Budget 2021: Businesses and charities make last-minute calls for green funding to Rishi Sunak
With the 2021 Budget being announced on Wednesday (3 March), Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing mounting pressure over the Green Homes Grant, National Nature Service and other green policy decisions.
Since Sunak delivered his first Budget last March, he has been working to deliver the Treasury’s response to the UK’s recovery from the biggest recession the world has seen since World War Two. Packages crafted to assist that process included the 2020 Summer Economic Update the Spending Review.
Each announcement confirmed funding or other support for the UK’s low-carbon transition, but practically all major decisions have been criticised. The 2020 Budget, while allocating multi-million-pound packages to sectors including electric vehicles (EVs) and carbon capture, also contained the UK’s biggest road-building finance package to date and loopholes on diesel and petrol emissions. The Summer Economic Update’s Green Homes Grant has had the majority of its £2bn funding withdrawn. And, months on from the Spending Review, there is debate about whether the UK’s National Infrastructure Strategy and forthcoming National Investment Bank have sufficient net-zero remits.
Bodies including the Environment Agency, Environmental Audit Committee, IEMA, ECIU, Aldersgate Group, REA and UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) had already called on Sunak to use this year’s Budget to address these criticisms. Failure to do so could risk the UK’s own net-zero transition and its reputation as COP26 host, groups agreed.
Recent days have seen a further flurry of calls to action on green policy, broadly centred around the UK’s approach to nature conservation and restoration, energy efficiency in buildings and renewable energy generation.
There were reports last year that Sunak was seriously considering a National Nature Service (NNS) – a scheme to help those left unemployed by Covid-19 into new roles in conservation and restoration, financed by the central Government and delivered by local authorities and charities. The idea was shelved in favour of a smaller Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
Many groups are urging the Government to at least trial the NNS, given how oversubscribed the Challenge Fund was. Defra was pressured to double funding available after the initial pot was almost seven times oversubscribed.
Dozens of the UK’s biggest nature charities, as well as MPs on the Conservative Environment Network, are now urging the Government provide an NNS update backed up by legal requirements to restore nature in the UK by 2030. While praising the Government’s commitment to meet this milestone, the groups believe that they need legal “teeth” if they are to be delivered, given that the UK has failed to meet the UN’s Aichi biodiversity targets.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, the groups argue that the UK’s Environment Bill, in its current form, will not legally guarantee nature restoration in England until 2038. Groups involved, including the Wildlife and Countryside Link, Woodland Trust, National Trust and RSBP, have argued that the UK’s current nature situation is “incredibly urgent” and can be addressed in tandem with the economic recovery from lockdown.
Green Homes Grant and beyond
When edie spoke to groups including the Aldersgate Group, REA and UKGBC last week about the Budget, the Green Homes Grant was repeatedly cited as a priority.
The Government has put its decision to pull most of the £2bn initially earmarked for the scheme to issues with delivery, including a shortage of professionals and businesses available to deliver home improvement works in line with its requirement. Just 20,000 vouchers were issued by the end of January 2021, meaning that meeting the overarching 600,000-voucher target would take a decade.
But businesses, trade groups, MPs and the Government’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) are urging the Treasury to work with BEIS and industry to overcome these challenges as a matter of urgency, lest the UK miss out in economic terms as well as in energy saving terms.
In a warning published today, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has revealed that just 14,500 of the Grant scheme’s promised 100,000 new jobs have been created so far – and that more than half (8,000) are at risk after the funding cut.
The TUC is urging the Government to adopt its own proposal for a retrofitting scheme, which would last for two years and create more than 1.2 million jobs. It is calling for the Green Homes Grant replacement to redirect funding to the existing local authority delivery process for private and social housing. At present, the majority of funding goes through a private, voucher-based outsourcing scheme. Unions including Unite have supported the TUC’s proposals.
“By pulling the Green Homes Grant funding, the government has shown it isn’t serious about 'building back better’,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said. “The Chancellor must take the opportunity to reverse this damaging decision on Wednesday at the Budget. And he must drive our recovery forward with a powerful green stimulus that creates millions more good, secure jobs.”
Solar power boost
Another organisation urging the Treasury to address the Green Homes Grant is Solar Energy UK. The body has also, this month, joined forces with the UKGBC, WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, to urge greater support for the UK’s solar sector through to the end of the decade.
The UK Government has already committed to hosting 40GW of offshore wind by 2040. The organisations believe this level of generation capacity is also possible for solar.
An overarching target, the bodies believe, will be key to delivering this target. But it must, they argue, be underpinned by more Treasury funding for skills and training. Better financing mechanisms are also being encouraged; solar was effectively excluded from the Contracts for Difference (CfD) process until last year and has seen a swathe of subsidy cuts in recent times.
The bodies supporting Solar Energy UK’s call to action are arguing that the solar target could also be coupled with the UK’s nature targets. They believe that, by prioritising solar in locations such as rooftops and non-greenbelt land – and by introducing new environmental requirements for developers – solar parks could ultimately have a net=positive impact on biodiversity, air quality and soil quality.
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