Editor's Pick

The UK climate awards fostering collaboration between industry, community, and councils

Championing the best in sustainability, environmental protection, low emission travel, green investment, retrofitting and more, Environment Journal explores how The Ashden Awards target the most pressing climate challenges local authorities face each year.

BrookERS volunteers clearing rubbish from Pymmes Brook in Edmonton, Enfield as part of the Thames 21 and Enfield Council scheme, sinner of Ashden Award for Local Nature Recoverers 2023. (C) Josh Caius/Ashden

The Ashden Awards close for 2024 submissions in just over one week. Celebrating and supporting innovative climate projects, winners receive financial grants and publicity from the annual competition. 

But after a decade-and-a-half, the London-based charity behind the awards, which focuses on sustainable energy and development, has adapted its processes to better serve stakeholders. These include the teams receiving prizes, community groups working on the ground for climate solutions, and local authorities across the UK. 

‘With most awards, you might get a cash prize, and that’s the end of the relationship. For us, it’s the beginning. There are now 120 winners across Britain, about 60 of them are currently active with us,’ says Simon Brammer, Head of Ashden’s Sustainable Cities team, explaining winners benefit from the organisation’s network and connections, which lead to new partnerships with councils and other potential commissioners. ‘We’re already seeing one of 2023’s winners, HACT,  which raises finance for carbon credits to support social housing retrofits, working with Carbon Co-Op, a previous winner in Manchester.’ 

Regional hubs are a key part of the process, and Ashden’s blueprint. A recent example in North East England centred on energy efficiency and retrofitting. It featured local authority officers working in the space, and award winners presenting tried and tested solutions tackling pressing climate challenges to organisations who need them most. 

‘Not that they can just be slotted in,’ Brammer clarifies. ‘Projects have to be adapted in terms of geographies and cultures within regions. But the idea is to help people avoid having to reinvent the wheel, and instead utilise what we already know works. That’s probably the biggest benefit to the winners, putting them in front of so many potential customers and clients.’ 

A prime example is Abundance Investment, which, among other things, administers municipal bonds for local authorities. A relatively new system of finance which opens up investment in local, climate-aligned projects to the public, offering individuals low entry level to investment, and fixed rate returns.

A house which has been retrofitted with solar power and an air source heat pump through Hact Retrofit Credits. Winner of the 2023 Ashden Award for Energy Innovation (C) Improper/Ashden

The company began working with one local authority, but now deals with seven. Brammer is quick to point out the success is partly down to the quality of what’s on offer – Ashden Awards applicants are strictly vetted so only those with the highest impact make the grade. But it’s also down to the powerful network that has been established, which contributes to a responsive approach to the awards themselves.

‘We have a programme for the UK with very clear focuses, like local authorities and retrofit adaptation, and particularly citizen and community engagement,’ says Brammer. ‘The work we do with local authorities and communities tells us what’s working well, but also what’s missing. This is then fed into the awards process, allowing us to try and find winners for the issues cities are actually grappling with at the time. 

‘A few years ago we ran a series of awards for sustainable transport. Because we were seeing big changes in the way people used their cars, car use was dropping. But the gig economy meant rising deliveries and pollution from those vehicles. So we focused on things like cycle rickshaws, e-cargo bikes, electric vans, and last mile delivery,’ Brammer continues. ‘This year we’ve embarked on a new programme for adaptation. The Climate Change Committee’s 2023 report showed local authorities are woefully unprepared for what a changing climate actually means.’ 

Less a slight on councils, which have seen austerity measures decimate budgets over the last 15 years or so, more a reference to Westminster’s shortsighted approaches to financing, the conversation moves to challenges facing local policymakers and industry. Retrofitting soon comes up, and the urgent need to bring Britain’s ageing housing stock to 21st Century energy standards. 

‘I guess one of the biggest issues is not having the right policy and funding environment. If we’d been delivering retrofits at the rate we were 12, 13, 14 years ago, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. And it’s all because we keep seeing local authorities, and our winners, caught in stop-start competitive funding rounds set by Government. This doesn’t foster collaboration, it fosters competition. 

‘A major obstacle to retrofitting is the workforce. We don’t have the contractors to deliver it and need about 200,000 more people in these industries to reach the kind of street-by-street impact we are aiming for,’ he says. Simply put, when authorities come together national or multi-region change, with real impact, become far more likely. 

Carbon Co-op works with homeowners in Manchester to help guide people on energy efficiency measures, including insulation. Winner of 2021 Ashden Award for Energy Access Skills. (C) Carbon Co-Op

As such, Ashden also works towards influencing the direction of policy to favour longer-term national frameworks. ‘If you want private investment from companies and trades, they need to understand it’s a long-term, 10 year programme with funding. Then they will put the effort in to make it happen. Without this, we only get piecemeal approaches and see trades walking away because they set up for a new government initiative that’s coming to an end, and there’s no more work.’ 

As we speak UK media reports suggest a new poll shows 55% of Tory voters oppose Rishi Sunak’s deadlines for the phase out of new gas boilers and new internal combustion engine cars. This is after the torrent of u-turns that defined Britain’s energy and green policy late last year. Suffice to say, such indecision and snap changes are exactly the opposite of what Ashden, and many other climate organisations, have long advocated. 

But the increasing swing towards city regions and county councils taking environmental matters into their own hands – as a result of Downing Street blunders, the nature of specific solutions, and jurisdictions – does inspire some hope. It also emphasises how important it is to understand what Ashden can offer, not least in terms of signposting to teams doing amazing things through awards shortlists and winners. 

Local authority staff can also subscribe to the Towns and Cities Bulletin, a concise update issued every six weeks, containing the most innovative and effective action being taken by the charity, winners, and partner organisations. Meanwhile, the interactive map allows you to search registered projects in any area, and all research – such as a forthcoming London Climate Resilience Review – is open source.

No doubt, these are essential steps towards a more collaborative, efficient, and effective phase of climate adaptation, mitigation, and protection, one based on knowledge and best practice sharing. And, given how much time has already been squandered in the environmental crisis, expanding this type of network must surely now be one of the upmost priorities. 

The deadline for entries to this year’s Ashden Awards is Thursday 25th January 2024. Find information on eligibility and requirements here

More features:

Green futures: a masterclass in inclusive, sustainable community placemaking

Resilico: the flood defence app regulating mitigation, insurance and recovery

Predicting the unpredictable: modelling extreme weather in a changing climate

Images: Thames21 and Enfield Council (top) /  Hact (middle) / Carbon Co-Op (bottom)


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