Together towards net zero: The sandpits

In this podcast series in partnership with UCL researchers and policy professionals from councils across England share their reflections on working together on the Net Zero Innovation Programme. It explores opportunities and challenges faced in partnering with those from different worlds to help achieve net zero emissions commitments.


Hello and welcome to the Local Government Association, and UCL's net zero Podcast Series, together towards new zero. I'm Dr. Isabel Bennett, public policy engagement facilitator at UCL Public Policy. Our new podcast series, together towards net zero, 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 Councils' 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 catch up with one of our partnerships and reflect on our series of sandpits, which were facilitated by myself and others in the net zero team. These were developed to create a space for teams to brainstorm and share insights across the cohort ahead of the final project plan submission to the LGA. The first sandpit looked at defining an achievable problem statement for each project, and how the teams would look to solve it, as well as deriving some expected outputs for the projects. The second got the participants thinking about roles they would take on in their projects and identifying key stakeholders who would be important for their project success. Finally the teams had an opportunity to present their project plans to others in the group for feedback and discussion in the third session. I'll be speaking to partners from Lewes and Eastbourne councils, and the University of Sussex, who are undertaking a project looking at alternative financing mechanisms, applied to sustainability projects. 

This series is funded by UCL Public Policy and brought to you by the LGA and UCL -connecting the world of research with the world of local government. With me today are Kate Richardson, Strategy and Partnership Lead for Sustainability at Lewes and Eastbourne councils, and Dr Donal Brown, Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. Donal, I'd like to start with you. Can you tell me a bit more about your area of expertise and why you're interested in joining our programme? 

My background is a very varied one, but I actually kind of come from a more of a built environment, construction project management and consultancy background, but sort of moved more into thinking about how new business models and also kind of novel financing mechanisms can be kind of brought to bear on decarbonisation challenges, broadly it specifically often on buildings but also broader renewable energy projects so  done a bit of work in recent years and months on new forms of kind of community loan financing and how they can support local authorities to deliver on their net zero agenda and that's kind of what we're looking to try out on this project really looking at how we fund different kinds of infrastructure. That's, I suppose what I'm hoping to bring to the project - hopefully I'm useful.

No doubt about that. Kate, the same question to you. Do you want to give a bit of background to your expertise and why you're interested in joining the programme?

Sure. Well, I am, as you said, the Strategy and Partnership Lead for Sustainability but my background is general sort of organisational environmental management. So, a lot of programme, and project management. So, not a lot of Finance. And I guess in the run up to this project, the reason I've been recruited by Lewes and Eastbourne councils was to help develop their climate change strategy, and, in itself, that's something I'm quite familiar with doing but some of the conversations that were coming up, mainly over the summer of 2020, was around how we finance projects using community funding but also alternatives to the public works loan board I suppose. Lewes district counsellors started getting very engaged with the community wealth agenda. And this was again something that was quite new to me so we started internally having discussions about community the potential for bonds - the abundance bonds, had just sort of come on to the market and just being tested and we're being talked about, but I had no idea about how these things would work. So, I guess that was my question. And when the when the net zero programme, kind of flew into my inbox as these things do, it was just happened to be that at that time I had this conversation going on internally about what do we do and how do we start doing it. So it just, it was just really good timing. 

I was wondering, maybe you could go on and explain a little bit more about your project, and how you've been able to apply your knowledge and expertise to it so far? 

