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Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to bring to the House a subject that affects every one of us. On the back of a particularly scorching few days and a summer where we have seen unprecedented weather events in mainland Europe as well as across the wider world, no one is any more in any doubt that we have a problem. Most acknowledge that our actions as human beings on this planet have played a significant part and that we have a very direct interest in addressing those behaviours if we are to survive in future.

With United Nations summits on both the climate and nature emergencies in the next few months, it is particularly timely to be looking at what we can all do in our own areas. My purpose in bringing this debate tonight is to highlight what I consider to be the excellent work being done in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and to press the Government to listen both to the recommendations and the requests that flow from them.

I am sure the Minister is in listening mode. This is no partisan intervention; we all need to be working together on these issues. It is what the public wants and expects, and while there are differences in view and legitimate differences in how some of these goals will be achieved, it is striking that almost all political persuasions are contributing locally. From the school climate protests, initially on Fridays a couple of years ago, which were fantastically well-supported in Cambridge and quite inspiring, through to the explosion of interest triggered by the Extinction Rebellion-led protests, awareness has risen substantially, and the political parties have responded, and rightly so.

The first directly elected mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer, was an often controversial figure, and I do not think that he would mind me saying that he was not too unhappy about having that reputation. Between us, we had perhaps predictable areas of disagreement, but on establishing the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate, he made an important and bold move. Persuading Baroness Brown, renowned for her national work with the Climate Change Committee, to chair it gave added gravitas to a highly impressive panel charged with the work. Its first report earlier this year came shortly before Mayor Palmer was replaced by my friend, Dr Nik Johnson, the new mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and I am delighted that Dr Nik has picked up the recommendations with enthusiasm.

We are fortunate in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire to live in a truly beautiful region of the UK, with fenland, nature reserves, peatland restoration projects, and more, but as the impacts of climate change become more apparent, it is clear that we must act to protect those things that make Cambridgeshire and Peterborough so special. Our environmental assets not only enrich our lives and, we hope, the lives of future generations, but provide habitats for wildlife, clean air, and the basis of our local food supply. The work that the combined authority and local councils as well as many companies and voluntary organisations are doing to protect all of this is crucial.

Led skilfully by Baroness Brown, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate published an initial report in March 2021, with a series of 31 recommendations for local and central Government. The recommendations were grouped into four key themes, covering transport, buildings, energy, and peat. The commission will publish a second report, which I am told is due next month, covering other important themes such as waste, water, business and industry. As trade unions have rightly argued, the requirements for a just transition are critical—there must be social justice alongside environmental justice—as is the role of nature in helping us to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Their conclusions on these issues will be important in guiding actions from a range of local organisations, but will also need support from Government, and I shall return to that point.

That first report highlighted the scale of the challenge. The region is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with low-lying topography, some of the UK’s highest quality farmland, but it is farmland that has been worked hard over many years, complex systems of water management, and flood and very real drought risks. Worryingly, emissions in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough area are 25% higher per person than the UK average, so there is much to be done.

It is easy to be dismayed by the scale of the challenge, but it is also important to recognise work already in place. It will not surprise the Minister if I reference work being done by local councils, including the excellent Cambridge City Council. While Councils provide leadership, it is the wide range of organisations, businesses and individuals working together that will make the difference. I was proud, but not surprised, to read that the commission’s survey of local residents showed a strong appetite for climate action. Many have signed up to a Cambridge climate change charter, developed by the admirable Cambridge Carbon Footprint, as we all work to make Cambridge net zero by 2030.

Let me return to the recommendations of the report, which are extensive. For example, on transport, the commission recommends that all new residential and non-residential developments in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with parking provision be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles, and that buses and taxis should be net zero by 2030. That is quite a short sentence, which, in itself, is a major and costly task. I do not underestimate what we are asking, particularly of taxi and private hire drivers, who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

I find it baffling that we have still been allowing homes to be built—we have plenty of these in and around Cambridge—without electric charging points. I recall being shown around some of those new developments by developers last year and making that very point. We have known for years that electric charging points are needed. I find it staggering that the oh-so-profitable housing development sector needs to be made to do these things.

The market does not deliver. It needs regulation and intervention. It needs intervention in the electricity distribution system. It is too hard to get these systems connected at a cost-effective price, so will the Government review arrangements for network access and connection charges to allow rapid take-up and delivery of local decarbonisation projects? Lack of capacity is now a real constraint, so will the Government support operators to invest more in the distribution network to head off future capacity constraints?

The commission recommends that the combined authority decarbonises housing by adopting a net zero standard for new homes, and improving funding and incentives for home retrofitting. It also advises that new properties have better drainage systems and flood defences—again, short sentences, but big challenges, and I am just summarising.

The commission recommends that the combined authority creates a local energy plan, considering options for hydrogen production with Government support. I urge the Minister to look at the recommendations for the spending review from the all-party parliamentary group for the east of England, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), because there is a real opportunity here for the east as a key driver of the wider UK economy.

