Together towards net zero - The action learning groups

In this episode, we talk with one of our partnerships and reflect on their participation in the Action Learning Groups. We speak to partners from Barnsley Council and Leeds Beckett University who are delivering a project on low-energy housing. The Action Learning Groups were a chance for the projects to come together with other partnerships and discuss challenges they have faced whilst in the delivery phase of the programme. The partnerships were asked to bring 3 objects; one red, one yellow and one green to indicate how they felt they were progressing. After this exercise, they were split into smaller groups to discuss their challenges and hear feedback and suggestions from their peers. Joining us are Sara Scholes, Project Manager for Housing Strategy and Growth Regeneration and Culture at Barnsley Council and Martin Fletcher, Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University.


0:06  Olivia Lancaster

Hello and welcome to the Local Government Association and UCL's Net Zero Podcast Series, Together Towards Net Zero. I'm Olivia Lancaster, Advisor at the Local Government Association for our climate change improvement programme. This new podcast series aims to reflect on our recently launched Net Zero Innovation Programme bringing together councils and universities. As I'm sure you're aware, many councils across the UK have declared a climate emergency. In this series, we're focusing on stories from our net zero programme to help shine a light on how councils and universities can work together to co create solutions to meet Council's climate commitments. Each podcast brings together participants with expertise on the topic to explore the opportunities and challenges of the programme together. In this episode, we'll be discussing how one of our partnerships approached, undertook and reflected on our partnership Action Learning Groups, facilitated by Dr Kris de Meyer, and Dr. Lucy Hubbell Rose. The sessions were an opportunity to check in and to exchange learning and current project challenges with small groups of three project teams. I'll be speaking to partners from Barnsley Council and Leeds Beckett University who are undertaking a project on low energy housing. This series is funded by UCL Public Policy and brought to you by the LGA and UCL - connecting the work of research with the world of local government.

1:26  Olivia Lancaster  
With me today are Sara Scholes, Project Manager for Housing Strategy and Growth at Barnsley Council, and Martin Fletcher, Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University. Sara, I'd like to start with you. Can you tell me a little bit more about your area of expertise and why you were interested in joining our programme?

1:43  Sara Scholes    
We as you've said, I'm a Project Manager in the housing growth as the housing strategy and growth team. Barnsley Council have been building new houses since 2011, we first started, we've built about 170 houses since then. And we have what I would say "dabbled in" energy efficiency. So we've you know, we've used air source heat pumps and solar panels. Because the council declared its climate emergency, obviously, that's made us focus a lot more on our specification for our new bill programme going forward. And what we really wanted to do is build high energy efficiency properties, but using our standard house type. So we haven't gone down the Passivhaus route, we use in our standard house type that we've been obviously developed over the last sort of 10 years, and obviously trying to make the energy efficiency work with that. And it's a standard build. And we're hoping that, you know, we'll be able to go out into the market and pilot this scheme. And that then that will be reviewed, and hopefully will be a blueprint for all our future build.

2:44  Olivia Lancaster
Great. Martin, can I ask you the same question?

2:46  Martin Fletcher
Yeah, so I work with the lead Sustainability Institute inside Leeds Beckett University - so our research group - and our main research centres on energy performance of buildings. My particular area of expertise is in the evaluation of buildings in reality, so not models, not theoretical, when they're actually built. And to evaluate whether or not the building that we've built is behaving as we expected it to, or if there's any kind of performance gap there or underperformance. And we do this a few ways, either by forensically testing the building fabric using various gadgets, or by monitoring energy use when people are in there so that they're in use energy demands. We were drawn to the to the Net Zero Programme because of the overlap really in the goals of ourselves -  so reducing energy from buildings - and that of Barnsley Council as well, as Sara's described. So because we know that housing plays a huge role in our national energy demand, and that reducing this demand is really important if we're going to have any chance of hitting our climate targets. So local councils have such a massive role to play in this huge ownership of housing and control over a large percentage of the national housing stock. So working together with Barnsley Council to kind of help them develop a low energy housing scheme is right in our wheelhouse. So it just makes perfect sense alongside the Net Zero Orogramme, really.