Sure. So I think there is a view that local authorities are going to have to be much more proactive in bringing forward various kinds of low carbon, net zero infrastructure. So we spent quite a lot of time, initially discussing kind of how the features of different kinds of infrastructure have quite different financing characteristics, some, like a solar farm, actually generate fairly stable revenues in the region, actually generating revenues without any kind of public subsidy now and kind of contrasting those with other projects that may deliver kind of social and environmental value but don't necessarily produce a revenue stream in the traditional way. And so councils are kind of looking across the piece at different types of infrastructure that they need to bring forward and thinking about, well what is the funding model for this so I think that was kind of the impetus for the project to think, I mean, we're probably looking at two kind of example types of infrastructure probably one is the solar farm, another is something along the lines of a piece of natural infrastructure, we don't think we're going to quite call it an offsetting project because we don't think we're necessarily going to be entering into traditional carbon offsetting but really to think about what how would you fund say a nature reserve or something that's sequestering carbon. And are there different ways of funding that not only through kind of public budgets, but also bringing in community investors, whatever sort of flavour that takes. So that is really the focus of our project. In terms of expertise, I don't think expertise is quite right - I have done a fair bit of research on on financing, but I think it is often just about bringing together the right people, who, who have delivered this in the past so we, through some research I'm doing at the moment for the European Commission in the Horizon 2020 project, we are, and a colleague at the University of Leeds, are working with Abundance Investment who are a crowdfunding platform provider who have developed this community municipal investment model which is basically a bond that a council can raise and then local small scale investors can invest in that. That's actually happening at the moment in various councils around the country and I think a lot there's quite a lot of interest in that. So we're kind of looking at that as a potential route of, you know, what would the, how would we actually set up such a mechanism to fund something like a notional solar farm. What are the alternatives and kind of weighing up really to try and make a kind of decision process for weighing up different options because I think, Kate said that quite often, how these decisions are made is often quite an opaque process so we're also talking about how a council might use some kind of decision tree or decision framework for deciding how to fund different kinds of projects.

Kate, why do you think it's so important that we're able to come together to tackle the climate emergency?

The local government is not particularly used to working quickly. I mean, Donal's already mentioned our decision making processes. They generally - we have a very long lead in time to decisions. So what we've tried to do is provide get decisions made at an early stage that give us a free rein to kind of run with projects as fast as we can. We wanted to work with the university, quite early on in 2020, to help develop the climate change strategy. And that obviously led to these finance conversations happening. But because we already had the link into the university, I literally put the call out and said, "Can anybody help me?" because the council has the council just doesn't have the research capacity, and a lot of the expertise, and, just the manpower that we used to have, because of cutbacks. So, when the university offered, essentially they emailed me and said, "If you need any help on anything, let us know, and we'll try and put you in touch with an academic who could potentially help". Having that resource there is immensely helpful, we had various people from the university come and take part in our climate change strategy workshops to help develop our strategy, and just getting that expert policy research kind of background, it's just an alternative view - we kind of get very focused in local government in our local area and what we're trying to do in any one sort of four year period, and being able to have somebody have that overview and go, "Well actually, let's take a wider view about it", about how your decision making might impact on regionally, and how that learning could then be disseminated across other councils and sharing, it's a lot easier once you're with an institution that's used to doing that on a regular basis. And councils aren't terrible at doing it - we're just not necessarily very good at bringing together a report or information in a usable format that is of use to other people. So, I think, I mean the university is a lot better at that and the LGA is a good facilitator of that.

And Donal, how has it been working together as a team as a partnership between an academic and the local authority?

It's been great so far, I mean it's really nice to be partnered in this way, I mean often what we ended up doing I mean, lots of the work [we] do around the energy transition, you know, local authorities are really key. Usually the root in is just some kind of interview or workshop, without really a buy in from from the local authority in the sense of like somebody being paid to work with us rather than being an annoyance to kind of, you know, basically ask for their time and they've got other things to be thinking about so I really believe in these kinds of partnerships, generally in research I think particularly the kinds of research, from a research angle, it's very useful to have have that formalised. We're very early stages in terms of actually kicking off the project and getting them you know getting the work done but I mean, yeah it's definitely a positive thing I mean the hope for me as well is, given the proximity - I'm also talking to Brighton about some other things - given our proximity to Lewes that this would be a beginning of an ongoing relationship that you know, we wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time we wanted to sort of develop partnerships and think about case studies that that relationship would continue beyond a project like this, we can maybe build on what we've done rather than just sort of - often the trouble is you do a load of engagement and you walk away at the end so I hope that we could maintain that once the project is finished.

That sounds brilliant. I'm glad that the partnership is going so well already. So now I thought we could talk a little bit about the sandpits that were held last year for the, for the cohort and sort of just a little bit about what you thought about them your expectations and what kind of challenges they might have helped to address? Kate, what would you say were your expectations going into the sandpits having had the partnership workshops beforehand?

