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What Leicester can teach us about innovations in energy

Leicester’s commitment to a local energy policy shows it takes more than good intentions to get results, and that challenges lie ahead.

Innovation lightbulbs“Dilly ding, dilly dong,” famously sang Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester City manager, as his football team became champions of the UK Premier League for the 2015/16 season. But Leicester had already achieved a different type of championship status decades before: its long history of environment-friendly policies saw it named Britain’s first “Environment City” and then Europe’s “Sustainable City” in the 1990s, as well as numerous national and international honours since.

Professor Michael Pollitt

Professor Michael Pollitt

“Leicester has had a longstanding tradition of implementing innovative local energy policies,” says Michael Pollitt, Professor of Business Economics at Cambridge Judge. “But even a leading, proactive and innovative local authority finds it problematic to have a statistically meaningful energy policy. Local councils have direct control of only a very tiny percentage of energy consumption within their area.”

Professor Pollitt is the co-author of research suggesting that even the most genuinely environmentally friendly councillors face problems delivering an effective local carbon-saving framework. They found that despite numerous initiatives by local Leicester politicians, the city’s per capita reduction of electricity and gas usage was similar to that in Coventry and Nottingham – two cities the study identified as “geographically close and demographically similar” to Leicester.

“We discovered that the most effective local policies were actually manifestations of national ones. There are so many players involved in local energy consumption, many of which are outside the remit of the local council, that it is very difficult for local energy policies to have a direct impact on consumption,” says Pollitt.

“The council, for example, can influence how schools consume their gas and electricity; local hospitals’ energy management is dictated by the Department of Health; the local prison’s by the Home Office; and the city’s two universities’ by their own management. Hospital managers need assurance that their heating connection is of sufficient quality that it is never at risk, and therefore it’s managed at a national level. But with so many different anchor users of the city’s energy on so many different planning cycles, or having already made significant investments, it is extremely difficult for the local authorities to get those big anchor users to sign up to local energy policies.”

This is borne out in the impact of two of the council’s flagship energy schemes. Professor Pollitt and his fellow researchers found intelligent energy metering of council buildings produced savings equivalent to only 0.02 per cent of Leicester’s energy consumption, while a recent district heating scheme reduced the city’s carbon emissions by one per cent. “These findings reveal how small the savings in energy and emissions currently are,” says Professor Pollitt.

There are positives, however. Leicester’s commitment to a local energy policy has created hundreds of jobs – international energy advice and installation organisation The Mark Group is based in the city, and within Leicestershire and Lincolnshire 14,400 people are employed in the low carbon and environmental goods and services sector. Equally, finds Professor Pollitt’s research, local energy partnerships between city organisations have served to give Leicester a greater sense of community and enhanced its national and international reputation.

“We also found people are more likely to reduce their carbon footprint if given energy-efficient advice when approached by someone at a local level – a neighbourhood initiative or someone from the council going door-to-door promoting loft insulation or energy-efficient lightbulbs. The take-up of these less eye-catching schemes has actually been extremely positive and has made a lot of difference to a lot of individuals. Scaled up, the impact would be extremely significant. However, the fact that the local authority has such a limited control over the city’s energy consumption as a whole means that, overall, the impact is lost among the other statistics.”

So what needs to change? How can Leicester’s city fathers and mothers, who historically have been so genuinely, utterly committed to creating a more sustainable environment, make more of a difference – and how can other authorities be convinced their example is worth following?

“Coordinating local decision-making to make a statistical meaningful difference to energy consumption and production needs a detailed understanding of the key stakeholders in local energy production and consumption,” says Professor Pollitt. “Those making the decision also need a qualitative understanding of the profile of a city – its organisations, its social structure, its level of deprivation, how the energy is used, and the knowledge of how and why that consumption changes. With greater understanding of these issues, and greater co-ordination between local and national government, then local schemes may then be able to have a more significant impact on the figures.”