Levelling up, building back better and going green ought to all be part of the Net Zero goal. That is on local as well as national government’s agenda, but delivering the ideal outcome is complex. Janet Wood spoke to Amber Infrastructure’s Mark Andrew about the issues involved as the company prepares to deliver projects in the north east that will give a return on public investment
The North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) encompasses Newcastle, North Humberside and Northumberland. It has at least one existing site of green energy expertise within its area at Blyth.
In 2020, the NTCA approved an Energy, Green Growth and Climate Change Blueprint with £24.2 million investment to 2023 – including £10 million for a Green New Deal Fund (GNDF). Of that, £9 million was to establish the fund while £1 million would be used to build the technical capacity to develop a low carbon and energy project pipeline. The North of Tyne GNDF will be managed by Amber Infrastructure, and it is expected to bring in private sector resources to deliver an £18 million investment, over a delivery period of four years. As an ‘energy coast’ with major industrial areas, NTCA’s neighbouring regions are banking on being leaders in offshore wind, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Can NTCA leverage these neighbouring initiatives alongside its own strengths to meet the goals of its Blueprint, under which it wants to “take a real lead in an area that will be fundamental to future growth, recovery, and the achievement of net zero”?
At the sharp end of delivering the GNDF goals is Amber Infrastructure, which won the job of managing the fund. Amber has a track record, as it runs the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF), established in 2018. MEEF provides a mixture of senior debt, mezzanine debt and equity to London’s public-sector property owners and small-to-medium-sized businesses. It can fund up to 100% of the capital cost of a project or part-fund large-scale regeneration projects which demonstrate low-carbon credentials.
MEEF is not an exact model for GNDF, explains Mark Andrew, who is technical lead for GNDF at Amber Infrastructure. He says the GNDF will be, “Slightly different from the norm of just looking at financing capex projects. It has a lot of underlying regional development goals that are not quantifiable in the same way – getting people back to work, getting the skills in the area, even giving people confidence.”
Given NTCA’s location, how does it interact with its neighbouring ‘energy coast’ areas and industrial clusters?
Andrew says that “Politically the north east is quite divided. People are very proud of their immediate territories. There are lots of interested parties – like Sunderland, Teesside, south Tyneside, Gateshead – where good initiatives are happening. There was a Northeast Local Energy Plan – there still is – but this fund [GNDF] at the moment only covers Newcastle, North Humberside and Northumberland.”
Amber’s task is “to start the ball rolling by bringing in some proper projects that are almost ready for funding. Doing so at least starts the momentum and then we fill in the gaps in the strategy as we move through the four years.” Andrew says that the first important step is a strategic discussion with NTCA, “because clearly they have a long-term strategy and our fund is meant to feed into that as well.” That cannot be a one-off discussion, he says.
With a broad range of sometimes misaligned aims to consider, Amber is working with two regional organisations, one part of the Groundworks network and the other the Sunderland-based Rural Design Centre. Andrew says that way it hopes to build a positive connection between two quite different types of activity: “We are trying to combine what we are normally doing with the fund, on the ‘easy to do’ projects that come ready made, with developing community groups – where there is not a lot of financial clout behind them but they want to do good things. It’s going to be interesting.”
Would a strategy try to feed in from neighbouring regions, ‘piggybacking’ or connecting with major projects? Or would it start relatively small, and grow local initiatives that may ally with other neighbouring businesses in the future?
Andrew says one core aim is to grow local talent. Within the NTCA region, he notes that with Blyth in Northumberland, “there is definitely a desire to grow that industrial cluster from the coast, back inland.” If that is a growing cluster and they will need skills in the region, he says “part of our role will be to work with them to see where they see the gaps and where we can help to plug some of those gaps.”
He draws on his experience working on London’s MEEF and the Northeast’s unseen contribution to London and other regions. “If you are in London, you find that a lot of really good mechanical and electrical engineers come from the Northeast. They travel all over the country to work.” Building on that knowledge, “We are trying to encourage more of that kind of investment in a regional way, and focus on projects that are located in the Northeast.
“There are two ways of doing it. We are investing in local enterprise and community endeavour and we are investing in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that do work all over the UK.”
He says innovation is arising within SMEs, but “We have found that a lot of local SMEs say they have struggled to have an audience with local authorities to get their projects funded. I think part of the problem is that it is seen as too technical for local authorities to get their heads around what the SMEs are trying to achieve.”
From the local authority point of view, that concern echoes comments I hear about the need to give local authorities help with engineering expertise so their planning departments can deal better with local energy project planning applications.
Andrew thinks GNDF can provide help on the other side – improving on what bidders present to local authorities : “Hopefully we can bridge that gap. We will work with the SMEs to make their messaging a bit clearer and get them an audience with the local authority. We hope we can be the buffer – to get things developed to the point where it seems it has some legs, then take it to the local authority.
“Because local authorities are dealing with so many other priorities they probably aren’t really focused on the environment – they have other things to do.”
part of the problem is that it is seen as too technical for local authorities to get their heads around what the SMEs are trying to achieve
The broad remit of local authorities is often cited as an opportunity for ‘whole systems thinking’ around energy and climate. But equally, the fact that they have to meet their inhabitants’ different needs makes delivery more complex.
For example, Andrew says, “Fuel poverty is a massive thing.” He says, “Anywhere we can deliver projects that are more than just carbon savings – they add an improved quality of life, improved regeneration, or anything that gets ticks in two boxes – we should prioritise those projects. Saving carbon dioxide is not a bad goal, and it is what it’s all about, but in those regions it is also about leaving a legacy to start growth.”