On peatlands, the commission recommends investing in climate change mitigation and biodiversity enhancement schemes for the fens. That in itself is worthy of a debate in its own right, with great work being done by a range of partners on the fen restoration projects through Fens for the Future.

Now, commissioning a report is one thing; taking on board the recommendations is quite another. I think we are all familiar with excellent reports containing recommendations that languish on the shelf for years. We do not have time for that. This is a serious piece of work. I was delighted to hear that the combined authority has committed to act on all of the commission’s recommendations.

As well as committing to reducing its operations to net zero by the end of 2030, Dr Nik has appointed Councillor Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, to a lead role championing climate and the environment. A report commissioned by a Conservative, implemented by a Labour Mayor, working with a Liberal Democrat council leader—it can be done.

The combined authority is undertaking a review of its local transport plan in the context of the commission’s recommendation, with a focus on active travel and low carbon solutions, and is bringing forward proposals to reform bus services. As a former shadow Transport Minister and lifelong bus enthusiast, I can say that this is another sentence worthy of a whole debate in itself. The reimagining of our bus system will be central to a more sustainable future. I am pleased that the authority has recently been successful in advancing to the next stage of bidding under the Government’s zero-emission buses competition, which would kick-start the transformation of the local bus fleet serving the Cambridge area.

However, I cannot help noting that the achievement of a 10-minute frequency for buses in Cambridge will only take us back to the situation when the last Labour Government supported buses more generously. The real challenge will be to get that frequency to work reliably, which we were not able to do before. That is why I am so pleased that the Greater Cambridge Partnership is putting the infrastructure in place to be able to makes this a reality, because, as I suspect you know too, Madam Deputy Speaker, people will only use the bus if the bus is reliable and on time, and that means prioritisation. This investment will also support the commission’s recommendation that all buses become low carbon, and is part of an ambitious combined authority vision to transform the public transport offer, and connect the too many parts of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough that suffer significant deprivation.

There is so much more to be said on each of these issues. As I have already alluded to, on farming and peat soils the combined authority is supporting a partnership that is drawing together local farmers and academics to understand and develop effective changes. This has stimulated private sector investment in a collaborative approach and will provide local input to the Government’s lowland peat taskforce. The combined authority also has a target of doubling the amount of rich wildlife areas and green space across the area, in line with the Commission’s recommendation—another subject worthy of a debate in itself.

I said that I would highlight the work that Cambridge City Council is doing in response to the commission’s report. I pay particular tribute to some of the lead executive councillors involved—the leader, Lewis Herbert, with Rosy Moore, Katie Thornburrow and Alex Collis. It is very welcome that Cambridge has been awarded a silver sustainable food award and continues to reduce food waste through eight new food hubs. It was a delight to visit Cambridge’s community farm, Cambridge CoFarm, recently to see people working together to provide food for these hubs. The council has also recently secured £1.7 million from the Government to install heat pumps and solar panels at local swimming pools—a measure that will reduce emissions from the council’s biggest source of energy. On top of this, in 2018 Cambridge City Council was the first council to require all new licensed taxis to be low emission vehicles. So we are making some progress, but I strongly believe that the Government need to do much more to equip our local leaders with the tools to tackle the climate and nature emergencies. We urgently need better funding for greening our public transport system and investing in retrofitting, and more new green homes such as the Passivhaus council homes scheme announced for Cambridge just a few weeks ago by executive councillor Mike Todd-Jones.

Looking briefly beyond Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for drawing my attention to the recently published report by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport entitled “Recognising local authorities as key partners in the Net Zero Strategy”. In this report, it says very clearly:

“Empowering local authorities is not a ‘nice to have’, it is essential to delivering long-term, sustainable emissions reductions for local places.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Many local authorities across the country are undertaking pioneering and innovative work to address the climate crisis. The Local Government Association estimates that 230 councils have declared a climate emergency, and Climate Emergency UK believes that 81% of councils have a climate plan. Whether it is Telford and Wrekin’s Labour council building a publicly owned solar farm that powers over 800 homes or Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ambitious climate plan for London, local authorities across the UK are doing their bit, and so it is time for the Government to do their bit. Polly Billington of the UK100 network of local authority leaders across the country committed to tackling climate change has said that local authority leaders hold the key to net zero, but “two key hurdles remain”. She argues that one of these hurdles is that the Government simply do not have a plan for reaching net zero, saying:

“The reality…is that the UK’s current rules do not enable local authorities to do what they need to get to Net Zero locally…Put simply, the UK government won’t be able to achieve what they want to do unless they work with local authorities and change the rules”.

Frankly, on all these issues, the Government have been too slow. I have been closely involved in the passage of the Environment Bill, which has been repeatedly delayed and is still making its way slowly through Parliament—too slowly. The initiative we ought to be seeing from the Government simply is not there. For example, on housing retrofitting, the stop-start nature of Government programmes means that the market is unable to retain talent and skill. I ask the Minister: will the Government commit to funding retrofitting incentive schemes in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough over a longer multi-annual period, and will they devolve more control of such schemes to suit the characteristics of the area? I fear I know the answer. I suspect that we will run into the usual problem: which Department is responsible? This debate has shifted from one Department to another—a problem in itself.