4:09   Sara Scholes
Can I just add to that as well - you know, I've already got a team of mechanical engineers and architects and technicians that I work with,  but we just felt that something was missing, what we referred to I think, in the beginning, when we first started this dialogue about what sort of support we needed is a critical friend, you know, to look at our specification, not just think "Oh, yeah, that's fine. That's what we've always done. And that should work." We really wanted somebody to look at it in detail, really pick it apart, and then help us make the improvements that, you know, that we could make. And that's what that's been really key to this project. That's what Leeds have done, you know, they've come in at a really good review of what we've already done and I think we have agreed the final energy specification now took slightly longer than we thought because we went backwards and forwards quite a bit. But that was really, really useful, you know, so we have actually worked together and we've agreed a final specification, and that's the one that we're going to take out to the market. So we're going to speak to contractors, show them our specifications, unveil it. And hopefully, you know, take it from there. 

5:09  Olivia Lancaster
Well, I guess building on that, I know you've touched on it slightly - but I wonder if you could describe in a bit more detail the project you're undertaking together, and I guess you've kind of highlighted it there - but how your expertise is feeding directly into this project you're delivering? 

5:23   Sara Scholes  
I mean, the actual project, it's just a small new build scheme, it's 16 houses - a mixture of two and three bedroom houses - on a brownfield site, nothing particularly fancy. So that was our starting point. And in my team, there's also, we're sort of housing and energy overall, the team, so there are some energy officers there, they, they came up with an energy specification initially. And they just wanted to improve on building regulations. That was the first point, we wanted to be quite aspirational in the targets that we were setting. But also, I think this is where my pragmatism comes in - at the end of the day, we want to build the houses, we don't want to have this amazing model, and then it's not affordable, or, you know, we can't replicate it on a bigger scale. So it's very much come down to the end as well, the practicalities of it.

6:11   Martin Fletcher  
Yeah, from our side, from the Leeds Beckett side of things, so our group's been around for over 25 years, so we've, we've worked on a huge amount of low energy construction projects in that time from ranging from slightly better than building regs all the way through to, you know, net positive energy buildings and Passive House and that kind of thing. So we could really use that knowledge to kind of help guide the conversation was keep them within those kind of pragmatic, realistic boundaries that Sara describes. And I mean, I can't take all the credit for it. And my colleagues as well, Kate and Dominic, we've all been working collaboratively together with the council's architect team, the service designers, just passing a lot of paperwork and drawings back and forward to just, you know, iteratively develop this, this low carbon specification. It's been it's, like Sara says, a slightly longer process, but definitely worthwhile having the extra time and space to think about it and, and make sure that it didn't go too far, one way or too far, the other, you know, maintain that ambition whilst also staying in the realms of possibility for for a wider rollout later down the line. 

7:21   Martin Fletcher
Absolutely. I think it sounds like your contribution to the project has been really invaluable. And I guess on that point, it'd be good to know, in your view, why you think it's so important that we're able to come together in these partnerships and collaborations to tackle the climate emergency?

7:36   Martin Fletcher  
Yeah, I mean, it seems like the ultimate group project in my mind, so it can't, it can't just be there, the actions of a couple of enthusiastic individuals, we all need to, to do our bit really to, to first of all, reduce our existing energy demand to lighten the load on on the systems that we have currently. And then that gives us the headspace and the time to expand our renewable energy generation capacity that's happening off screen in a in a different project. And, you know, without this kind of collaboration between the reduction of demand, the increase of renewable supply, across all aspects of industry in society, just seems impossible. And I think it's also really important that we can keep in mind a lot of the positive aspects of moving towards a lower energy and low carbon society as well. So the houses that we're looking at developing here aren't just low energy, it's not just about carbon and electricity and heating and that kind of thing. They have the potential to be more comfortable to support better health and wellbeing, have better indoor air quality. So there's a huge host of positives beyond just achieving a climate target that's set by someone in Whitehall. 

8:47   Olivia Lancaster  
I guess it'd be great if you could both tell me a bit more about how you came together as a partnership. Did you know one another already?