He gives an example of some communities where lack of work has been the condition for more than one generation. “It is quite disheartening, because they haven’t worked and they don’t have the confidence to go back to training or school.” Tackling that is a social issue that is clearly much broader than an energy initiative.
And he suggests that sometimes it is misguided to put forward energy projects as a catalyst to allow other things to be delivered: “I understand what government is trying to do. Putting down a factory in somewhere like Blyth that does car batteries is a brilliant idea of getting a lot of people into employment quickly. But that just helps people who are ‘ready to work’. Typically people will flood into the area to do the job, but they might drive back out to a different region. That’s what happens when you have people with certain skills – and the energy sector is quite highly skilled.”
This is the other side of the green energy industry’s focus on ‘high value’ jobs, he says. Those jobs are not available to people who have not had work for generations. “How do you start getting those people enthusiastic about getting in and getting involved with work? You want to have the next generation of people.” When it comes to levelling up there has to be more around policy, says Andrew.
This is also an important reason for having local projects across communities – it is a conversation opener and “if there are initiatives going on in your village you are probably going to go for a walk and ask what is going on”.
Of course, there are many links in the chain from asking that question to getting a green job or supporting a green project. And Andrew says, “The problem is with a fund like this is that four years is a relatively short timescale. The challenge is where we put the focus. Is it seeding initiatives and getting things started? Or is it about helping deliver quick wins to provide a story for local authorities about successful projects being delivered?”
A combination is clearly required. “So we have EV charging, solar panels on roofs, heat pumps, we will probably have a couple of retrofit public sector buildings, electric bus – they are great news stories and very tangible but it is things that are a bit harder to do that we want to get started.”
He says the fund has a key advantage in that the NTCA mayor has the same vision. “That’s the point of these devolved authorities: they want to take ownership into the region and they want to be able to take decisions without central government saying no.” He hopes Amber and NTCA will be having strategic conversations from mid November.
Bringing in investment
As well as bridging the gap in types of project, the fund managers have to bridge a gap in the type of co-investors who can be brought in.
Andrew explains, “If you look at us as a typical fund manager our criteria for lending money is quite strict. What’s been lacking in a lot of areas is that financial credit is what all these small entities don’t really have. And they don’t have someone standing behind them to introduce incentives through natural capital, or whatever it is that is harder to finance.”
As a result, there remains a funding gap. In the past, regional development funding was expected to provide that additionality, to counterbalance the fact that “We don’t tick all the boxes for return on investment in the traditional way. How do you measure the fact that you have put in 200 trees or taken in five apprentices? How do you weigh that in and make it a marker in the project?
“At the end of the day always want to see a financial return, but in some areas it’s not all about that. What you are getting in return you can’t put a number on in the short term.”
In delivering the fund’s broad aims the local partners will be key in bringing the right mix of projects forward – and crystalising the broad aims Andrew has discussed into the kind of ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics that other investors can work with.
Andrew says that because energy is now well understood by investors and seen as a transition activity it can act as a lever. “If energy is at the centre of it you can do it. Groundworks, for example, says its priorities are not to do with saving carbon, they are more about getting people in the region to be interested and to be thinking if a career – or any work – getting people involved in community projects. That is where renewables projects can help, something like getting involved in a restoration of an old farm or a building in the village that could be a focal point.”
Then it is up to the team to help people think bigger. “If you just give a grant, people spend it but they don’t think about what comes back into the community as a result. Sometimes they don’t want to take on debt, and I understand that, but if they can think – for example, if we put solar panels in and heat pumps is there any way we can get revenue if we are connected to the grid? Getting people to think about how this could benefit them is the kind of model that we are trying to grow.”
It is something that the Rural Design Centre has been doing already, and Andrew hopes it can be repeatable. The Centre is “working to get groups of people together to be able to share energy and when not using it they can export to the grid. It works on different levels on the community. We are working with them and we hope they have some projects that are very close to being installed, so we can have an early success and move it out across the region.”
The idea of replicating local projects, both to reduce the barrier of understanding and to reduce costs, has been an aim of many community energy groups. But it is hard for community operators to find time or resources to share their experience. Can local authorities help – and do they have powers to smooth the way? Andrew says, “They have the power, but not necessarily the capacity.” But they also “are very well connected with universities and other organisations across the region, and the enterprises. We have started to meet a few of these people. It’s understanding what they are and what they are doing. I think we have to map out what they are doing against the goal that the local authority wants to achieve.”
The Fund is also keen to be more involved in projects at an early stage, rather than a more ‘arm’s length’ process it has used in the past, he says. Early engagement “is useful and it is something local and regional authorities can do if they have an energy champion in place, but if they don’t it tends to get ignored against the other priorities.”
In devolved regions … they are starting to pool their resources and share data.
In recent years Local Enterprise Partnerships have invested a lot in developing local energy plans. Is that knowledge that can be tapped? Andrew says that work, and the willingness of regional agencies to work together, puts the NTCA in a better position than some other places.
He talks about his experience in London, where he says, “all the boroughs are very competitive because they all have budgets to hit. They can’t do anything on Net Zero unless they save money elsewhere. Then the whole thing becomes very competitive and no-one wants to share their strategy, because they are thinking that if they need to access money from the government they want to be in a strong position to compete for it. Whereas in devolved regions like NTCA, they are starting to pool their resources and share data.” As to spending the Fund, he says “maybe before the end of the year we’ll have a lot better idea of what the lay of the land is, where the shortfalls are.”
In fact, as the contractor for the Fund, most of these issues are not part of Amber’s remit. “Our job … is to spend the money they give us,” says Andrew – but clearly a clear strategy and strong policies from central as well as local government will help multiply social as well as financial returns.