Sheffield schools shut under a cloud of diesel

Air quality made a prominent story in The Sunday Times this weekend with the story – Schools shut under a cloud of diesel. Air quality hasn’t, typically, made it in to the Sunday broadsheets too often and certainly when it has it has been more about the impact it is having in London, not Sheffield.

Sheffield, the city in which I live, has a well earned reputation for managing air quality. It was the first city to respond significantly to the Clean Air Act and worked quickly to clean up industry and switched domestic heating from coal to natural gas.

In recent times its air quality problems are not so much a consequence of the highly regulated industrial pollution – much more now about the completely unregulated emissions of nitrous oxides and particular matter that come from the burning of petrol and, more significantly, diesel vehicle engines.

Today, Sheffield, just about maintains a good reputation for managing air quality but to maintain that it needs to respond to the data and information it has about exceedences of exposure to the pollutants and, more importantly, act on them. The link between pollution and health is clear – unequivocal. the World Health Organisation has endorsed the science.

Sheffield does have some mitigation – one of the UK’s busiest roads, the M1, cuts right through its eastern boundary with Rotherham and it’s this road which is the biggest contributor to poor health in communities like Tinsley. It’s for this reason that the schools in Tinsley are moving further away so as to expose fewer school children to the harmful pollution.

But, whilst the City Council’s recommendation should be acknowledged and accepted, this is the same city council that has supported the creation of new IKEA store in the east of the city (which will draw people in in cars on the M1) and the expansion of Meadowhall. The proposals for a low emission zone which have been mooted for 7-8 years have progressed in so much as the Council has a fantastic wealth of evidence to base its arguments on but doesn’t appear to have the political appetite to implement it.  The studies clearly show diesel engines are the problem, particularly in built up areas in the city and on the M1. That means HGVs, buses, taxis and, yes, the private car.

Local MP, Clive Betts, calls for planning policies to protect people from the harmful effects of vehicle emissions. But wouldn’t it be a better solution to actively clean up the fleets of vehicles in the city so that those who already live in polluted areas would feel the benefits quicker?

We need a new name for cities

In the past week I have travelled through the cities of Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and the lesser known Ningbo, in China. On my travels I flew over cities I didn’t know that we’re bigger than any I had seen in the UK or Europe. These cities extend for tens of miles east-west and north-south filling bays, rivers, deltas, hillsides, islands and deserts. They are home to tens of millions of people and they stretch high into the sky with buildings touching and penetrating the clouds that hang above them. They are places where engineering and science have allowed human populations to tolerate otherwise difficult, or even inhospitable, environments. They have been built where, ordinarily it would be considered uncomfortably or dangerously hot and humid. They have been built on flood plains where rivers swell in monsoon rains or on hillsides where those waters rush through from mountainous uplands. They are served by a network of roads, railways, canals and rivers that enable otherwise isolated parts of their country to be connected. Their airports are the size of large towns and have asset values that outstrip the cities of Western Europe. They sprawl, yes, but they also have very high population density, sacrificing personal living space for the desire to be urbanised and supported by the infrastructure those cities bring. To a European or North American they would, I guess, feel claustrophobic. 

They are, simply, mega. Mega cities that dwarf what we, in the UK at least, have come to refer to as cities. In comparison, whilst London might hold its own (just), the cities of the UK are smaller, less relevant to the global economy and its networks. Collectively, if you bundled all the top 10 cities in the UK together, it might get to approximately half the size of Shanghai. 

When cities have grown up, literally, building taller and taller towers in a show of architectural bravado, they are also growing underground. You can’t help but be impressed by Hong Kong’s subway system. Not only does it connect communities across Hong Kong’s islands it connects communities through the labyrinth of supporting infrastructure like tunnels, escalators and lifts – and they air condition it too so making it more comfortable than surface level transport. All of these things support denser urban form. So, there are 3 levels in Hong Kong – underground, surface and Sky. 

 
The view from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hong Kong at the Ozone Bar, the highest and in earth.

