A New Take on Climate Action for UK Cities: The Climate and Integration Agenda

Denis Kierans (COMPAS) and Tiger Hills (DPhil candidate, School of Geography)

This article stems from the Inclusive Cities Covid-19 Research and Policy Briefing: Building an Inclusive Green Recovery.

Climate change is a policy priority for politicians, international organisations, academics and the public, with the impact on flows of migration a central debate. Within this, cities play a key role; they are often the primary destination of migrants – climate-related and otherwise – and the engine powering most of the globe’s demographic and economic growth and change. Despite this, climate action and migration policies have typically fallen within the remit of national and international decision-makers. As cities continue to take on more political agency, influence and responsibility for climate and migration, it is not always clear to city leaders what actions they should take. This is particularly true for cities that have, so far, been shielded from the acute impacts of climate change and related displacement. This blog highlights and begins to offer some pathways to fill in this gap. 

What role can – and, crucially, should cities play in issues of climate migration? This was the question put forward at an Inclusive Cities meeting in the winter of 2022. Inclusive Cities is a COMPAS-facilitated network of 12 UK cities working together to improve the integration of newcomers and longer-standing residents through research, planning and knowledge exchange. The cities identified climate change and migration as a policy space where they wanted to be more active but lacked direction. Since then Inclusive Cities has offered guidance through the organisation of, and participation in, a number of events exploring and outlining what this agenda might look like in the UK context. We realised that city-level actors represent untapped potential at the crossroads of effective climate change and migrant integration policy. In this short article, we explore one element of that potential: we focus on housing as a single issue that spans – and mutually reinforces – these two agendas, concluding with examples of good practice and possible next steps for action and engagement.

Housing – a place to start?  

Tackling housing – and creating high-quality, energy-efficient homes – is a promising place to start thinking through and communicating about the connection between integration, climate action, and the just transition. Despite this, neither Rishi Sunak’s five key priorities nor Labour’s ‘5 Missions’ include housing as a key pillar.

Everything in our life orbits our home. Where and how we live defines our sense of self, our everyday activities, and our connection to the world around us. Evidence shows that migrants and ethnic minorities disproportionately live in poor quality and overcrowded accomodation and are subject to discrimination from landlords, with detrimental effects on their physical and mental health. The mental, physical, financial and social stressors caused by such housing precarity can also impede their social and economic integration. In addition, housing is often a flash point between newcomers and longer-standing residents, who might see themselves competing for the UK’s diminishing affordable housing stock.  

In light of this, transforming the UK’s housing system in a just way – retrofitting homes and improving insulation, increasing the social housing stock, and tightening regulation on housing standards and evictions presents a pathway towards tackling the multiple crises of climate action, social inequality, and integration. Retrofitting would not only increase energy efficiency and housing quality, but it would also reduce fuel poverty and create thousands of new green jobs. For new arrivals  the ability to access safe, high-quality accommodation is essential to (re)making home and a sense of belonging in the UK.

Quality housing goes beyond the provision of four concrete walls. We need to think about houses as homes and as vehicles for social change; meaningful, quality housing includes proximate neighbourhood amenities such as gardens and parks, which have combined health, social, and climate benefits. Indeed, green spaces have been shown to positively influence social mixing and community building. At the same time, urban green space is increasingly presented as a key sustainability infrastructure which provides urban cooling and shelter, improves air quality, and leads to physical and mental health benefits.

Inspiring Inclusive Cities  

Some local authorities in our network have already begun this transformative work:  

Glasgow City Council is in the process of developing a ten-year £5 billion investment plan to improve insulation for all accommodation requiring an upgrade in the city, including the city’s pre-1919 tenement housing. Public engagement is at the forefront of this plan that aims to ensure a fair recovery from COVID-19 and meet Scotland and the UK’s net zero carbon emissions commitments by creating well-paid local jobs, upskilling workers in low-skilled occupations like construction, reducing fuel poverty, and improving the quality of housing, particularly for those worst off, such as new households 

Similarly, Bristol City Leap is a joint venture between Bristol City Council and partners Ameresco and Vattenfall Heat UK. It will deliver a minimum of £61.5m of social value to the city over the next five years, including over 1,000 new jobs, apprenticeships and work placements paid at the Real Living Wage or higher. The programme incorporates community engagement into its design and delivery. Its Bright Green Homes initiative specifically targets at-risk residents by targeting retrofit funding for those living in the lowest three postcodes on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation and those with an annual household income of £31,000 or less.  

What are the next steps for your city? 

In lieu of a UK-wide integration strategy and in light of the current Government’s mixed messages on climate action, cities and their partners are stepping up to assert leadership in this area. Engaging with residents on their own terms, both locally and democratically, can yield stronger community buy-in and results, as can tapping partners in the private and voluntary sectors for funding and expertise. Local actors may find support and resource by engaging with other cities within the UK and internationally, as Inclusive Cities have exemplified with C40-MMC Global Mayors Task Force on Climate and Migration, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Welcoming International Embedding climate action in local-level integration strategies – and vice versa – can encourage policy coherence and joint work across different government departments, making efficient use of limited resources. 

If you are working in this area and would like to collaborate, please get in touch with Denis Kierans (denis.kierans@compas.ox.ac.uk) and Tiger Hills (georgine.hills@stcatz.ox.ac.uk).  

For more information and case studies, see Building an Inclusive Green Recovery.