8:53   Sara Scholes  
Not personally, I'd hadn't worked with the university before, but, I'd already flagged up I had some issues about the team that I was working with just not issues as in they were doing anything wrong. But like I said before, needing this critical friend, then it's like, how do you find a friend like that? So there were some suggestions thrown in the pot, and I think just somebody at either worked with Leeds before or had heard of them by reputation, and we just sort of arranged initial meetings and just sort of discussed from our side what we were hoping to achieve. And then it sort of evolved from there. It was obvious that you all had practical experience, because I think you could think "oh university, boffin types, you know, it's all going to be theory and refer to this report and this paper". But I think you've all got actual practical experience to backup all that sort of the technical knowledge. And that's been important to us. We didn't just want a, you know, a dissertation on our houses at Billingley. We wanted some very practical support as well.

9:56   Martin Fletcher  
Yeah, it's just it's good. It's nice to hear that, yeah, we kind of pride ourselves on being a research group on buildings that actually has muddy boots, and scruffy, high vis jackets. And, you know, we like to actually get out there and look at what our building looks like and what it's doing rather than write a paper or build a model in and walk away from the from the whole thing, really.

10:16   Olivia Lancaster  
It sounds like you're having really regular catch ups, which is amazing. And the communication is very open between you both. I just want to take it back quickly to just ask, when you first came together as a partnership, how did you identify and kind of understand each other's expertise and where that would feed in, I guess, at the beginning, when you were looking at forming this partnership, how did you kind of introduce each other and kind of get a sense of where this was gonna go?

10:41   Sara Scholes
I think initially, we had our brief - so what we wanted to achieve - and that was sent to Martin's colleague David Glew, Dr. David Glew. And we just had the initial meeting just to talk around that. I'm sure there's a document and obviously, David did the usual, you know, the proposal, and that was like a little pen picture of everybody as well. So, before maybe we'd even met them, you know, we knew the name and sort of the background information and what they'd worked on before. And then it just we had, we had a couple more meetings really just to talk about, you know, we tweaked the programme a little bit, we looked at number of visits, things like that. There was some formal paperwork there, but I think it just came out in the meetings, you know, we were all happy to talk about what we knew what we didn't know where we needed help. I couldn't say there was an exact moment when we all said, you know, "Hi, I'm Sara", there must have been that moment. But I think it's just come out within, within further meetings as well, you know, and Martin'll mention something and you'll think "Oh he's worked on that sort of project". So, you know, you can have a little chat about that next time you meet.

11:46   Martin Fletcher
I think that's, that's, that's absolutely right. And I actually think these sessions as part of the Net Zero Programme have helped that as well, because it's additional space to talk to one another. And in amongst the, you know, when you're doing tasks and activities, there also is that space to kind of branch off on different tangents and just get to know each other, in a bit bit wider of a sense, and you touch on other bits of experience that you have, or the projects that you've worked on. And it all just feeds into, like, painting a bigger picture really around the other person's experience and, and their own expertise and approaches, I guess. So, teah, that again, the Net Zero Programme is has provided that, that diary space really to, to sit in there and talk about something. And it's its own topic, but also it can drift off topic in a productive way, if that makes sense.

12:32   Sara Scholes
Yeah, I found those really - I know that there's been some talk recently about "Oh, too many, you know, there's been too many meetings" for the grant applications stuff. But, at the beginning with all the sort of the webinars in the sandpit, I must admit, I found that really useful. And I really, I don't know, if it's because of COVID, you know, I'm stuck at home a lot on my own, I don't like it. But they were like a really nice thing to look forward to, I did actually, you know, look forward to those, those sessions. And like Martin said, just more time to spend with that with the project team that I'm working on. But obviously, finding out what everybody else was was working on as well.

13:14   Olivia Lancaster  
That's really good to hear. And I know, it's difficult when you're bringing a lot of people together, quite often when you're trying to deliver a project, it can sometimes hold people up on delivery. But it also, like you said, gives people that time in their diary where they have to focus on the kind of work that we're undertaking. So I'm glad you've seen that. And it very neatly, goes on to my next set of questions, which is to talk about the Action Learning Groups that you took part of as part of the Net Zero Programme. So I wonder if you could both kind of elaborate on what your expectations were when you were going into these sessions. 