  The extensive subway network connects Hong Kong’s Islands and communities beneath the surface.

Hong Kong has been a significant city for some time. It now boasts some of the greatest wealth, best universities and global business trades there daily. But the cities forming across China are doing it at such a pace it’s hard to map it. Huge swathes of their countries are mined, quarried and felled to support the quest for growth. As described in a previous blog and talk from TedTalks here the buildings are going up faster than the governance and infra infrastructure can keep up with. One without the other is destabilising and can lead to systems failure, unrest and inequity. Even in more established cities the growth is financed by the labours of the many for the benefit of the few. 

If these are mega cities where does that leave cities of the UK? Individually they are no bigger, on a global scale, than a village is to a city like London. Collectively they might just be significant. For that to happen in the UK will mean all the Core Cities, plus London, Belfast, Southampton, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt to collaborate. To support this will require transport links between cities, over water, through mountains and in the air. And to do it without ripping up the natural capital we need to support our cities. The British Government doesn’t get this at all. It still sees itself as aglobal player when in reality it isn’t. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a response to inward looking economic agendas instead of sing the opportunity for the UK to compete as a whole in the mega city economy. Extracting the UK from Europe would only hasten that inward looking agenda.

Official – Time to Act on Air Quality in the UK

At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that we now know, better than ever, what the causes of poor air quality are and what is needed to do it. Central to that is political will both at the national and local level. Unfortunately, therein lies the issue. Nationally there is reluctance to tell local authorities what to do and the trend has been to incentivise them to do the right thing through the provision of small pots of money to remedy dirty buses or encourage the uptake of electric vehicle charge points. Locally there has been real fear of appearing anti-car. It has meant local authorities have got themselves into a proper tangle with conflicting policies for regeneration and growth overriding policies to promote air quality.

Whilst the announcement is welcome, how convenient for it to come during Purdah such that no politician has been able to step up and take responsibility for the inaction of the current government or previous governments. Yes, this really has been a failing of both Labour and the Conservative / LibDem coalition. Instead a fairly weak comment from DEFRA A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. “It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.” ClientEarth lawyers recently told a hearing that enforcement by the court was the only “effective remedy” for the UK’s “ongoing breach” of European Union law.

Previous blogs I have suggested what the solution might be. These words were drafted when I worked for the City Council in Sheffield, a city that has a better understanding of its air quality issues than most, but has yet to make any real inroads, despite some great things happening with EVs.

So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modeled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).

Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.

Across South Yorkshire we have identified a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.

 

Enactus – Best Kept Sustainability Secret in Global HE?

Last week I attended, for the first time, the Enactus National Finals in London and was totally struck by the sheer enthusiasm, innovation, sporting and supportive community that has been nurtured by the Enactus UK team and the participating universities.

35 universities groups of active Enactus teams from across the UK competed in showcasing their superb projects and it was hard to not be impressed by any of them. The five finalists (Queens University Belfast, Leeds, Southampton, Sheffield and Nottingham) were, perhaps, standouts in terms of the quality of the projects and the maturity of their thinking. Augmented by slick, well rehearsed and emotive presentations, those five certainly deserved their place on the final stage. Southampton were overall winners with Southampton in 2nd place with some brilliant projects.

I only learnt about Enactus less than a year ago when the president of the Nottingham branch contacted me to develop ideas of how The University of Nottingham might work more closely with them. Within a few minutes it was clear there were plenty of opportunities for us to work collaboratively on local projects and support their ideas for some spectacular overseas projects like Empower Malawi and Aquor.

I would encourage you to investigate further the great work underway across universities in the UK and overseas that are being carried out by highly motivated, smart students on a voluntary basis. They build their Enactus work around their courses of study and add so much value to their CVs they are sought after graduates at the end of it. The impressive panel of alumni who judged the UK National Finals is testimony to that.

Enactus thrives because it has autonomy, imagination and because it empowers students. Every single project they are working on improves the lives of the people they work with by tackling social, environmental and economic challenges. They are making a fantastic difference to the lives of communities all over the UK and globally. Branches across the globe will come together in October to compete in the World Cup and Southampton will be the UK’s representative.

