Bristol councillors push for net-zero homes

Green Councillor Tony Dyer details how cross-party collaboration saw Bristol City Council protect green spaces and deliver zero-carbon homes, but emphasises that more is required from the Government to support effective decarbonisation.

Bristol councillors
Tony Dyer

The news in August that the UK has missed out on almost 800,000 zero-carbon homes due to the Government’s planning deregulation was a major disappointment – but the Bristol Greens are already moving forward to make sure no more time is lost.

The success of the Bristol Greens in May’s elections, becoming the joint largest party on the council alongside Labour, garnered considerable media coverage. The political dynamic within the city has fundamentally changed, and this was aptly demonstrated at the Full Council meeting of 7 September.

By collaboratively working with other parties, we were able to get the council to approve two motions – the first will provide additional protection for nature and biodiversity within our growing city, and the second will help to ensure that new homes will be built to zero-carbon standards.

It began, as it so often does, with local people campaigning against the bulldozing of valued green spaces. This included Bristol’s last organic farm, a wildlife-rich environment absurdly designated for redevelopment by the Labour administration. The local farm lies in a Conservative ward, and with local campaigns to protect the farm gaining ever-growing traction, it was no surprise when the Conservatives proposed a motion to protect it from development.

Knowing that Green support for the Conservative motion would guarantee its passing, we were able to work cross-party to significantly strengthen and widen the scope of the motion, to also propose protection for Sites of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCIs) and designated wildlife corridors across the city via the upcoming Local Plan process.

This cross-party work resulted in a Green amendment to the Conservative motion, which passed with only the Labour group abstaining.

This was then followed by a Green motion to improve building regulations to make it easier to deliver zero-carbon homes by setting tougher energy standards for future housing. Again, the forthcoming Local Plan will be the vehicle to implement these changes. This time we worked cross-party with the Labour group, and the resulting Green motion, seconded by Labour, was passed unanimously.

The result of these two motions is a clear Green message that tackling the climate and ecological emergencies cannot simply be disregarded as an inconvenience when it suits the council, and it must be considered in all Council decisions, particularly our planning policies. 

Another outcome of May’s election was that, with 24 Green councillors, we had the capacity to establish a shadow cabinet. The purpose of this is not only to hold the Labour administration to account, but also to demonstrate an alternative Green vision for Bristol and look forward to the obvious next step in our journey – a Green administration running the city.

As the Green Shadow Cabinet spokesperson for Housing Delivery and Homes, the successful motions to protect our valued green space and deliver new zero-carbon homes directly impacted my role. Simply put, we need to build genuinely affordable homes in Bristol – but building on precious green space that can contribute to climate adaptation whilst safeguarding biodiversity is not the answer. Meanwhile, every new home we build that is not zero-carbon makes a hard journey ahead even harder.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of homes that need to be zero-carbon already exist, and I am under no illusion as to the enormous challenge we face in retrofitting Bristol’s existing housing stock, including that owned by the council.

The estimated cost of decarbonising Bristol is in the region of £9-10 billion, with the domestic housing sector accounting for just over £3 billion. This would suggest a cost of some £15-£20k on average per home. This cost is too great to be borne by homeowners or Councils alone – we need the Government to help provide a solution. Investing in our housing could be a serious boost to the UK’s flagging economy and provide well-paid jobs as well as making our homes fit for the future.

Bristol City Council’s own housing stock consists of some 27,000 homes, of which perhaps 3,000 will be lost under the Conservative’s ‘Right To Buy’ policy over the next 30 years. The challenge we face here is not only retrofitting our own housing to be zero-carbon, but also trying to replace the council homes we will lose. In addition, we also need to maintain and repair our council homes. All of this within the tight constraints of the ring-fencing of council house funding by central government. 

The financial cost of delivering a carbon-zero city is clearly high, but the consequences of doing nothing are immeasurably greater and cannot be measured in financial terms alone. 

Here in Bristol, Green councillors are making the policy steps needed to deliver a zero-carbon future whilst also protecting our natural resources. But to make the investment required to truly achieve this, we need our Government to step up and take their share of the load.