13:47   Martin Fletcher  
So the previous sessions that we had kind of gave a good idea of what the tone would be like. So it's nice to go into them knowing that it's not going to be an examination, you know, you're not going to sit and get hammered with really difficult questions from the other people in the group that you're placed with, which was nice. And to this point, we'd spoken to a lot of the other groups in the various sandpit events as well. So they were kind of familiar faces to talk to and talk around our, you know, challenges and solutions. So that was really, really useful as a kind of going into it with the guard down just looking forward to kind of a constructive chat, really. The earlier sessions led the dialogue a little bit by kind of your fallback on the on the structured tools that have been applied in the various sessions. So I think we spoke about things like, there was the analogy with a pyramid where if someone started down one side of it, they'll keep going down that one side and what changed their position or just get entrenched in a, an original idea, things like that. Because the challenge that we were looking around is developing there is this design specification for the houses. So how do you kind of stop things like that happening? So if, for example, someone has a as a bee in their bonnet or a previous bad issue with a certain type of building material - how do you kind of manage that? If you think it's the best material to use to make sure that they don't really double down and say there's no way I'm signing off on that material. Going into them, it was not a scary process, it was, you knew it was going to be conversational. And we kind of try to keep it within, within kind of topics that we've spoken about in the previous sessions I think.

15:28   Sara Scholes  
If there's something like that, that's coming up in a meeting, I also get in touch with Martin or Kate - and say you know, "What do you think? What should we talk about? What should we use the time for?" So we've usually agreed before we go in, and I think, I think I did check with you, this was the one that where we started off with red, amber, and green, we had to take some items. So that was that was quite interesting. You know, I think Chris said, so how are you all getting on in your teams, and we had to hold the coloured object up. And it was just relief that like Martin was green, as well as I was. But we've managed to use the time, as well, you know, rather than just think "Oh, another one of those meetings" it's like, "Well what can we get out of it this time?" and I think we always end up don't we - I can't think of his second name - oh Declan is doing a retrofit programme. So, we seem to be in a little, a little group now that's sort of either retrofit, or specifically sort of energy in buildings like that. So, probably know them know them a little bit more than some of the other group. And I haven't been in touch with any of them outside of it so far, but definitely, you know, definitely will be, because I know we've got, I've got a colleague who starting on a big retrofit programme soon, so it'll be quite nice for me to say, "Oh, I know a contact" so you could, you know, because I think sometimes what, the way I work, you know, you can be quite insular, and you get so bogged down with what you're doing and your timescales that you're working to. But I think, I think I knew this already, but it's it shown it through go through this whole process that most councils are tackling the same issues, aren't they, you know, we're all looking at the same concerns and how to deal with that. And there is a lot of information we can share. And we probably don't find enough time to do that a lot of the time. I'm in a group called the Northern Affordable Housing Group, which is just other local councils sort of within Yorkshire. You know, it's amazing, really, if you've just got something you're stuck on, you just send an email out, and everyone just pings back the replies. And it could just help you sometimes out of that little, you know, little log jam that you get into.

17:39   Olivia Lancaster  
Yeah, absolutely. And the Action Learning Groups were all about addressing your challenges. And like you said, there was an activity where you brought in an object that was either green, orange or red to show where you were, and it was kind of good to see that everyone in the partnerships were on the same page, like you said your were. So I guess, did the session help you address the challenge that you brought to it? And what was the solution if it did? 

18:03    Sara Scholes  
The only thing I was thinking - I can't remember if it was this session, it might be one of the others - one of the other women from a local authority mentioned ethics, and I just suddenly thought, "Oh, we've not really talked about that." So got in touch with Martin straight away, "What do you think about...?" Oh, yeah, you know, he'd already covered that, you know, they've already got a pro forma, it's not something that - we have equality impact assessments and all other sorts but, we don't have a, you know, a template for ethics. So that was quite good, actually. Because, it  made me think, oops. And then, quickly, Matthew sort of said, "No, that's fine. I've had to fill that in, you know, as part of my background checks for this for this project", so. 

18:46   Olivia Lancaster  
That's good. It sounds like it was a good opportunity with the Action Learning Groups for you to just kind of really talk things out with your cohort, and you've got to know those people, like you've said, on similar projects, and what they're doing and kind of have that, you know, have each other's backs on these kind of projects. It sounds it sounds really positive. I guess, reflecting on the programme up to now, what is your one key takeaway message for universities and council partnerships so that they can be more effective?

