Glasgow City Council has launched a high-profile vision for the city which it claims can take the city to ‘net zero’ by 2030 and also includes a range of eye-catching public amenity and infrastructure projects, from a new public garden over the M8 to a metro system to retrofitting insulation.
The headline figure is ‘£30bn’ and the mechanism for delivering it is identified as being ‘private investment’ based on a wide portfolio of investment opportunities. What are the implications of this and is it realistic in the context of a local authority which is currently cutting back on investment in social care?
The ‘portfolio’ can be read in an expensively-produced online portfolio and it contains too many elements to assess them individually here, but a sample of a number of them will serve to give an impression of the implications and viability of the overall programme and there are some general approaches which emerge.
First are those which appear (for now at least) to be clear over-sell. For example in the cases of both the proposed ‘Glasgow Metro’ and the proposed ‘hanging garden of Charing Cross’ these are, after closer inspection, just feasibility studies which may later lead to feasible investment opportunities.
These are not plans for ambitious investment in transport and city amenities; they are proposals for a feasibility study to identify whether there actually are viable investment models.
Then there are those which present themselves as more ‘shovel-ready’ but which lack detail – and where the available detail gives reason for concern. For example there is an ambitious programme for the retrofitting of houses for energy efficiency which the prospectus prices at £10bn.
While this is some way short of the likely total cost as estimated by Common Weal, it is in the ballpark. But it raises two immediate questions. The first is where the return on the investment is to be found – which is to say, who is actually paying for this? Will the cost be passed on to the householder (about £10,000 per house according to this model)?
The second question is feasibility. The prospectus claims that this could create about 75,000 new jobs in the city. Given that number the Council could probably complete retrofit insulation for the whole city in about ten years – but Common Weal estimates that about a third of the workforce will have to be skilled tradespeople. It is an understatement to say that identifying 25,000 trained joiners in Glasgow is something of a barrier to the timescales.
But on closer inspection this too turns out to be a feasibility study. The same goes for the plans on district heating – but here at least (as with the metro system) there is a very loose indication of how this could be paid for. The heating system (and the metro system) would be owned privately and the cost-recovery would be in heating bills (and ticket prices).
Which is to say that to be a feasible model the scheme represents mass-privatisation of core public infrastructure. To provide a comparator, it would be the equivalent of Glasgow’s sewer system being owned and maintained by a private company which would then pass the costs of sewage waste management directly onto the customer, with an added element for profit.
These are not plans for ambitious investment in transport and city amenities; they are proposals for a feasibility study to identify whether there actually are viable investment models
So what about the plan’s Green credentials? How is it achieving net zero by 2030? As of its publication (in September 2021) none of the real, substantial carbon mitigation elements of the plan are further forward than feasibility studies with little detail on how they’ll be paid for and seemingly unrealistic expectations of a delivery timetable.
But that’s not the only concern; in each case there appears to be a shortcut taken. The district heating network is not city-wide. This is important because the real strength of a district heating system is to be able to take heat from a wide range of sources (some definitely outside the main urban centre where land is available) and to collect and combine it.
That is not what is proposed here; these are smaller district heating schemes which rely on gas boilers for half of their heat. This is a very, very big weakness.
In the case of the insulation programme it is, well, an insulation programme, not a comprehensive thermal efficiency programme. Most houses now have some insulation (though often badly fitted) and it is often drafts rather than convected or conducted heat loss (that which insulation resolves) which is key. That is why so many skilled trades are required.
The target thermal efficiency rate is also a serious issue – the prospectus plans to take all buildings up to Energy Performance Certificate C which only represents about 69 to 80 per cent efficiency. That is simultaneously far too low a target and far too high a cost for it (the Common Home Plan by Common Weal cited above would deliver most houses to band A and almost all houses to at least band B for a similar scale of investment).
This leaves an enormous amount of the heavy lifting of ‘net zero’ to be carried by tree planting. This is a dubious claim a the best of times and tree planting as an element of net zero is contentious. However, assessing this in the Glasgow plan isn’t possible as the section on tree planting mistakenly directs viewers to the plan for the Clyde Gateway. At 24 hours since launch with this error still there, site traffic must not be high.
But this also takes us to the part of the plan which has some concrete action involved – a series of projects which all basically fall under the category of ‘property development’. These are both much more modest in value (tens to hundreds of millions) and much less obviously related to climate change.
So in summary, this proposal may be headlined ‘£30bn of investment opportunity’ but it is much more like half a billion pounds of property development opportunity and some feasibility studies for potential future privatisation.
Given the criticism of the city as is, the budget pressures and the task ahead, it is hard to see this as a viable reality. Critics have described this as ‘green-washing PR for COP26’. There appears to be plenty to support that criticism.