This movement is an incredibly important part of the higher education sector’s contribution to sustainable development and should be recognised as such.

Stirling Efforts Among Universities 

I attended my first conference convened by The Association of University Directors of Estates this week hosted in the wonderful grounds of Stirling University. Sat in the carved valley of the Forth surrounded by white capped hills and mountains it made for a spectacular setting.

But it wasn’t all about appearances. There was some really good substance to the conference too. Ian Diamond attended to give a timely insight in to his recently published report to universities. There was honesty and inspiration in spades too – some fabulous ‘lessons learned’ sessions in open plenary with both The University of Birmingham and Glasgow School of Arts sharing their stories of recovery from fires which had devastating impacts on their operations spreading over days in the case of the former and months in the case of the latter.

There were sessions that inspired too. I attended a workshop session led by Atelier Ten who gave an overview of the work they have been doing to ‘Green the Ivy League’ with long term strategic planning in the estates of Yale and Harvard Business School where they have developed plans, standards, policies and solutions that will get them to their carbon reduction targets. They are doing this through ensuring new build projects meet the highest standards possible, by identifying how they can invest in larger scale energy infrastructure and, crucially, how they will improve the existing building stock. We know that universities all over the world are well motivated to invest in inspirational, complex, low carbon buildings. It’s equally recognised how challenging it can be to keep older existing stock performing well. The nature of capital rich and revenue poor businesses. The challenge hasn’t gone away but the case study presented at Yale was an excellent example of a deep refurb that creates better, healthier, more productive working environments for staff and students alike. Who wouldn’t want that?

There was some lively debate about the future of sustainability metrics and reporting performance within the sector. AUDE has shown some real leadership on this and is working with Arup to develop ideas in partnership with the EAUC and People and Planet over the coming months. The session was a scene setter for forthcoming regional workshops AUDE are running to which Directors of Estates and sustainability professionals are invited to attend to help shape this further.

On the final day after an fantastically hospitable and enjoyable evening in the setting of Stirling Castle, complete with pipers, haggis and a wee dram, it was left to Philip Ross of Unwork to share his insights into how technology is changing the very nature of society, communities and interaction. It’s profound impact on the type of spaces we require and desire in the future is clear. Generation Z just don’t work generations before them. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) really is just the start. The level of interactivity is only going to increase.

With insight from the current Union of Student President at Stirling and one its more famous alumni, Lord Reid of Cardowan, it was a fitting end it a thought provoking conference, reminding us to take the longer term view, to remain optimistic and resilient and to Kiss with Confidence.

£3 million funding to boost low carbon heating

The cynic in me isn’t surprised that this announcement comes less than 60 days before the General Election, but I am not a cynic really. It’s good to see DECC’s continued support for district heating. If there is one thing this Government can be applauded for its understanding of the importance of ‘heat’ and the opportunity for heat networks to reduce carbon emissions and provide cost-effective heat. Well done to Davey and his team in carving out £3 million of funding to boost low carbon heating.

DECC has done some useful enabling work to support the uptake of heat networks. It has established the Heat Network Development Unit (HNDU) to lead this and has produced some useful studies to demonstrate the untapped potential out there – such as the report produced in 2014 on heat opportunities from rivers.

The Government’s own Heat Strategy states that producing heat is the biggest user of energy in the UK and in most cases we burn gas in individual boilers to produce this heat. This is a wasteful method of producing heat and a large emitter of CO2, with heat being responsible for 1/3 of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Household heat demand has risen somewhat over the past 40 years from 400 TWh/y to 450 TWh/y, despite a marked improvement in the energy efficiency of homes and a slight reduction in the severity of winters. The average internal temperature of homes has risen by 6°C since the 1970s, and this combined with growth in housing – the number of households has risen by around 40% since the 1970s – has offset energy efficiency gains in terms of total energy used to heat homes Some studies suggest these temperature increases are due to factors including the move to central heating, rather than householders actively turning up their thermostats.