I have another ask. Local authorities in the Cambridge area have planning policies in place to encourage high standards for energy efficiency and water usage in new development, and are seeking to go further in their emerging plans. Lack of water supply and the environmental impact of water abstraction is a key concern of residents in the Cambridge area. Our chalk streams are a real worry. The Government’s heat and building strategy is expected soon. Will the Government support Cambridgeshire councils as they seek to adopt higher standards to respond to the specific climate issues in the area? Will the future home standards be implemented? Otherwise every home built now without low-carbon measures becomes a much more expensive future retrofit cost. Of course, inevitably there is the issue of resources, and ADEPT and many others have also called on the Government to step up investment and support for local authorities. Again, I suspect I know the answer.

Sadly, a lack of data from the Government has also proved a barrier to local authorities. A substantial area of UK lowland peatlands is found in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, yet their emissions are not currently recorded in the UK emissions inventory. This is a clear area where the Government can support local authorities with the tools and insight they need to make effective plans. I have spoken at some length and have only been able to touch on some very broad points. I have tried to highlight how people across the political spectrum have been working together, although of course not everyone is always so keen. There have been complaints from some Conservatives on the combined authority who do not like some of the proposals, but the good news is that the vast majority of mainstream opinion agrees that we have a clear and urgent climate and biodiversity challenge. We can only have a chance of making progress if we have the consent of the majority of the people, and I think we have that. That is why it is so important that whatever our differences, mainstream politicians can work together on this key challenge. Local politicians are up for it. The question is: are the Government prepared to play their role?

I begin by congratulating my friend, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this important debate this evening. I take a moment, if I may, to recognise the excellent work done by Baroness Brown and the commission in producing the report of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate Change. The report is testament to the drive and ambition that local areas have in supporting the country’s transition to a cleaner, greener future, and I know that across the UK, our local areas have already made great strides towards this future, including Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, which are demonstrating that in spades.

This Government recognise the important role that local areas play in helping drive progress towards our national climate change commitments. As you are now aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, the report makes a number of recommendations to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and to central Government. While sadly I do not have the time to address each recommendation in turn, I commend these first four areas, which in and of themselves demonstrate the enormous challenges we face as a country. We will have a close look at the peat area, which is of particular note to me as I have a large area of peat in my constituency, too. It is something that we need to work on in a considered way to make good progress.

The recent National Audit Office report “Local government and net zero in England” identifies £1.2 billion in grant funding available this financial year for local authorities to act on climate change and notes that that is a sixteenfold increase on the previous year. In addition to this grant funding, the local energy programme of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is providing direct support to local enterprise partnerships, local authorities and communities in England to play a leading role in decarbonisation and clean growth. The programme was announced in 2017 as part of the clean growth strategy.

Almost £22 million has been invested to date via the programme, including £13 million in funding for five local energy hubs across England, including one in the greater south-east region that provides direct support to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough area. For example, the hub has funded several community organisations to develop locally owned energy projects, including a project for three villages—Great Staughton, Perry and Grafham—to transition to renewable heat through a ground or water source heat pump.

Last week, the hub worked closely with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to host the first event of the race to zero carbon tour. The tour will continue across the UK in the run up to COP26 and aims to share those local stories of decarbonisation with business, local authorities and communities.

The Government are also providing specific sectoral support to other areas, including a suite of measures to help local authorities to decarbonise heat and buildings through higher standards in planning and construction. For example, the local authority delivery phase 2 scheme, which aims to improve the energy efficiency of low-income households, has awarded more than £79 million to the energy hub to cover upgrades to homes in all 141 local authorities covered in the south-east. Further details on the immediate actions that we will take for reducing emissions from buildings, as well as our approach to the key strategic decisions needed to achieve a mass transition to low-carbon heat across the UK, will be outlined, as the hon. Member said, in the heat and buildings strategy, which will be published in due course.

I hope you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that some excellent work is already under way to support local areas in reaching net zero. Further plans for the role of local authorities in meeting net zero will be outlined in the net zero strategy, which is currently under development—the hon. Member will be pleased to hear that it is keeping me very busy—and due to be published before COP26.

I thank the hon. Member once again for securing the debate. I reiterate that the Government are committed to supporting local areas in the transition to net zero. We understand that local areas are key to the Department’s wider efforts both to decarbonise our country and create a cleaner, greener future for us all as well as adapting to those climate impacts already with us and invest in resilient solutions to protect both lives and livelihoods. The report will help as a guide for so many of those climate-vulnerable countries that I am visiting and working with as the champion on adaptation and resilience for COP26. These are issues that affect us all. From Cambridge to Kathmandu, these challenges are with us now, and communities, counties and countries are having to get to grips with how they become more resilient while they move to clean energy. I thank all those who have worked so hard on the report, which will be a huge resource not only for the area but in helping others who want to find ways through this complex maze to reach a place where we can transition so that all those whom we support live in a cleaner, greener way that ensures that their families can have a safe planet for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.