A Grey, Blue, Green Implementation Spectrum

This is my second blog on the Sheffield Green Commission. 

With time to re-read, reflect and review the output of the Green Commission, would like to make the following observations:

  1. The report covers 4 key areas – ‘Connected City’; ‘Transformative Energy’; ‘European Green City’; and ‘Learning City’.
  2. It’s been facilitated by the City Council and co-Chaired by a City Councillor but has no new policy commitments from the City Council within it (nor any real commitment to develop new policy).
  3. It makes recommendations but it’s not clear who will follow through these proposals and has neither incentives nor sanctions for those acting (or failing to) on them.
  4. The scope is laudable, comprehensive and builds on the City’s strengths but ignores some difficult areas and conflicts.
  5. The Commissioners involved in the process are respected, knowledgeable and committed to the City but they have no levers, influence or clout to deliver their work – other than their own personal commitment to this agenda.
  6. The recommendations are written as if the people of Sheffield have a choice and there is a ‘policy-on’ or ‘policy-off’ choice. There isn’t. Successful cities have embraced the kind of recommendations proposed here. They’ve demonstrated how the social, economic and environmental commitments made are mutually reinforcing and effective.
  7. Sadly, there appears to be little input from the private sector and its representative bodies, with the notable exception of E.on, Veolia and Amey – two of whom are contractually linked to the City Council. The Chamber of Commerce representative left the Commission before the concluding report was published.
  8. The report is written in a passive, hopeful voice. It, too often, suggests ‘Sheffield considers’ and ought to have a few more verbs in it – strategy and policy are good, but there needs to be a sense of action, with timeframes.

Whilst this might sound critical, there is much to like on the visioning. A highly connected city, with smart ambitions, commitment to public transport, walking and cycling with smart cards and high speed internet connectivity sounds wonderful. Imagine a city where everyone can get where they want to, when they want to, how they want to without creating choking air pollution or pumping more Co2 in to the atmosphere. Sounds great.

I love the vision of a learning city where Sheffield actively engages with its UK city counterparts through Core Cities and with leading European Cities through the Eurocities network, bringing knowledge, experience and opportunity to benefit the citizens and businesses of Sheffield. Sadly the City Council’s commitment to the Core Cities Energy & Climate Change work has been inconsistent in the past 2-3 years and its involvement in Eurocities weak. Officers fail to attend or bring back the lessons learned.

At last, Sheffield is recognising that its green assets should form the central core of its ambitions – but recognising it must invest less in grey infrastructure and consider blue space, water and its ability to adapt to future climate change.

Lastly, who wouldn’t want a city more resilient to the frailties of the UK Government’s weak energy policy. More investment in localised energy generation and distribution of both heat and power is the cornerstone of any successful city. There are some interesting ideas posed in the report about ways in which finance can be raised to invest and references Bristol’s work in this area. I would suggest that other cities are also acknowledged – not just to borrow ideas but to give the confidence to decision makers to get on and make this happen. Nottingham is buying gas and electricity wholesale and acting as a supplier through its Robin Hood Energy Company to pass on those benefits to its citizens.

In my previous blog I wrote about my concerns for the lack of governance and monitoring of implementation. The report is honest in its appraisal of what is needed but the City is kidding itself if it thinks it’s really committed politically. It’s not the politicians fault either. Successively, over the last 5 years the expertise the city had has been allowed to retire, retreat or just fade away leaving fewer and fewer to do what the Council does best: govern. Even if all recommendations are supported there is no-one left to oversee their implementation. None of the City Council’s own employees lasted the duration of the Commission – at the end of the process there wasn’t a City Council officer – just the co-Chair, Cllr Jayne Dunn – to take the next steps.

The Council has several roles it can play, but fundamentally it can take direct action by commissioning, contracting and writing and implementing policy; or it can make things happen indirectly by facilitating investment, derisking it and working with the private sector (such as happened with the E.ON investment in the Lower Don Valley). Unlike previous policies this paper doesn’t commit what the role of the Council should be. Sadly, in times of reducing resources I fear the City Council will keep its head down and hope this all blows over.

Any of you who know me personally and/or professionally will know I am positive, optimistic and supportive of good ideas. There is much to like in this report in terms of vision and ambition. But until there are clear policy commitments to tackling carbon emissions, investing in blue infrastructure, air quality and to smart city ambitions I am afraid this will be just another document. The commissioners involved in this process deserve the elected Members of Council to show real commitment to delivering this. Time to step up SCC.

You should read the report and can contribute your own thoughts to the consultation here.

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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