A Birmingham Jobs Emergency Task Force could create hundreds of new green jobs retrofitting homes

Delegates to the Trades Council voted at its meeting on 1 April to call for the Council to set up a Jobs Emergency Task Force to drive and coordinate the post-Covid jobs recovery – not just leave it to the market. Astonishingly, the resolution was opposed, though unsuccessfully, by a majority of the officers and members of the new BTUC Executive Committee. (See BATC 8 April.)

Here we provide a practical example of what the Task Force could achieve – a programme for retrofitting homes, involving unions and local communities, creating hundreds of new green jobs. This is exactly what Leeds TUC is calling for in its excellent report ‘Retrofit Leeds homes with high-quality insulation and heat pumps:  a plan and call to action!’. [1] Here are some extracts from it:

This couldn’t be more urgent!

The climate and ecological breakdown is so severe and the threat to our shared future is so real that we must act now – we cannot wait. Leeds TUC is calling all union members to take immediate action to secure our future, our jobs and a sustainable future for our children. Our most important and urgent action is to halt the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This means radical changes to the way we use energy for work, travel and to heat our homes.

What are we doing?

Leeds TUC is calling on all union members to support and campaign for a huge investment in home retrofitting, to high standards of insulation and with space and water heating mainly from heat pumps using renewably produced electricity. The scheme should be coordinated by Leeds City Council, in partnership with unions, practitioners, community groups and local training providers such as Leeds College of Building.

  • All union members and jobseekers must demand the training or retraining necessary to equip them for the new, sustainable economy that we must build, with an urgent plan for the investment and the policies needed to get workers employed where they are needed – in retrofit, sustainable building and transport, genuinely renewable energy and similar green projects.
  • In setting out a plan for Leeds, our hope is to offer a model that will be taken up by other towns, cities and regions, providing a basis for collaboration between local authorities and a common focus for trade union and community-based campaigners.

Why do we need an urgent programme for retrofitting homes?

Heating and hot water for buildings accounts for around 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and the necessary switch to renewable electricity also depends on significant reductions in energy demand.  We therefore argue that the only way to eliminate these emissions –  within the necessary timescale and without sacrificing comfort – is to retrofit almost all homes to an excellent standard of energy-efficiency, and install heat pumps (electrically powered) as the primary method for space and water heating. We believe that Leeds City Council must lead the way, setting the pace for a rapid roll-out of such a scheme across the country.

The Institute for Public Policy Research points out that energy efficiency is a labour intensive sector, with the ability to create 34,000 full-time jobs in the next two years alone. By 2035 over 325,000 jobs could be created in the UK, in a scenario based on heat networks, heat pumps and energy efficiency measures – and even this is based on a scale of work and level of retrofit well below what would be needed to maximise energy efficiency.

A plan based on deep retrofitting brings more opportunities for community involvement and democratic governance

A programme of the necessary ambition would need to be coordinated by local authorities, in collaboration with tenants’ and community groups, existing community-based environmental projects, retrofitting practitioners, and of course the unions representing construction trades and those providing training.

Now is the time for Birmingham Trades Council to begin to put its Jobs Emergency policy into action without delay by calling on the Council to set up a Task Force group on retro-fitting

Last December Birmingham Council published its 74 page Climate Emergency Task Force’s Route to Zero Action Plan – Call to Action, with ‘Chapter 9 – Priority Actions – Retrofit of Existing Housing Stock’. [2]

9.2.2 We need to give due consideration to the size of the undertaking in retrofitting all of Birmingham’s properties, it will need a large strategic commitment. The retrofit of 60,000 homes over 30 years equates to 2,000 properties per year every year (40 homes every week). Our key next step will be to create a plan for citywide retrofit, to include a trial in 2021, with a view to scale up towards 2030.

The trial area will be East Birmingham, an area of high unemployment, as part of the Council’s new ‘East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy’, [3] adopted by Cabinet on 9 February 2021. In November 2020 a new East Birmingham Board was established to take forward the delivery of the Strategy. ‘The Board will guide the delivery of growth to maximise opportunities for decarbonisation and to ensure there is a “just transition” to a green economy.’ Planned next steps are an Outline Business Case early/mid-2021 and Delivery mid-2021 onward.

The Trades Council and its union allies need to be urgently demanding now that the unions are fully represented on the East Birmingham Board and in its retrofit planning.  

The retrofit programme will need workers with the right skills, and at present they are in short supply. So an urgent task for the Jobs Emergency Task Force would be to carry out an audit of training provision in FE colleges and other providers in Birmingham (beginning with East Birmingham) and the West Midlands. How many places are there, what levels of skills, what more is needed, and how can provision be expanded? Such an assessment doesn’t seem to have been carried out yet.

This is an opportunity to begin to build an in-house Retrofit team in Birmingham

 The Leeds TUC report says:

We favour local authority insourcing of labour (direct labour organisations or DLOs), which is not only cheaper and more accountable, but also gives a unified workforce more say, more leverage in terms of pay, conditions and job-security (including, for example, parent-friendly employment conditions and stronger protections against gender-based harassment or discrimination) and potentially a structured framework for skills development. At the same time, this would enable local authorities to develop an integrated approach to training, employment and planning works for public need.

 This fits with Birmingham Council’s own policy in its ‘Local Manifesto 2018-2022’ titled ‘A Rebirth of Municipal Socialism’. It promises

We will re-state the case for the municipal provision of services in Birmingham, heralding a new age of municipal socialism.

And the Labour council in Birmingham will lead by example, calling time on the misplaced notion that the private sector always trumps the public sector by adopting a policy of in-house preferred for all contracts.

Retrofitting is an ideal opportunity to begin to put this into practice, beginning with setting up a modest initial directly employed workforce team, with a view to later expansion.

The Trades Council must seize the Retrofitting opportunity

BTUC has a strong record of campaigning to defend workers under attack. But it also has to develop serious proactive strategies to intervene in the market and in Council service provision with practical policies and actions that can bring real benefits right now to Birmingham workers, job seekers and communities.

Notes

[1] The link to the Leeds TUC report on Retrofitting is: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tVVwqf57Bq01oAkCBi31JNgcg3Ce4dn1HYnZIIKYRt4/edit

And here’s the link to a People and Nature article about the Leeds TUC campaign https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2020/09/02/leeds-trades-unionists-zero-carbon-homes-can-help-tackle-climate-change/

[2] Birmingham Council Route to Zero Action Plan – Call to Action https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/downloads/file/18618/route_to_zero_action_plan_-_call_to_action

[3] East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy: Appendix 1

https://birmingham.cmis.uk.com/birmingham/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/11680/Committee/2/SelectedTab/Documents/Default.aspx

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