Reaching Carbon Net Zero – Cllr Dan Watkins

Dan Watkins is the Canterbury City Councillor with the main Climate Change brief. Now that the Council has approved his ‘Climate Action Plan’, what will it mean in practice? Why does it tackle just 2% of our emissions? Will it actually happen? Neasa MacErlean talks to the Conservative councillor for Greenhill (also asking him about the dance music he listens to while working).

How confident are you that net zero goal will be achieved as you plan it within the services, public buildings and infrastructure that support the district — in Council operations by 2030; and by 2050 across the full range of activities? 

We will achieve these goals but it’ll be a close run thing — and we’ll need several issues to go our way. In particular, we need to see a drop in prices of the technology that we’ll use. That has already happened with solar panels and wind power over the last decades. We need to see that happen with the price of heat pumps, electric cars and the manufacturing of hydrogen. It makes it so much easier for people to adopt them.

How do you plan to make the district more resilient to extreme weather and flooding?

Flooding is the big problem now. We are developing some work this year. That plan will involve better water and land management — so that less water goes into the rivers and that the rivers are less likely to burst their banks. We’ve been successful in recent years on coastal flooding issues — with projects such as the rock protection and new groynes around Herne Bay.

What about adopting the CCAP (Canterbury Climate Action Partnership) building design proposal calling for all new buildings to be zero carbon (like Bristol, Exeter and other councils)? This would tackle the 49% or so of emissions that are energy-related. 

In principle, I’d love that to go into the new Local Plan. What the CCAP has sent us is really helpful. But we have a couple of constraints. The first is the National Planning Policy Framework. And the second is that we have to respect development costs — as development must still be viable. But I start from the optimistic point of view: we’ll make significant changes in the Local Plan to get as close as possible to zero emissions in the near term. 

Also, we need to tackle the existing building stock. That’s a bigger part of the housing mix. The Local Plan has just been through an initial public consultation. Later this year we’ll put together a draft Local Plan which will go out to the public again afterwards. That draft will be more specific. And, probably, that Local Plan will be signed off next year by the Planning Inspectorate.

What will the Council do to encourage the rest of the district to follow its example? Presumably you don’t want to let the rest of our economy continue to emit — as your own CCC evaluation puts Council emissions at  2%of the total (28,000 tCO2e out of 1,500,000 tCO2e)?

Yes, that figure is correct. In most districts, the council is responsible for 1, 2 or 3% of emissions.

In addition to the Council plan, we have two other programmes. The first is the Climate Change Partnership Board — with major emitters from Canterbury district: us, Kent County Council, the two universities and the student unions and the NHS. We meet regularly and ensure that each organisation has an achievable plan to get to zero emissions. That is doing great work.

And the second one is CCAP [Canterbury Climate Action Partnership], the umbrella group for all community groups. I attend those meetings. That will help people and businesses in the district to change and reduce their emissions.

The Council can show leadership. For instance, we have made a piece of Council land in Greenhill available to Ryse Hydrogen. They are going to build the UK’s first green hydrogen plant — 100% renewably generated hydrogen. The wind from Herne Bay will feed into the plant. They are going to start building imminently, and I think it’ll be finished in about a year. That hydrogen will replace diesel in buses. We just need to do loads more of that. 

What do you plan to do regarding the top two emissions areas at the Council — energy used to heat council housing (top) and commercial property holdings (second)?

On social housing, we will do some pilots this year by taking individual properties and retrofitting them to much, much higher energy standards. If the pilots go well we plan to retrofit our whole housing stock over the next 10 years. That involves things like more insulation and replacing gas central heating with heat pumps.

On commercial properties we’ll probably look to similar technologies and there might be opportunities for private companies to help us. So, for instance, we have some shops and commercial units in Wincheap on very low energy efficiency standards. The Council is strapped for cash. So we’re talking to private operators who would pay for the solar panels we would put on the roof of these units. 

And what about these important emitting areas under Council control —  refuse collection, street cleansing and the Park and Ride bus service? And are you still going for electric buses?

Before next year we’ll get the new Park & Ride and waste vehicles. They will be Euro 6 standard. That will halve local air pollution. But Euro 6 doesn’t have much of an effect on CO2 emissions. Later on in this decade we’ll replace the Euro 6 ones with hydrogen or electric vehicles, and that will get us to the 2030 target. By then hydrogen and electric will be so much cheaper. The challenge of going to electric straightaway would cost many £100,000s. The Council is now in a fight for every pound to get through the Covid crisis. 

We have an agreement with Stagecoach [operators of bus services across East Kent]. We are talking to them about switching those buses to hydrogen and electric. With that hydrogen plant being on our doorstep, it’ll be much easier for our buses to run on hydrogen than for buses in other parts of the country.

Refuse vehicle technology is not very well established at the moment. Buses are a lot further along. Refuse technology will be there in a few years time. 

What about increasing the bus service?

