Local priorities for investing in resilient and sustainable infrastructure

02 Sep 2022

A recent study by the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum (CZPF) makes clear recommendations to policymakers, organisations and academic experts to enable sustainable and resilient local infrastructure projects. Emily Farnworth, Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement, and Co-Chair of the CZPF, reflects on the importance of a local response to global challenges.

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum (CZPF) brings together a multidisciplinary group of senior academics contributing evidence and expertise to public policies for the transition to a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient net zero society. This 2022 panel study focussed on investment in resilient and sustainable infrastructure in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough sub-region. This theme is important because while climate change is a global problem, solutions primarily need to be deployed locally.

Facilitating resilient and sustainable infrastructure

The synthesis report from the study ‘Local priorities for investing in resilient and sustainable infrastructure’ provides a useful resource for local, regional and national policymakers exploring this topic, as well as organisations and academics. It makes seven clear recommendations, based on senior academic discussions with external witnesses, for ways to facilitate resilient and sustainable infrastructure. The evidence gathered includes contributions from individuals with both practical experience and technical expertise covering renewable energy infrastructure, with a focus on community energy projects; retrofitting existing buildings; and strategic land use planning.

The first external discussion on renewable energy infrastructure focussed on the Swaffham Prior Heat Network, a community energy initiative in a village near Cambridge, which provides an exemplar case study to consider key barriers and opportunities associated with local renewable energy infrastructure and community energy projects, including technology, governance and politics, finance and community engagement.

The second discussion was on retrofitting existing buildings and included a case study of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) retrofit of a 1930s building in central Cambridge which will serve as CISL’s new office and home of ‘The Canopy’, an accelerator for start-ups and small businesses focused on sustainability. This highlighted the retrofitting skills gap – a key challenge which undermined the UK’s Green Homes Grant scheme which ran from September 2020 to March 2021. Additional challenges highlighted included policy instability, the importance of regional solutions, and the need for a whole life carbon metric to help overcome the tendency to demolish and rebuild.

The final discussion on strategic land use planning highlighted a clear need for a national strategic land-use framework to provide a statutory basis, incentives and guidance for land use decisions, many of which are made at the sub-national level. Two pilots on land use frameworks are currently being run by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) in Cambridgeshire and Devon to provide distinct case studies. The case study for this discussion featured the Future Fens: Integrated Adaptation Project which is a collaboration between local, regional and national stakeholders that aims to deliver two new reservoir systems, whilst protecting and enhancing biodiversity, ensuring food security and water resources, managing flood and drought risks and reducing carbon emissions. Project activities are estimated to generate £4 billion for the local economy.

Common themes identified from our three CZPF discussions included the importance of both public and private funding structures for deploying local climate solutions, the need to tailor solutions to the right level of government, and the benefits of effective community engagement for local climate action.

The wider landscape

The findings of the CZPF panel study offer potential links with existing climate initiatives and related research and policy:

Locally Determined Contributions

The significance of implementing solutions to climate challenges at the local level is widely acknowledged – many climate projects that are vital to meeting national targets are in the hands of local authorities and communities. However, there is a disconnect between targets set at the national level, and the decision-making power and resources of local authorities. Locally Determined Contributions (LDCs), which express the action plans of a local authority towards national climate targets, are tailored to a local area or region and may be a better guide for local policy makers. The CZPF study highlights that good communication and engagement between policymakers, industry and communities is key to delivering sustainable impact and should be considered when designing LDCs.

Law research

The CZPF study demonstrates the importance of legal frameworks for sustainable and resilient infrastructure. Developers of the Swaffham Prior Heat Network (the renewable energy case study) needed to understand and utilise existing legislation to ensure that they had the right to carry out their work. Using a range of different areas of law and regulation to drive climate action is a key area of interest and development for the Centre for Climate Engagement. The Centre’s Law for Climate Action Research programme is part of the CCE’s mission to raise awareness and speed up understanding of how to use existing legal tools to act now. Our series of Spotlight Interviews is exploring the potential of existing legal frameworks to drive climate action. As highlighted in my introduction to our Spotlight Interviews, the latest scientific evidence for climate change trajectories is dire –the urgency to reduce emissions at required levels of the Paris Agreement is imperative. Utilising existing laws, in addition to reforming the law where necessary, brings additional tools to our climate action kit.

Levelling up and Regeneration Bill

In our CZPF discussions, planning emerged as a potential barrier to scaling up sustainable infrastructure but, if planning policy improves, it could also be a key enabler. The UK’s proposed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill centres around reforms to the planning system and could relieve obstacles experienced by the CISL’s retrofit of a 1930s building – planning law currently dictates how competing factors should be weighed against each other, for example sustainability vs heritage. The ‘climate emergency’ declared by the local authority did in the end help CISL complete the retrofit but the project makes clear that conflicts between certain priorities need to be better managed. The FFCC’s work on a national land use framework may also help to link the broader land use framework with the policy planning framework.

Key takeaway messages

The following takeaway messages draw and build upon recommendations from the CZPF panel study:

Editor’s note

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum (CZPF) is Co-Chaired by Prof Emily Shuckburgh (Director of Cambridge Zero), Dr Rob Doubleday (Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy), and Emily Farnworth (Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall). The secretariat to the Policy Forum is provided by CSaP and the Hughes Hall Centre for Climate Engagement.

The CZPF panel members selected to contribute to the discussions and resulting ‘Local priorities for investing in resilient and sustainable infrastructure’ report included:

  • Dr Claire Barlow, Emeritus Faculty, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge » Dr Ronita Bardhan, Assistant Professor of Sustainability in the Built Environment, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge
  • Professor Carol Brayne, Director, Cambridge Public Health
  • Professor Ruchi Choudhary, Professor of Architectural Engineering, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
  • Dr Kayla Friedman, Programme Director, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership Owen Garling, Knowledge Transfer Facilitator, Bennett Institute for Public Policy
  • Professor Peter Guthrie, Director of Research in Sustainable Development, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
  • Professor Markus Kraft, Professor of Chemical Engineering, CARES Director, Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge
  • Professor David Newbery, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge
  • Dame Fiona Reynolds, Commissioner, Food, Farming and Countryside Commission
  • Dr Jennifer Schooling, Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
  • Professor Emily Shuckburgh, Director, Cambridge Zero, University of Cambridge