19:11   Martin Fletcher  
I think, to communicate more than you have to - more than you normally would. So I think, often there are budgetary factors and typically you have to schedule in blocks of a person's diary and account for the time and that kind of thing. But I find it really useful that we've, we've spoken more than ordinarily would have taken place for a bog standard project, you know, a couple of years ago. So yeah, I think communication really communicate, you know, 50% more than you normally would - go deeper than just a functional meeting. Get off the rigid itinerary and agenda that only deals with specific aspects and just get to know the people that you're working with, and their expertise. And I find that, that's been really, really important in this project that we've we've just spoken more than I - I really don't think we would have engaged with each other anywhere near as much if if it weren't for, first of all this programme, because there's more meetings in the diary for us, and second of all, just because of COVID really, because it's it's easy to do a Teams meeting, and I certainly would never have defaulted to it, I probably would have picked the phone up, but it would have been with a specific question in mind, rather than, you know, a wider discussion with a with a looser agenda.

20:24   Olivia Lancaster
Absolutely. It sounds, it sounds like you've really got the communication between yourselves nailed down. And it's really great to hear that, you know, during this pandemic, you've actually been able to communicate and collaborate more because of access to communication, basically. So that's, that's really great. And I wonder, how will you continue the great work that you've begun in the programme? Is there any plans for the future?

20:47   Sara Scholes
Well, I mean, obviously, I'd like to work with Leeds on every project. I don't think that's going to be, that's going to be possible. I think if we come up with any issues in the future, we've got those links now, you know, it doesn't have to be this is quite a, you know, this is quite an in depth project that we're working on. You know, we've got the full blown consultancy agreement, we've got a three phase delivery plan. But I think in the future, you know, we could do this on a smaller scale, we might have a particular issue that we're stuck with, you know, we've got those contacts, and we can come and ask really. But, you know, definitely, I definitely do that, and definitely sort of recommend to other project managers as well, you know, it might not - don't take this the wrong way Martin - and it might not be Leeds LSI every time. You know, but I think it's just open my eyes that, that there's all that knowledge out there in universities - it's very up to date, you know, very cutting edge. And it's silly not to take advantage of that, you know, but you know, Barnsley isn't a university town, but there's Leeds, there's Sheffield, you know, there's a lot of scope there for us to find that, to find that support and help that we need. And from the experience so far, there's willingness, obviously, as well, on the university's part that you want to be involved in practical projects, you want to get out and about don't you - you don't want to be stuck in stuck inside all the time, coming up with theories. So I think that that's, that would be my thing, really. It's a really good resource resource, and you should use it.

22:28   Martin Fletcher  
Yeah, absolutely. So I suppose the same the same message but flipped the other way around, of just making sure that different councils in our region are aware of what we can do to help really. Because this was almost a fortuitous coming together that's worked really well. And it's, it's probably on us to, to get out and maybe market ourselves a little bit better. Not in an aggressive "give us money" kind of way. But just as a, you know, we're here, we can help, if you ever have any questions, just get in touch and don't feel intimidated by the big library buildings and long corridors and all that all the trappings that normally get associated with, with academia. We're real, real people that can communicate reasonably well and listen to your problems and help a bit.

23:16   Sara Scholes  
And I think just I mean, this is just an aside, not really to do with this, through having that contact with with Leeds, David got in touch with me about a post grad student, a PhD student, I think, you know, wanting to talk to somebody in the local authority, so I sort of had a chat with her. And that was about barriers to building low carbon housing. So, you know, you're making those sort of connections, and hopefully she gets a positive idea of what councils are doing. And we get to use our knowledge and information to help her out. She did say she'd had trouble getting in touch with someone from Leeds, you know, so it's a shame really, but because of those connections, I was just sort of asked, you know, on the off chance, "Would you be interested?" and, you know, that's something I would never got involved with normally. And it's quite nice when you start talking about it, you sort of think "Oh, actually, I do know what I'm talking about, I have got some information that's useful to other people". I think, like we said earlier, you can get, you can just get, you know, focused on your own projects in your own town. And it does you go to every now and again to look up and see what's going on around you.

24:28   Olivia Lancaster  
You've been listening to Together Towards Net Zero. This episode is presented by myself, Olivia Lancaster, produced by UCL and LGA with support from UCL Public Policy and edited by Nathan Copeland. Our guests today were Sara Scholes and Martin Fletcher. To find out more about the Net Zero Innovation Programme, visit If you'd like to hear more podcasts from UCL then head to Thank you for listening. And I hope you'll join us again next time.