Heat networks in the UK use a range of heat sources including biomass and gas boilers, combined heat and power (CHP) plants and heat from energy-from-waste plants and, where conditions suit, such as is the case of Southampton, a small amount of geothermal heat. Networks are currently estimated to provide less than 2% of the UK’s heat demand supplying 172,000 domestic buildings (predominantly social housing, tower blocks and public buildings) and a range of commercial and industrial applications (particularly where high temperature heat in the form of steam is required). Despite being of a significant size, Sheffield’s city centre district energy network is estimated to provide 3% of the entire City’s total heat needs.

By comparison, district heating is widespread in many other parts of Europe, in China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and the USA, although the level of sophistication and reliability is very diverse. While having an average market share of 10% in Europe, district heat is particularly widespread in Scandinavia (Denmark nearly 70%, Finland 49%, and Sweden around 50%). It also has a substantial share elsewhere in Europe. For instance, district heat provides around 18% of heat in Austria (and 40% of heat in Vienna). European networks are currently growing at around 2,800 km per year, about 3% of current installed length. With the right planning, economic and market conditions it is clear district energy can play a more prominent role.

Whilst this funding announcement is showing funding going to new players in the district heating community as well as some established ones (Coventry, Leicester, Manchester, for example) there is a need to put money in to those long-established networks in cities that were at the forefront in decades past (Sheffield, Nottingham, Southampton). These ‘4th generation networks’ need to be reviewed, refreshed and developed as much as those ‘greenfield’ sites where district heating is all too new.

All the schemes developed to date have been local authority led. This round of funding allocates £3m across 55 local authorities in England and Wales. I would urge DECC to look at other types of organisation who might exploit heat networks at a medium scale where the conditions are right to do so. Those organisations with a long term stake in the city or town in which they are based are well placed. For example, NHS Trusts, universities and colleges, whilst not as big as an entire city or town often have enough scale in them to warrant district heating networks. Indeed, some of them already do. My own organisation, The University of Nottingham, has two of significance as well as several smaller, interconnected systems on its campuses. Most of them follow the model of high temperature, high pressure systems and don’t allow for storage, cooling or consider CHP. 

In the recent round of HEFCE/Salix Revolving Green Fund projects awarded interest free loans there were a good number of CHP schemes and a smaller number of district heating schemes put forward. I believe there would have been more had these organisations had sufficient revenue to develop shovel-ready projects for capital investment. Like the public sector, universities are often capital rich and revenue poor. That means that complex, integrated and multi-faceted feasibility studies can often become un-affordable – even if the capital is available for it to be delivered in time. I would like to see HNDU looking to other large organisations and helping them in the way that they have helped local authorities. If they could do it in partnership with the funding council and with their established partners, Salix Finance, even better. 

 

 

An Honest Look at Oneself: The State of Sheffield 2015

Today saw Sheffield publish its annual ‘State of Sheffield’ report – reflecting on progress (or otherwise) and how Sheffield sits in comparison to other cities in the UK and around the world. It’s another fine example of reflective, evidence-based research that stimulates thinking and informs policy making. You can read the blog produced by the Director of the the Sheffield First partnership here: https://sheffieldfirst.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/the-state-of-sheffield-2015/

What did prompt me to write this blog was the statement “Climate change remains a major future challenge. Sheffield and its City Region has the “green capital” to be a leader in this area but needs to work to strengthen its response. The Green Commission will be important in this.”

Yes, climate change and the exhaustion of finite natural resources should be of concern to Sheffield. To ignore this would be entirely folly and would undermine the unsustainable economic quest the city and city region has set itself. Climate change magnifies and amplifies the negative impacts our poorest communities are already experiencing. Three years ago the Director of Public Health in Sheffield made it very clear: If you live down wind, down stream or down hill you’ll suffer worst. From poor air quality, poor water quality, poorer soils and flooding.