I guess I didn't, I really just didn't know what to expect. I mean I knew we were going to go through a process to try and help work out what our project was and how we were going to deliver it. But to be honest, Donal and I had kind of - we'd kind of nailed it down pretty much before we entered into the sandpit so the sandpits were much more useful from a sort of a detailed perspective of bottoming out some of the detail. So, yeah, I mean in terms of expectations, I really didn't know what to expect. But then, the idea of working on those MURAL boards [virtual whiteboard] was was actually really turned out to be really useful. And I think that, in a way, overcame one of the challenges which I foresaw which was actually starting the project, because you know you have kind of have a really good idea but you kind of have this hurdle of, well how do we actually, how do we start it? How does Donal know what I wanted to do? How do we work through it together? And sometimes when you're just having an online call with somebody, it doesn't it doesn't flow as maybe, as well as it would have done if we were doing it in person. So, having having that sandpit and having that board where we could both write down our ideas we could actually see where we were, where we were on the same lines and where we were differing in our ideas were actually able to sort of narrow that path and work out exactly what we wanted to do. When we wanted to do it and how we were going to do it.

Yeah, as you say, I think that trying to figure out a way to work together and brainstorm together and having something like the MURAL board actually was a fantastic, sort of, piece of technology to help help this happen in the virtual world that we're in, that's fantastic that, you know, it was as you say, a way of finding, you know, a starting point, breaking things down maybe into more manageable pieces to then address. Donal I don't know if you had any want to add anything about sort of what your expectations might have been going into the sandpits?

No, I would only really second Kate's points - that I didn't have a huge number of expectations, I think, I think we were kind of very much being guided by you guys about what was happening next, and, you know, it was a very structured thing which I think really helped get us along to the point where we actually really had thought through most of the elements of the project by the time they were done. Yeah, I mean it is strange, isn't it you know we've never met in person, Kate and I. So we've never had that like, get to know you chat. You know the zoom meeting or what have you, a Team's meeting there's always a kind of time limit and you know you. Yeah, it's a different type of engagement but I think they're you know they were effective and I think, I think we really got got what we needed to get out of them, which was really kind of fairly well thought through plan. We've just got to now, I'm in the process of trying to put that into kind of a project plan Gantt chart, thinking about some key dates, think about who needs to engage and kind of get cracking really.

Yeah as you say I mean that was definitely one of the aims of the sandpits was to provide the teams with their space, and dedicated time in their diaries to really talk through all this stuff and get to know each other and so that's sort of I guess that's that's really fantastic to hear that was one of the outcomes. So that's really great. Were there any kind of key challenges to the way that you guys work together or any sort of key decisions or anything like that which may be the sandpits sort of help to bottom out?

I have to be honest, I didn't really, I haven't really experienced any challenges as such, and I wasn't really anticipating any I think i think the sandpits help, they gave us a focused place, as you said, time and a workspace that we could both work together on this virtually. And that was it was almost the kick that you needed to get the project started because we could have been talking about it. And I don't think, you know, maybe we if we weren't doing it through this programme - I've got a feeling Donal and I would still be working together but he might have just been a bit more of a matchmaker with an aspect of the project and we wouldn't necessarily have been able to develop the, the sort of a second stream of the project which for me is the, the less of the non investable projects the projects that don't have an investment return I think that probably would have been left by the wayside. So I think the programme is kind of, and the sandpits, have helped work out what we need to do to achieve both to meet sort of both those aims, in terms of alternative finance so the investable and the non investable as such. That was the key challenge I suppose is meeting those aims and working out how best to how best to deliver it. I don't think, I don't know, have you noticed any have we had any challenges, Donal, so far? I think we've got our biggest challenges to come so.

No, I think beyond the COVID challenges that everyone's facing I mean I think having having the structure having the time in the diary was all a very useful way of just making sure that we've, I imagine from your point of view, almost kind of making sure that every project was being brought you know you weren't just kind of going out go away, come back in a month, with a plan, but it was actually you know dedicated, it's almost like doing homework at school rather than at home, sort of thing which I think it's always better to be honest, becuase you never know...Got lots of other things on projects trying to close out at the moment so it's definitely valuable to have that time. I think yeah the challenges remain, whether we are probably going to be looking at virtual workshops now I think certainly for the one that we're planning in March, I can't see us all piling into a room together anytime soon. So, yeah, there may be advantages to this situation in a way you know we may be able to get people from the other side of the country to participate when they will have been before. 

