BusinessGreen Leaders Awards: Meet the finalists with Polly Billington, CEO of UK100

BusinessGreen staff
clock • 5 min read
BusinessGreen Leaders Awards: Meet the finalists with Polly Billington, CEO of UK100

The boss of the initiative to engage local government with the net zero transition reveals how the group has expanded to more than 100 local and regional authorities over the past year

BusinessGreen: What green achievement are you most proud of over the past year?

It has been a busy year for UK100. In the last 12 months, our network has grown to include more than 100 local and regional authorities pledging to accelerate action on net zero and get there
as soon as possible, but no later than 2045.

UK100 also appointed its first-ever Co-presidents. We were delighted to welcome Tracy Brabin, the Mayor of West Yorkshire and Chair of the M10 group of Metro Mayors, and Richard Clewer, the leader of Wiltshire Council and Chair of the Countryside Climate Network, to represent the geographical and political diversity of the network on the national stage.

But some of our most impactful achievements have come on the advocacy front, with some key UK100 asks delivered through the recent establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank and the Local Net Zero Forum. We were also pleased to see our campaigning work lead to the inclusion of nature restoration as a plank of the Environment Bill.

The new Ofgem vision for the future of the electricity network also directly referenced the work of UK100 as it set out its plans to put local authorities at the heart of a five-year programme to deliver reliable, sustainable energy at the lowest cost to consumers.

Last month we published our Clean Air Net Zero report in June 2022 to highlight the importance of aligning clean air and Net Zero policies. Following its publication, we worked with more than 20 ambitious local and regional leaders, from the Mayor of London to the leader of Cornwall Council, to secure a commitment to achieving World Health Organisation air pollution targets by
2030.

Behind the scenes, we're about to launch a new Climate Leadership Academy to offer ambitious councillors a unique coaching opportunity to develop their political skills, knowledge and confidence and become leading climate pioneers in local government. UK100 experts have prepared the course to give participants the ability to overcome the challenges in designing and delivering ambitious local climate projects and enable progress against their Net Zero goals.

And we are also working on our Political Consultancy service 'Local Power in Action' to support local and regional leaders navigate the barriers to delivering effective climate action at the local and regional levels. For example, our consultants are currently working with Leicester, Oxford, and Gloucestershire to try to crack some tough transport policy nuts.

What is the biggest environmental challenge facing your business and how do you plan to overcome it?

For a campaigning membership organisation like UK100, the biggest challenge is the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on political discourse. There is a risk that the national conversation about the crisis neglects the inexorable link between Net Zero and the cost of living. Namely, shifting to Net Zero energy will reduce household bills in the medium and long term.

With the publication of the latest Climate Change Committee report to Parliament, it is clear that we are at a critical juncture for Net Zero in the UK. And UK100 will be doing all we can - with our peers and colleagues across the sector - to remind politicians at all levels that Net Zero is one of the solutions to the cost-of-living crisis. We cannot afford to lose momentum when we need to be ramping up our efforts.

What area of the green economy are you most excited by, where do you see the biggest opportunities?

Primarily, we're excited to see the promise of levelling up delivered through Net Zero. The government has hinted at the virtuous circle of local and regional economic growth and climate action, but we're keen and excited to see it delivered.

Among the sectors where the inexorable levelling up and Net Zero link is clearest is construction, heat and engineering. As our soon-to-be published research on green jobs and skills and report on energy efficiency will demonstrate, there is a huge untapped potential for a "retrofit revolution".

The transformation has the potential to deliver more comfortable homes and cheaper bills while developing vital local supply chains, driving a training and skills boom, and boosting local and regional economies.

And, if local and regional authorities are the ones supported and entrusted to deliver the transformation, it's one that will deliver the biggest social, economic, and Net Zero impact - as the latest PwC report highlighted.

How is your organisation working to accelerate the net zero transition and what are your hopes for the next five years?

UK100 is a network of the most ambitious local leaders working towards Net Zero as soon as possible. By thinking local, they are fighting a global emergency.

Our role is to help them collaborate to take decisive action in their communities and advocate on their behalf. Our members represent more than 40 million people in towns, cities and counties across the UK.

We facilitate knowledge-sharing between members, partnership-building and leadership mentoring. And support them to harness their collective power to affect vital national change.

Over the next five years, we will work to grow the network in terms of membership and influence. We will also aim to work more closely with our stakeholders, including getting representation on the Local Net Zero Forum and continuing our engagement with Ofgem.

What do you think the net zero emission economy will look like in 2050?

As the recent PwC, the University of Leeds, and Innovate UK report Accelerating Net Zero Delivery report reinforced, the Net Zero economy of 2050 should be place-based, with local communities and local leaders having more power to determine how their economy works for people and planet.

What did you think about this year's BusinessGreen Leaders Awards?

I was surprised and delighted to be nominated as one of the BusinessGreen Leaders of the Year. The whole event was a great experience, pulled off expertly amidst a new Covid wave and a near shutdown of the rail network. I was humbled to pick up a "highly commended" award and have to take another opportunity to thank the UK100 team, our members and our stakeholders whose hard work made this possible.

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