Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

Blog post: Developing partnerships, changing futures - Jacki Bell, Durham Energy Institute, and Maggie Bosanquet, Durham County Council

Partnership working provides a critical opportunity for diverse groups to share and expand best practice and to build agency among different stakeholders. UCL and the LGA put this technique into practice, hosting a workshop to connect academics and local authorities and investigate the immediate challenges facing councils on their journey to achieving net zero.

For local authorities this workshop aimed to meet the immediate and urgent policy need to develop strategies on commitments to reaching net zero targets, for the research community it provided an opportunity to test research findings/tools as well as opportunities to generate impact from their research.

Durham Energy Institute and Durham County Council have developed their close working relationship over the past six years. Starting with a simple conversation, which led to an agreement that we would aim to share knowledge, education and opportunities, we are now working locally to jointly accelerate and support our transition to net zero. This partnership has led to a plethora of benefits for both institutions.

Tools and techniques

Partnership working allows individuals and organisations to build better and longer lasting relationships with their peers, by building foundations of shared language and understanding as well as an ethos of co-production.

For the university, this partnership provides us with the opportunity to identify real challenges, and an impartial forum within which to discuss approaches, engage with practical research and end users, partner and gain support on funding applications, as well as make a real difference to the area in which we are located. We are developing a Living Lab approach to energy research.

For the Council the value of this partnership is enormous. We have access to some of the country’s best experts for advice, brilliant students for support with projects and a trusted critical friend to help us develop the right policies for the county.

Putting theory into practice

For us, the workshop helped to consolidate the relationships we have been building over the past six years. Our journey has been incremental. Early engagement consisted of support for student-led events such as a Climate Change Question Time led by Geography final years, David Saddington and Christopher Vos. David has gone on to head up International Land Use and buildings strategy for BEIS  and he commented that "the debate was designed not only to clarify the science of climate change by drawing upon expertise from Durham University but also to discuss a pragmatic way of tackling the problem".

The early discussions led to the establishment of the Durham Water Hub, jointly with the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, a European funded hub to develop solutions to water challenges through knowledge exchange and demonstration.

DEI Staff also joined the Partnership Board for two further Council EU funded projects, REBUS, and LoCarbo which led to the Council adopting renewable heat as a priority for low carbon investment. The REBUS project is now in its second phase and has led to a feasibility study for utilising the warm water contained in the abandoned mined coal seams below much of the County to heat a leisure centre swimming pool in Stanley. The project will be the first in the country to demonstrate this usage and the drilling project has already successfully proved the heat and capacity of this resource.

Engagement has been two-way, led by the Council as well as the university. The Heat theme continued with Durham Council’s BEIS supported, Heat Network Feasibility Study identifying the University Campus as one of the most promising areas within which to invest. This review is now being developed further by the University Estates and Facilities Team.

The Council also joined with the University to deliver the Erasmus funded ‘People Project’. Durham students explored the needs of electric vehicle users and the infrastructure available. As a result of their work, a new, EV Charging Policy is being developed by the Council and a significant grant has been awarded by Innovate UK to take this work forward.

Most recently we have established the Durham Heat Hub, a joint project supported by the ESRC that aims to share knowledge and support low carbon heat transitions in the region. The project includes funding for Jacki to spend one day per week with the Low Carbon Team, organising events and developing further activities in both teams.  

Following the UCL-LGA sessions, we were able to go back to both of our organisations with a will and ambition to develop communications across all of our stakeholders, ensuring that messages are clear and activities coordinated. One of the follow-on meetings between DCC and DEI included Council Climate Change Champion, Councillor John Clare, discussing how we could use the COVID-19 lockdown to “bounce forward” towards net zero.

Councillor Clare subsequently commented that 75 years ago, VE Day brought the Second World War in Europe to an end. To maintain the public’s war effort, the government had undertaken a massive consultation on the sort of Britain people wanted to see after the war. Their message was “bread for everybody before cake for anybody”, and that directive resulted in the Beveridge Report, the Welfare State, free secondary education, a council housing boom, and the NHS. It also resulted in the creation of Newton Aycliffe as the flagship of Beveridge’s vision; we are that legacy. But that achievement came out of six years of war and a clear government commitment, not out of six weeks of lockdown and some vague aspirations for a greener, fairer world.

One thing that life has taught me is that the rich and powerful are always ready and planned on how they can gain from disaster. If we are to come out of this disaster not having LOST ground on where we were, we need to make very clear the voice of the ‘angry young people’ in Joni Mitchell’s song Banquet: “Tell them we’re very hungry now for a sweeter fare.”

Durham Council has led the Country in declaring a Climate Emergency, producing a Climate Emergency Action Plan and appointing a Climate Change Corporate Director. Durham University will support the Council every step of its low carbon journey, creating a trusted relationship valued by both parties.

We are preparing a sweeter fare.

Jacki Bell is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Impact Officer for Durham Energy Institute, responsible for developing relationships with stakeholders, partners and end users of Durham’s research. Maggie Bosanquet is the Low Carbon Economy Team Leader at Durham County Council.