Yeah, that's definitely one. One advantage of everything being virtual now, it's a bit more inclusive, that's for sure. All right, well that's brilliant, I'm glad that I guess you guys found them helpful and I can see how having that time really support your projects together so that that's pretty fantastic to hear, would you have liked to have, I guess had anything else any other support in place during that time? We broke you guys out into teams and things and and and into sort of subgroups. but it would be helpful to know if you thought that was, that was a good structure or would you like more time with the rest of the cohort, I mean that's sort of interesting to know.

It was very useful to talk through other people's projects, mainly because I just want to know the outcome. It was useful to hear their challenges that some of the projects are so different. You know they're not suffering with some, some projects, I think have got a lot more challenges than maybe, as have, ours is more research deliver some workshops try and come up with something to take, you know, offices, offices, with us. At the end of the day, it's a council decision whether or not they implement anything that we've we come out with. Some of them do seem a lot more complicated, some of them are much more delivery focused. But that said it was useful to have it was useful to get the feedback on other people's projects in the smaller groups, rather than the big the full cohort. I thought that was really helpful and it's useful just to get the contacts as well. 

Yeah, definitely I guess we were hoping that this would be a sort of networking opportunity as well, like you say, these are all people working in a similarish space, even if on very different projects. So that's that's nice yeah-  I don't know if you have anything you'd like to add that Donal. 

Yeah I think it would have been good, maybe earlier, because we had three sessions which were kind of working through kind of the conceptual challenges of doing engagement on climate and all the things we looked at. I think it would have been nice, right at the kickoff to have a bit more of an open ended session, get to know each other session or I mean again difficult to do, virtually. I imagine if this was not COVID time to we all we could have all got in a room, in a circle, talk about the challenges that we had, you know, the council could talk about the challenges they were facing and that could have been more of an initial discussion also to get to know each other to get to understand - I think I think in a way, Kate and I had some offline conversations while that was going on but I think we were quite anxious to actually talk about, not the project, but talk about like what what will we try and get out you know what was the sort of objective for each side and if we could that could have happened earlier. Not saying dive into the sandpits, because we wouldn't have been ready to do like detail work but maybe that could have that might have, we might have made. I mean I think we have succeeded to an extent, I couldn't tell you what the top off my head, what all of the different people and projects were I think I can remember a few. I just think we could have done more of that basically almost softer at the beginning, or interaction engagement early on. 

Yeah, and I think so that's a really good point, hopefully, I guess to those sessions, you kind of got to know each other a bit more, and this year with our sort of forward looking plan ofwhole cohort sessions and action learning groups and things like that, we can kind of help bring that out again but I think i think that feedback is really, really valid with the sort of, maybe a softer kickoff ahead of the the first workshop. I think that's, that's some really good insight so think thanks for that both. So I guess we'll move on to the next part which is maybe some reflections on the programme, up until now. What do you think would be your one key takeaway message for people who are looking to start or sort of build a successful University-Council partnership and sort of what kind of ways of working have you found to be effective, that kind of thing. Do you have any advice for anyone who's looking to build something that you guys have now started?

I think from the council perspective the council needs to be quite clear on its problem. And I think that's probably one of the reasons why Donal and I almost, I think we were, we, we wanted to start talking about the problem sooner because we had, we had a good idea of what our problem is, it's easy to kind of get sidetracked especially when you've got researchers at the university who have so much knowledge and your research could go in so many different directions. And you have to be quite focused on what your problem is, and what you're asking them to help solve, otherwise you could literally you could, this could, it could just escalate. But you could end up not essentially getting an answer to your initial question, which is kind of the most important part. I don't know what Donal thinks of how I kind of approached him but I kind of just put up. I just put up like the big flag that said I need, I need great green finance help. What can people do? And we kind of worked from that. Yeah, I mean having a good contact at the university you don't necessarily obviously need the research contact, but the universities quite often have a central central person who, can put you in touch with all the, all of the different research schools within the university and that was actually how I found Donal. So I didn't, I didn't go to him direct I didn't, I hadn't known of him before so I went to my central contact, who was effectively the administration. The research administration, part of the council at the university. So, get to know whoever that is in the universities that are kind of within your area, and get them to put you in contact with people because they always know the research work that's already going on, and the stuff that might not be publicised yet.