Stagecoach is a private company. We have the Bus Forum where we give our feedback. We are just influencers there. 

How much work are you putting into encouraging walking and cycling? 

I’m an avid cyclist. I’m the cycling champion for the district. 

We’ve developed a Cycling Strategy to greatly increase numbers of cycling journeys in the district — and that will reduce the number of car journeys. We’re feeding that into the Transport Strategy which will be part of the Local Plan. I hope it’ll be really, really strong. 

Is there any hope that Canterbury could become a cycling city? 

In the new Cycling Strategy we use language to that effect. We want people within the city walls to think ‘I cycle first, I drive second’. Driving would be a rarity — something you did if you needed to transport something really heavy. And, also, we have to remember people with disabilities and people who are very elderly. 

We anticipate that we will make a bid for new central government money — the £2 billion fund announced in the summer — jointly with Kent County Council. 

One aim of your plan is to protect residents from emissions. Are you going to do more to monitor emissions including NO2, PMs and low level Ozone? Professor Stephen Peckham of the University of Kent has said that government targets here are inadequate so we need to go beyond them. He also says that children in cities such as Canterbury are likely to have smaller lungs because of their exposure to air pollution. 

I recognise this is a really serious public health issue. We need to do something. Professor Stephen Peckham is right: we need to take action, and we are. 

For instance, we are building up a better picture of the poor air quality hot spots in the district. In my ward we started monitoring the levels of pollution on the old Thanet Way last year.

We are consulting on a new taxi policy which will move to a complete ban on diesel later this decade. 

And there is the new Park & Ride fleet, and the waste vehicles. These will halve emissions of these particulates. 

And there is the Local Plan there will be a new electric vehicle charging strategy for parking. Already you get a 20% discount if you are parking an electric car. We’ll look to see if we can make that discount bigger. 

This will all have a massive effect on emissions. 

And we are also doing some behaviour work. For instance, we have put up signs for motorists on idling at rail crossings and near some schools — asking them to turn off their engines. 

Climate change goals have been used to justify projects that are deeply unpopular with many citizens — the Multi Storey Car Park and the now-delayed plan to put a Park & Ride car park in the Wincheap Meadows beauty spot by the river. How do you respond to the lack of trust this has created, and the resulting scepticism about Council aims?

You can make a robust case on climate change grounds for both of these projects. The Multi Storey Car Park, for instance, makes Canterbury West much more accessible.

But I completely understand and accept there are very, very good environmental arguments against these projects. But no-one has a crystal ball. There has, however, been no agenda, no greenwash, to get these projects through.

And myself, and many other councillors and officers, we are very committed to tackling climate change, and we are spending a lot of time on it.

There’s no need to be sceptical. We want the same thing as they want. We want a pollution-free Canterbury. 

How confident are you of getting the £200m you estimate is necessary to finance this?

For Canterbury to raise £200m would be very challenging if the Council had to raise it all — but we don’t need to. The private sector will be able to make big contributions. And the private sector might have more expertise on some aspects of this as well as deeper pockets at the moment. 

Tell us a little about yourself…What do you do in normal life? What do you do to relax?

I’m an entrepreneur and I run a digital conveyancing business. My wife and I have two small children — six-year old Harry and a three-year old Florence. For relaxation, I love cycling, pubs, following sport and I am an energy geek.  I love music and regularly listen to Spotify and used to go to live gigs [before lockdown].

There are lots of good pubs in our district. In Canterbury I particularly like the Dolphin. In Whitstable there is the Neptune. And my father-in-law used to run the Divers Arms in Herne Bay. 

During lockdown I started gardening and have been growing a lot of fruit and veg. My bigger successes were beetroot and two fantastic chilli bushes. I love curry, you see. We had so much beetroot that I had to make lots of beetroot chutney and give them away as Christmas presents! 

On the energy side, I have been making my home a lot more energy-efficient. I’m almost turning it into an energy plant. We have got solar panels, and I am putting in  an air source heat pump and some batteries. The batteries mean that we can store energy from the solar panels and we can fill them up from the Grid when the price is low.

Who are your favourite musicians?

When I was younger I was into rock and indie music. Now I listen a lot to dance music, often when I am working in the evenings. Disclosure, Chemical Brothers and Shy FX to name but a few!

A final word?

I want to stress how important it is to be innovative and to find new ideas. You can expect to see us on the Council supporting new technological projects. That experimentation and willingness to be open to new ideas is very important. The solutions to climate change problems are relatively new so we have to experiment. So, as with e-scooters, we have to try these things out and see if they work. If they don’t work, we’ll stop. But some will be transformative and help get us to net zero. I hope the whole community will come with us on this journey, embracing change. I truly believe that in doing so we can create thousands of local jobs and achieve our goals to make our beautiful district even greener.

The draft Climate Change Action Plan 2021-30 is open for public consultation until 4 March. Comments can be made here

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