social media icons, twitter icon 

Build Back Better: How Councils can spark a green post-COVID recovery

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” said Winston Churchill. As we move from emergency response mode to making plans for post-coronavirus recovery, a wave of new thinking is emerging on how we can do things differently or perhaps more specifically – ‘better, fairer and greener’. The conversation up to now has focused on what central governments can do. But it is just as relevant for local councils.

What we have learned from the COVID crisis?

We have learned a lot in an extraordinarily short space of time. It is worth reflecting on these and some of the lessons we can learn for how to deal with the climate emergency:

  • We now know what a true global emergency looks like, and that it can touch everyone's lives around the world almost simultaneously. Whether coronavirus or climate change, we are all in it together.
  • We know that radical change can happen remarkably quickly when everyone gets the correct message and pulls in the same direction.
  • We know what resilience and community cohesion means in practice, and what can be achieved at a local level when like-minded, public-spirited people come together.
  • Never before has the natural environment been more appreciated and valued. With clearer skies, cleaner air, and the rediscovery of birdsong, we are appreciating nature like never before.
  • We see inequalities in society more clearly than ever as coronavirus affects some groups more severely than others. Climate change will also affect the poorest and most vulnerable groups disproportionately, so we have to factor that in to our response.
  • In the face of existential threats like pandemics or climate change, narrow short-term financial thinking simply doesn’t work. Huge sums have been mobilised by central government to offset the impact of the health crisis because the long-term costs of inaction would have been far greater.

Building Back Better

These lessons have important implications for climate action, opening up new opportunities and changing the whole frame of reference.  It’s about creating a ‘new normal’, as some are calling it, or the ‘future we want.’

The Covid-19 crisis is creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think differently about how we tackle the climate crisis. There have been a flurry of announcements recently picking up on the ‘build back better’ theme. According to a statement from Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General,

“With this restart, a window of hope and opportunity opens… an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter from the UK Committee on Climate Change that sets out key principles to rebuild the nation following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oxford University backed this up with economic evidence showing that “green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus.” And a new Build Back Better campaign has been started that embraces equity, health and international cooperation, alongside climate goals. Locally, the PCAN project has outlined the opportunities for energy and carbon reduction for Belfast, Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Derry City and Strabane.

Implications for Councils

When the pandemic struck, many councils were busy drafting climate action plans, having passed climate emergency motions in the past year. Normal ways of working have since been turned upside down, with officers working from home, staff being redeployed on new priorities, and decision-making processes interrupted.

The response to this health crisis from many councils has been impressive. They’ve been able to rapidly allocate officers to areas of critical business pressure, showing they can be responsive and adaptable. They’ve also shown how Councils can work effectively and quickly together, for example with the rapid agreement and creation of a community food parcel service and other community support responses. 

This shows what councils can do when they rise to a challenge, and sets an encouraging precedent for the kind of decisive and coordinated action needed to get on top of the climate emergency.

Despite the lockdown, work on climate plans is still going ahead in many councils. Belfast City Council, for example, consulted on their draft Resilience Strategy before the coronavirus crisis, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been working on a Climate Change Resilience and Sustainable Development Strategy and Derry City and Strabane District Council are soon to consult on the North West Regional Energy Strategy as well as a Climate Change Adaptation Plan. But now there is the added challenge for councils of creating post-Covid economic recovery plans, at a time when budgets are being stretched as never before.

This is an ideal opportunity to combine these two tracks, so economic recovery strategies also embrace environmental and climate goals. And it’s surely the moment to be thinking big and considering radical solutions.

Now’s the time for councils to get behind green infrastructure investments. The Lighthouse solar farm in Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough.













The Lightsource solar farm at Gibson Farm in Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough

What would a climate-friendly recovery look like?

Here are some initial suggestions but we are keen to hear more. 

Pop up bike lane in BerlinPop up Cycle Paths

With pressure mounting for more people to get back to work, but public transport looking much less attractive because of social distancing challenges, cycling is coming into its own. Cities around the world have been responding by creating new temporary lanes to encourage cycle commuting. The Department for Infrastructure have been working to identify areas in both Belfast and Derry-Londonderry for ‘pop up’ cycles paths and pedestrian only streets. The Minister also passed legislation to allow the use of electric bikes on Northern Ireland roads. Electric hire scooter schemes are another promising option, and Government pressed the green light on trials of these on public roads from June.

Once new travel patterns have been established, this will help pave the way for longer-term investments in cycling and walking infrastructure, which will require funding proportionate to the £2billion package announced in England in early May.

EV Charging Points

New vehicle sales have shuddered to a halt during lockdown. However, now that the Utility Regulator has lifted the exemption on the resale of electricity as it applies to Ultra Low Emission Vehicles in Northern Ireland, councils could speed up the switch to electric vehicles by working with the Department for Infrastructure to bring forward plans to roll out a comprehensive network of EV charging points across Northern Ireland, and go public in their commitment to back this transition so people feel confident they won’t run out of juice.

However for that to happen, and for Councils to access vital grants to provide on-street residential charge points for plug-in electric vehicles, the Northern Ireland Executive must first pass legislation allowing charging points to be installed in residential streets and to allow local councils to charge residents for the use of the charging points.