Yeah, that's some pretty useful advice, actually. Yeah, knowing who to get in touch with Donal I don't know if you have any key, sort of advice for people looking to build this kind of partnership?

Yeah. I think there's a kind of bit around aligning with understanding and aligning with each other's objectives. In that I think lots of the the world at large sort of sees the research community doesn't quite understand how we are funded and how we can  bring our time forward to work with different groups particularly, don't you know we're not all sat in a room waiting to jump on research projects but we usually have to kind of align them with well either kind of help bring funding through and hopefully there's a space there or there may often be existing pieces of work that we're doing and to try and align that sort of understand what we're trying to get out of it which at the end of the day is kind of you know new knowledge and academic publications obviously keep our food on the table and stuff but maybe there's a there's a bit of an understanding gap between what what outside world and maybe local government is included in this thinks that we do, and kind of how we are funded and how that all works. Not that I think that was a problem in this instance, but I think that is a problem generally. I think they've, some people kind of almost view as as kind of consultants waiting to, you know, little bit - our kind of reason for existing is not quite the same as that. So I think there could be better communication about what how particular maybe social sciences, which is less well understood how our research works, is funded and in the ways in which we can be helpful and kind of the timescales for that offer the there's a bit of a disconnect basically which is a shame because I think there's lots, often, lots of interesting relevant work going on but we can't quite make each other useful to each other at the right moment. 

No I think that's a really key point sort of being aware of the different timeframes and the different ways of working between policy and the sort of academic role I mean that's a key, key challenge for working in this space as you say so that's a that's a really, really helpful insight so thanks for that. I guess you'll be starting to deliver the project now and I was wondering what are you most excited about?

I can't wait for the workshops that Donal is going to create. Obviously with my help, obviously with my help. Yeah, I think the workshops are the key part of our project. It's us, trying to get everybody in the room together to work out what we need in terms of alternative finance get everybody up to speed, so they can understand the options and work out how we can deliver these kind of these potential projects be it solar farms or nature reserves or whatever so that's definitely - it's going to be in the middle of the projects. And that's definitely going to kind of, that's what we're building, we're going to be working up to now. So delivery of those and getting the outputs from that I think hopefully everybody will come out of it really positive, but obviously you never really know until everybody's in the room to get people's because everybody's got conflicting priorities - finance, we've got, we're gonna have a decent show at the workshops of the finance officers, and hopefully quite senior finance officers so we really need their engagement in it, and that's the exciting kind of challenge thing. The next one on the horizon I think.

We're very excited to hear about how they turn out. So that is great to hear - Donal are you as excited about the workshops?

Yeah, I think for me it's, it's having it is hopefully having the impact so hopefully that we'll see something change, we'll see new policies come in, we might see Lewes and Eastbourne trying out one of these, these approaches and maybe on a real project, a lot more often, we're trading in hypotheticals as researchers so it would be really nice to actually see real, you know, real impact see what we've worked on can bear fruit and actually come into being maybe is what we're hoping, at least we're hoping for the council to be ready and waiting to maybe try one of these. So that's kind of an exciting thing for me that I can you know think and point to and say I had a small hand in that happening. A bit selfish but yeah so yeah kind of excited for that side of it. I think it will be really interesting to see in practice, the problems or you know when I, when I speak to a finance director and I say oh there's this beautiful thing these guys have tried it and they'll say well you know for these reasons, that's really hard. So I think it's a bit of a reality check as well it's going to be quite interesting,

But we will be very excited to hear about all of the outcomes and outputs that are coming out of your project. So that leads me to say thank you so so much to Kate and Donal for joining us today to give some insights and perspectives on the programme so far. Obviously this is just the beginning of the delivery stage of the programme. So, we will be watching this project closely but thank you so much both we really appreciate it.

Thank you

Thank you 

You've been listening to together towards net zero. This episode was presented by myself, Dr Isabel Bennett, produced by UCL and the LGA with support from UCL public policy and edited by Nathan Copelin. Our guess today were Kate Richardson, and Dr Donal Brown. To find out more about the netzero innovation programme. Visit If you'd like to hear more podcasts from UCL then head to Thanks for listening and I hope you'll join us again next time.

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