Here’s why London’s next mayor should set up a municipal energy supply company

Another chance to enjoy this picture of Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan, one of whom is all but certain to be London's next mayor. Image: Getty.

The next mayor of London could make up for slow progress on climate change under Boris, and keep energy costs at Transport for London (TfL) down at the same time, by setting up an energy company. A publicly owned alternative to the “Big 6”, following in the footsteps of companies established by Bristol and Nottingham, could also sell low and zero carbon electricity directly to Londoners.

The mayor is currently in the process of developing a junior electricity supply licence operation, known as Licence Lite. This will allow the Greater London Authority to procure electricity from decentralised energy generators in the city, and sell this output on to TFL.

But my proposal would go beyond License Lite and instead establish a fully licensed not-for-profit energy supply business. This would manage TfL’s significant and growing electricity requirements, and extend supply services to London’s homes and businesses.

There are good reasons for doing this. For one thing, London has to reduce its overall energy use. London’s population is currently rising by 100,000 each year. Careful planning is needed to meet the energy needs of these people, keeping homes warm and supporting the economy, whilst at the same time accelerating carbon cuts.

Since 2008 London’s total emissions have been cut by 11 per cent – but that’s short of the 17 per cent required by now, and means the city has emitted 15m tonnes more CO2 than predicted in the mayor’s original strategy.

And a recent London Assembly Committee report on the long term challenges for sustainable growth in London found that only the “low demand” scenario in the mayor’s London Energy plan could meet the 2025 and 2050 carbon reduction targets.

We need to find savings, too. New information shows that, within five years, TfL’s electricity costs are expected to rise sharply, by almost £50m. As an organisation, TfL is currently the single biggest consumer of electricity in London and one of the top 10 electricity consumers in the UK. But it is lagging seriously behind on generating onsite renewables.

There are a number of explanations for these forecast increases: the expansion of TfL’s existing underground network, a greater frequency of trains (including the introduction of the night tube), increased cooling requirements for new trains and stations to combat urban heat island effect, and significantly the start of major new Crossrail services.

Crossrail 1 represents a missed opportunity for deploying solar and other zero carbon electricity technology. I’ve obtained information from TfL about their plans – and there is little evidence of technologies like solar panels being incorporated into station roofs, platforms or along the open sections of Crossrail’s 118km of rail tracks.

This is not altogether surprising. TfL’s 2009 Environment Report highlighted that just 0.03% of TfL’s renewable electricity was generated onsite. Worse, the proportion has not changed over the past five years, with TfL reporting that it only has a total of 11 solar PV arrays installed across its estate, with an installed capacity of circa 250kW – less than the capacity on the London Olympic car park.

This is extremely disappointing, given TfL’s 300 locations across its 5,700 acre estate. It has only now committed to examining the potential for Solar across their existing buildings roof spaces including car parks.  Following on from an innovative study conducted by Network Rail, TfL have stated they will examine the potential for trackside Solar installations.

A fully licensed energy supply company would go much further than License Lite and give the mayor the ability to sell electricity directly to the public and to businesses. It’d give the mayor additional powers to deliver energy efficiency retrofit and insulation services, too, to help London homes and business reduce costs and carbon emission.

And it won’t even be expensive: when Bristol City and Nottingham City set-up municipal energy companies, costs were between £1m and £1.5m.

I’ve been bringing these ideas to Boris Johnson’s attention, but he has lacked the vision to take them up. It will fall to the next mayor to take forward the ideas.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a member of the Green party and of the London Assembly. 


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.