive fund in the same way, so you can actually plan ahead. This is a great example of how it should be done, and I only wish that other funds were managed in the same way.

In regard to meeting requirements for infrastructure from a skilled worker perspective, how are the council approaching the issue of upskilling to support carbon neutrality?

Another one of the big challenges in meeting our targets will be securing the supply chain capacity to actually to deliver on all of our schemes. In order to actually achieve the scale of installations and retrofits necessary to provide renewable energy in line with national targets, we will need to be offering tens of thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships within the Oldham and Greater Manchester areas. As much as this is challenge, it’s also a huge opportunity. To return to the Oldham Green New Deal delivery partnership, the need for upskilling is central to our aim to find a partner within the private sector. In funnelling more investment into the borough to deliver on energy infrastructure, we hopefully can also get our local green technology and services supply chain businesses involved.

We recently had a study done and found there are around a hundred green businesses just in Oldham, each employing local people. We’ve also got a great college, increasingly introducing more technical courses, so with some support from private sector funds, we can do a real recruitment push within renewable energy spaces. We want to help the college to guide their students, so that young people have the chance to learn these emerging green skills and later gain secure, profitable jobs.

Our delivery partnership will be able to facilitate this and ensure there are ‘co-benefits’ for Oldham residents from any investment, rather than companies taking advantage of a traditional extractive model, where the borough is exploited for all it’s worth.

Having featured in an elemental webinar last year discussing decarbonising social housing, has there been much development in this area in the past year that you have seen? For example, in Oldham, have you found success in involving low-income households in the ‘Green New Deal’?

There’s definitely been some positive progress. Our local big housing provider, First Choice Homes Oldham, has recently secured a few million pounds to retrofit a substantial number of their stock to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. The council is also developing a low carbon district heat network for the town centre, which will utilise a number of different low carbon heat sources. This means we’ll be delivering very affordable heat to those housing developments in the town centre, which will include all existing Oldham tenants in First Choice Homes.

In addition, we’ve recently signed a deal with Muse Developments, another major developer in this region, to launch their net zero housing in Oldham town centre. These homes will be connected to the district heat network and built specifically to a very high standard of energy efficiency.

With the cost-of-living crisis, we’ve all seen our energy bills rise. To be able to offer housing which is affordable to live in is crucial for us. Since the council is the landowner for many of the new developments, we can also insist on progressing with more energy efficient housing, and we’re certainly pulling every lever at our disposable to make housing less financially burdensome for people, whilst also fulfilling our carbon neutrality targets.

What final message would you like to tell everyone about Oldham Council’s plans and ambitions?

Just to watch this space for the Green New Deal delivery partnership! We really hope it will provide a solution for councils based in less affluent areas. The Bristol City Leap delivery partnership is fantastic, but it’s not replicable across the country. A lot of the UK’s local authorities can’t obtain that level of investment, and we hope that Oldham’s model will be suitable for everyone and will enable us all to achieve on the carbon neutral agenda as well.