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BEST 2010: Birmingham’s low-carbon vision; Hattie Hartman introduces the Low Carbon Hub at BEST

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With few exceptions, Birmingham is dominated by the car, and the A38 cuts through the heart of the city centre. The city wants to build on the successes of the regenerated canal district around Brindleyplace and begin to reclaim the city centre for pedestrians.

Last month, Birmingham City Council launched the Big City Plan, a thoughtful urban design framework that aspires to knit the city together and identifies priority development areas. But the new vision does not stop with architecture and urban design. The city has also adopted CO2 emissions reduction targets that exceed national ones and wants to brand itself as a low-carbon innovator to attract investment.

The city joined the iconic architecture league with Future Systems’ Selfridges in 2003. More iconic architecture is on its way: a new library by Mecanoo will be completed in 2012, and Foreign Office Architects is redeveloping New Street Station.

Student accommodation is being built without boilers, flues and chimneys

The Big City Plan also proposes interventions to tackle the behemoth of the A38 and create ways through at key locations. Selfridges may be buzzing, but physical links to the surrounding city are still woefully inadequate.

Glenn Howells Architects is masterplanning Eastside for the potential arrival of the proposed high speed rail, and Patel Taylor’s Eastside Park will give this part of the city a green lung.

The energy and enthusiasm in Birmingham for the promise of the Big City Plan is palpable. On one of my visits, Howells told me: ‘I could live in London, but there’s too much to do in Birmingham.’

The grandeur of Birmingham’s Victorian civic buildings says it all. At the height of empire, the city’s manufactured goods were renowned. Now England’s second city seeks to rebrand itself as a low-carbon innovator. Exceeding the UK’s ambitious Climate Change Act, Birmingham has adopted a CO2 reduction target of 60 per cent by 2026 based on 1990 figures.

And the city aims to slash its annual £1.5 billion energy bill by half in the next 10 years. ‘Cities need to plan their energy, just like transport and other infrastructure. To date, this has been left to utilities and the marketplace,’ says Sandy Taylor, Birmingham’s Head of Sustainability and Climate Change. Taylor’s view is that cities must take the lead in planning their energy futures, not just rely on national targets.

Birmingham is uniquely situated to do this. A single local authority governs Birmingham’s population of just over one million people, in marked contrast with London’s 22 boroughs. As the country’s largest local authority, Birmingham is in a rare position to exercise joined-up thinking, the frequently mumbled aspiration of public policy makers and urban designers. For strategic energy planning, this is a must. But the low-carbon city is not just about saving the planet.

Birmingham City Council faces across-the-board budget cuts of more than 30 per cent this year. The city’s low-carbon initiative plans to reduce Birmingham’s carbon footprint, but it’s looking to make money, too.

A 2008 strategic framework  ‘Cutting CO2 for a Smarter Birmingham’ was followed by the Birmingham Declaration adopted by the City Council in December 2009 (see opposite page), and a Climate Change Action Plan in March of this year which begins to translate targets into deliverable projects. The city’s energy strategy is focused around four initiatives: district heating, generation of energy from waste, residential retrofit and electric cars. A critical issue is how to fund upfront capital costs for sustainable infrastructure.

Birmingham has pioneered the use of tax increment financing (TIF) in the UK, a municipal finance tool recently championed by the Coalition government and widely used in North America (for example at Chicago’s Millennium Park).

What differentiates Birmingham’s district heating initiative is that the city, by investing up front, has given developers the confidence to join in. This eliminates the waiting game for a critical mass of development before a system becomes economically viable.

Another key to Birmingham’s success has been the city’s ability to work with the private sector. Chris Murray, director of the Core Cities group, explains that the fact the city has been able to ‘share risk with private sector partners has unlocked millions for development. In an era of massive budget cuts, investment tools that mitigate against those cuts become important,’ says Murray.

But political leadership is also required to drive the low-carbon agenda forward. Established in 2007, the Broad Street City Centre energy network links together major buildings including the City Hall, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the International Convention Centre and a nearby hotel through gas-fired CHP.

A second system around Aston University began operation earlier this year, and two more at Birmingham Children’s Hospital and New Street Station are in the pipeline. The fact that student accommodation at Lancaster Circus currently on site is being built without boilers, flues and chimneys is a sign of confidence in the district heating scheme, says the city council’s Leo McMulkin.

Other projects in the pipeline include converting an existing waste-to-energy plant located close to the city centre to CHP in the next year so that its heat can be recovered. This plant, built in 1996, currently provides electricity to more than 30,000 homes using household and business waste.

The city intends to expand the waste-to-energy scheme to include restaurants, hotels and the wholesale food market. Also in the pipeline is a project to capture the city’s biomass potential by collecting the ‘arisings’ from municipal tree management which could yield up to 8,000 tonnes of wood pellets annually.

Promoting the use of electric cars is another strategy of the Birmingham Declaration, and the city has committed that its municipal fleet should be all electric by 2015. A dozen charging points have been identified in the city centre.

As part of the CABLED project funded through the Technology Strategy Board, a trial fleet of 110 cars supported by E.ON was launched in June. The cars and charging points are being monitored by Arup to inform the future development of an electric charging infrastructure.

The city’s 440,000 homes produce around a third of its CO2 emissions. In the next two years, Birmingham plans to lever £100 million in loans and subsidies to 10,000 homeowners for housing retrofit, says Dave Allport of Birmingham City Council. A pilot programme focused on vulnerable homes in Northfield started in August and 60 homes were completed by the end of last month.

The scheme will build on the success of the six-year-old Birmingham Construction Partnership by using framework contracts, and skills training is integral to the programme. The feed-in tariff has made solar PV a viable retrofit option within the Birmingham Energy Savers scheme in more affluent areas.

Raising awareness and mobilising people to buy into the rebranding of Birmingham as a low-carbon city is just as important as all the investment in green infrastructure and technologies.

The BCC’s 2008 Climate Change Festival, organised jointly with CABE, marked a start. The city is banking on attracting investment through its low-carbon credentials. It all makes a lot of sense, except when you see the reality of car-dominated Birmingham and its ring road today.

Glenn Howells is right when he says: ‘There is a lot of work to do.’

Birmingham Declaration

This Council believes that by 2015:

•All vehicles procured by the Council should be electrically powered or run on liquefied petroleum gas

• There will be at least 500 electric cars running on the streets of the city as we will develop the electric charging infrastructure

• 50 per cent of electricity used by the Council should be generated from renewable sources.

• The City Council’s energy consumption will be reduced by 25 per cent

• 10 per cent of Birmingham homes will be linked to district heating systems

• 10 per cent of Birmingham homes will have retrofit insulation

• There will be at least 10 ‘low-carbon communities’ similar to the successful example of Summerfield Eco-neighbourhood

(Adopted by Birmingham City Council, December 2009)


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