But most importantly is the emphasis placed on the Green Commission in providing a coherent response to this challenge. Perhaps the single biggest set of external factors (climate change, global energy markets, deforestation, acidification, habitat loss) directly and indirectly affecting the city are being chewed over by a select group of experts. The initiator of this process, Cllr Jack Scott, has stood down from his position, leaving a new and inexperienced Cabinet Member in Cllr Jayne Dunn to come in and pick up the reins. Attendance, by the looks of it, has been patchy and the conclusions well, inconclusive, so far.

I am pleased that the annual report in to Sheffield’s health has, again, identified environmental issues as important. I am not optimistic there is sufficient architecture and commitment in place to address it though.

Three Commissions – One Outcome?

I wrote a recent blog about the use of commissions in helping cities form and develop visions, strategies, policy. Often this has been in response to two key factors:
– addressing the perception that policy is not co-designed with the citizens of the city the officials are representing; and
– the lack of policy and strategy capacity within local authorities who have prioritised investment in front line services at the cost of those teams who look further ahead beyond the current financial horizon of ‘end-of-year’.

I promote this as the City of Sheffield – my home city – promotes its latest activity of the Fairness Commission (http://www.ourfaircity.co.uk/ and follow on twitter via https://twitter.com/FairSheffield) – challenging individuals and organisations to demonstrate their commitment to a fair and equal society.

https://aardvarknoseface.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/sustainable-cities-commissions/

This sits alongside two further activities – the City’s Green Commission (https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/your-city-council/policy–performance/green-commission.html) and the city’s economic commission.

To take such an approach is noble, open and engaging when undertaken well. The challenge will be to identify the ‘sweet spots’ where the outcomes of the three commissions land on the same priorities and actions – but, even more importantly to reconcile the conflicts between ambitions where they occur. This is where a maturity of elected members comes in to play. These decisions are the crucial ones. Is priority given to local environmental quality, health or economy? Does the city prioritise global environmental impact over local economic growth? These decisions remain difficult but those decision takers should use the commissions they have brought together to ensure they have an expert input to a robust argument informing their recommendations and decisions.

Only when you get in to these difficult spaces and conversations do you add real value. It would be a pity of the commissions are cosmetic and only airbrush over the issues for this generation and give the future generations of Sheffield no chance at all.

My suggestion is, at the end of this commissioning process, a symposium for the city is convened to draw together and debate both the opportunities that have been identified and where conflicts need to be reconciled. It should be Chaired by an independent member to whom the Chairs of the three commissions report their findings. It would prove to be an effective way of re-engaging with the wider stakeholders – not just those who have been involved in the process of the individual commissions. Only then can a clearer vision for the city be set out with confidence.

My hope is the city doesn’t fudge this and try and be all things to all people. It needs to differentiate itself. It can only do that through a process of prioritisation with an outcome that makes it a distinctly different place that people can identify with. Otherwise it will be simply re-providing every other city of half a million people in western Europe. And it is better than that.

A change management perspective on sustainable development in higher education

A new blog by Will Lambrechts – A change management perspective on sustainable development in higher education rightly states: “Looking at sustainable higher education from a change management perspective indeed reveals the complex nature of the institution and the underlying reasons why certain initiatives are taken and others are not.”

“The results indicate that the conceptual model helps to get a profound understanding of human related barriers for integrating sustainable development in higher education, as well as to understand the underlying reasons for these barriers and linkages between them in different stages of the integration process. Another main lesson learned is the importance of continuously supporting ambassadors of sustainable development integration in higher education.”

Councils are in crisis says Peter Hetherington

Councils are in crisis – and it happened on Nick Clegg’s watch

Great piece by Peter Hetherington – “English councils will soon have lost almost a quarter of their funding in five years. Those most in need, such as Sheffield, are being hit hardest. It has happened on the watch of the MP for Sheffield Hallam. Since 2010, £238m has been removed from Sheffield city council’s budget, with a further £60m likely to be slashed next year. “We are facing the worst financial crisis in our history,” but authorities in the leafy south are faring far better than big cities such as Sheffield.”