Championing New Ways of Working

Councils have had to adapt to the lockdown and social distancing rules, and many have done so remarkably quickly. Every department has had to come up with workarounds in order to maintain essential services. Many staff are working from home, services have moved online, face-to-face meetings are being replaced by video calls, and decision-making procedures have been streamlined.

Some of the staff benefits that have been reported include: a reduced commute, more time with family, time to notice nature. There have been environmental and economic benefits too, including: a reduction in staff mileage, reduced printing and in most cases less energy needed to heat and power buildings.

This revolution in working practice would have taken years under normal circumstances but has happened in a few weeks. Having been at the forefront of it, so it puts councils in a perfect position to champion these new ways of working once lockdown rules are eased, explain the benefits and encourage other business and organisations to follow suit.

Supporting a Local Approach to Food

Lockdown has forced many of us to rethink our shopping patterns. We’re getting back to shopping locally, ordering veg boxes, taking advantage of delivery services from local butchers, bakers and fish merchants.

Sticking with these practices once the lockdown eases would be a great way of boosting the local economy, and councils could play an important role in promoting this through Sustainable Food Places and its affiliate projects and programmes. Belfast is already leading the way, having a Sustainable Food Places Bronze Award, and Food Partnership in place. Councils could tie this in with efforts to reduce packaging and food waste to create a joined-up campaign that ticks all three boxes.

Planning for a Green FutureHome in Armagh built to Passivhaus standard

Local and national planning guidelines have a major impact on the how and where new building happens, and the environmental impact of these developments for years to come. The tide is turning on green building standards with the Committee on Climate Change and others calling for tougher planning regulations and the Government showing signs of responding.

For councils across Northern Ireland that are finalising their Local Development Plans, and reviewing their Community Plans, now is the time grasp this opportunity and rethink their planning guidelines so they are as proactive as possible on climate and environment issues. This means, for example, making ‘biodiversity net gain’ and Passivhaus standards mandatory in new builds, and ensuring that transport and infrastructure requirements are thought through with any major new developments.

Rethinking Energy

New technological developments are emerging all the time in the fight against global warming. The world's first fully renewable hydrogen network for homes could be built in Scotland if permission is given by the energy regulator. The H100 Fife facility, if permitted by Ofgem, could serve 300 homes at Levenmouth within three years. The hydrogen would replace natural gas as a green alternative for heating and cooking. Offshore wind would be used to generate the electricity required to create the hydrogen from water through a process called electrolysis.

As Northern Ireland looks to bring forward a new Energy Strategy to support net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, councils will need to future-proof their own capital works and go further by financially supporting other local green infrastructure projects through for example council backed investment bonds and community energy schemes.

Community energy groups emerged all across the country thanks to Renewable Obligation Certificates and the pioneering work of groups like Northern Ireland Community Energy. These groups have shown remarkable ingenuity and persistence in getting locally-owned renewable energy projects off the ground over the last decade. They now have a track record to build on and an impressive membership network of local investors who have been prepared to invest in the kind of green future they want to see.

There is huge scope for scaling this up, and community energy groups could be ideal partners for councils to team up with, for example in installing community-owned PV panels on local public buildings, or providing energy saving advice to families in fuel poverty.

Creating Green Jobs

Sustainable job creation is going to be the name of the game over the next few years, and there is plenty that councils can do to support this. There are a whole range of new jobs that need to emerge in the retrofit and renewables sectors if we are to make a dent in the emissions from our badly-insulated homes, offices and public buildings. But this needs to be done right: we want to see the retrofit cavalry coming over the hill, not the cowboys.

Councils could support this by working with trade bodies, local firms and other partners to support skills training, apprenticeships and quality standards. This can start with distance learning modules during lockdown, and be targeted where it has maximum social impact, and where the job losses are most acute.

Greening Government

Last but by no means least, now is the time for Government and Local Government to state their commitment to a cleaner, greener future, starting with their own estates. With many staff now working from home, it is an opportune time to re-evaluate policies, practices and buildings which may no longer be fit for purpose. Bringing forward plans to upgrade public buildings will be essential if Northern Ireland intends to become carbon neutral by 2050, but it will require major investment. This would be ideally suited to any infrastructure funding that emerges following the pandemic – far better than road building schemes that lock us in to old, polluting behaviours.

Establishing a set of 'Greening Government Commitments' would follow the example set by both the British and Irish Governments in setting targets for government departments and their agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, increase recycling, reduce water consumption, buy greener products and services and report openly and transparently on key sustainability issues.

Spreading the message

Councils have been rightly focusing their recent communication efforts on sharing clear information on the health crisis and what householders and businesses can do about it. As we move towards a relaxation of lockdown rules, this would be a smart time for them to start blending in the ‘Build Back Better’ message.

It’s a positive story – and we all need those right now. But it will set the scene for the much more broad-based and ambitious communication campaigns that will be needed later on to publicise councils’ new climate strategies, and get the public and local businesses behind them. Councils have been slow to move on this so far.  Look at most council websites and you’ll struggle to find a mention of climate change anywhere near the home page. It’s time for that to change.

What can you do

These are some initial suggestions. If you have experience or ideas to contribute on how local councils or central government can get behind a green post-Covid recovery, do let us know by emailing us at: