“A majority of Brits from all demographics agree that if the economic recovery doesn’t tackle climate change, it would be bad for the economy in the long run.”  That was the striking conclusion from a recent opinion poll from the Conservative Environment Network.  The national poll provides important ammunition for those pushing local councils to take decisive action on the climate, post-Covid.  The poll covered people of all political persuasions, and provides a treasure trove of latest data on what people think. In this blog, Megan Trethewey from CEN, highlights some of the key conclusions and shares some more targeted data for the South East.

As the UK slowly emerges from lockdown, after months of staying home to protect the NHS, it’s clear that the focus has moved on to the ‘recovery’ from this crisis – and ensuring that recovery is as green as possible is a priority for many of us. It’s not just about tackling climate change, and rebuilding a more resilient society which is better safeguarded against the risks of a climate changed world, such as increased flooding and more frequent heatwaves. It’s also because a green recovery makes economic sense, and it’s what the public overwhelmingly wants to see happen.

Recent polling carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) found that a majority of Brits would view a failure to tackle pollution and climate change in a post-coronavirus recovery plan as ‘bad for the economy in the long run’ (67%) and ‘proof that the government doesn’t listen to ordinary people like me’ (69%). This majority holds across the South East, Conservative and Leave voters. Seventy-one percent of people from the South East also agreed that it would be ‘a sign that the government has the wrong priorities’.

Alongside the public support, we know that green investments often outperform grey ones. In the recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008, green stimulus policies had 20% better returns than traditional fiscal measures, and in a survey of G20 finance ministers and bank officials, green measures received the highest economic ratings. So it’s no surprise that in his Summer Economic Update, the Chancellor confirmed that “this is going to be a green recovery, with concern for our environment at its heart”. It’s the economically prudent thing to do – and the government’s £2 billion investment in energy efficiency measures through the Green Homes Grant will help many households reduce their energy bills whilst supporting thousands of local construction jobs. These projects aren’t just about tackling climate change, and local authorities will have a key role to play when the scheme launches in September in promoting it to their residents.

The government may choose to help the economic recovery from coronavirus by spending money on infrastructure (e.g. buildings, transport networks). If it chooses to do this, which of the following, if any, would you most like to see prioritised in your local area? (national figures %)

What else can local authorities do to help deliver a green recovery? Firstly, they can work with communities to support the recent shifts in behaviour towards more walking and cycling which has helped to reduce air pollution. 66% of people in the South East agreed (33% strongly and 33% somewhat) that ‘the government should invest in cycling and walking, even if this makes it slower for some people to drive’. Installing temporary pop up cycle lanes and cordoning off greater space for pedestrians in key areas can help people to socially distance while getting back to work safely and sustainably. Councils can easily reassess schemes that are unpopular and adjust plastic bollards and paint where necessary, and hopefully make them permanent in the longer term.

Introducing car-free zones outside of schools is particularly popular and ensures cleaner air for children, who are especially susceptible to the associated health impacts from breathing dirty air. Seventy percent (43% strongly, 27% somewhat) of people from the South East agree that ‘councils should create car-free zones outside schools during pick-up and drop-off times, even if this makes it less convenient for some parents to pick up their children’.

When given a list of sectors that the government could choose to support to create new jobs in an economic recovery, the South East prioritised renewable energy (53%), nature conservation (37%), energy efficiency (36%) and clean transport (35%) while the two least popular options were telecoms (11%) and auto manufacturing (3%). Local authorities can also help to identify local sites for renewable energy projects, including solar parks, which have the potential to be income generators whilst also contributing to your net zero targets. Local authorities can forge partnerships that utilise private financing to get these projects off the ground, like the recently launched green bonds in West Berkshire.

If the government chooses to support the creation of new jobs in the economic recovery, which of the following sectors, if any, would you like it to prioritise? (national figures %)

Similarly, the second highest priority, nature conservation, also reflects trends from lockdown such as the public’s increased appreciation for parks and green spaces as they’ve visited them more frequently during their daily exercise outings. This can be an opportunity to reassess your green infrastructure locally and consider where you could make changes to increase their value to both people and nature. Reducing mowing schedules can save money and help to create beautiful wildflower meadows which benefit both pollinators and residents. Introducing more nature-friendly plant varieties can also boost the sorts of insects that draw more birds, with many people noticing beautiful birdsong more frequently in lockdown. There are also ways to join up your plans by using tree planters to segregate cycle paths creating lines of urban trees at the same time. The recent CEN Councillor briefing outlined more ideas to help meet tree planting targets.

Another recent poll from YouGov showed that just 9% of people want to return to life as normal after lockdown ends. We must now ‘build back better’, which means building back greener, cleaner, more beautiful neighbourhoods for our closer communities to enjoy. It makes good economic sense, and it’s what residents want to see. Local leadership will be the key to delivering it.

Megan Trethwey is Head of Programmes at the Conservative Environment Network

According to their website, the Conservative Environment Network is “the forum for conservatives who support conservation and decarbonisation”.  The Network brings together thought-leaders from business, politics and civil society to advance conservative environmentalism. This includes Conservative MPs and councillors.  To check if your local MP is a member, see this list of MPs who have signed up to a series of CEN Pledges. 

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