Countdown Conversations: Bret Willers
Before his Countdown talk, we heard from Bret Willers about his work at Coventry City council, and his hopes for the future of sustainability initiatives.
Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Bret’s views are still fully represented.
As the head of climate change and sustainability at Coventry City council, what are your main roles and responsibilities?
It’s easier to say what isn't! I’m responsible for the council as a whole, assessing all of its activities and how it affects climate change and sustainability – for example, biodiversity. We use the five pathways – from the international council for local environmental initiatives – which cover carbon reduction, adaptation, and resilience in adapting to climate change, biodiversity, circular economy (waste minimisation), and finally poverty by addressing the issues caused by the fact that those who suffer the worst environments are those on the lowest incomes.
I am based in economic development and culture where I work a lot with colleagues who see the economic opportunities in addressing a climate-conscious agenda, which is a really healthy thing to be doing. And, so, my role is around getting people to coordinate projects, developing initiatives that address those issues. But I also have a bigger role – I’m also responsible for mobilising large businesses, the public sector and the third sector in addressing a strategy for the city as a whole where everyone signs up to it. So, it’s not just the city council, which is only responsible for about one percent of the carbon emissions in Coventry – if you are going to make a real difference, the other 99% needs to be addressed.
In fact, Margot James, who is the Chair of our Climate Change Board, is from the Warwick Manufacturing Group here at the university. We have a number of organisations, such as Severn Trent and Eon that are engaged in this process with us and then we have the hospitals trusts, the police, the fire service and also organisations that support the development of social enterprises. So, there is a whole mix of people with different skills (wildlife trusts, canals and rivers trusts, etc) that are all involved and working collaboratively to address the issues in a collective strategy.
An article in the Coventry Telegraph in April 2021 talked about a New Green Code to make Coventry the most environmentally friendly UK City of Culture. Can you tell us anything about this green code or any projects and initiatives that stand out to you?
The Green Code is about adapting the organisation of events and activities by embracing technologies such as battery storage (usually the power for such events comes from diesel generators which have an environmental effect) to power these events, or other things such as decreasing disposable cup usage.
But, it’s also about the messages that we send. Through the city of culture initiative we have been looking at this in two ways. Firstly, how we organise and run events, and minimising their impact. We have not just Coventry but also Warwickshire involved in this, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Belgrade Theatre, and other major attractions that are working together to achieve this; which includes training their staff, raising awareness and looking at other ways to do things differently.
Secondly, it’s about organising events that engage people in the environment. We have done a lot around the natural environment and the living environment. For example, there have been a special series of bird walks and other events to help people appreciate wildlife. Interestingly, these events have been booked out completely. We are using arts and culture events to promote understanding of environments. One project that really stands out would be Sky Blue Studios moving into the old Ikea building, which will house a national art collection and a film studio, and was recently toured by major filmmakers. The studio will be carbon-free and environmentally conscious (for example reusing old sets) in an industry with a huge environmental impact. To me, this initiative is brilliant and is comparable to BAFTA’s Albert strategy. This is a major economic development opportunity for us, which is also environmentally sound.
How can members of the public get involved in Coventry city council’s sustainability initiatives and is there anything that we can do from home?
There are several ways people can get involved. Firstly, we have a number of grant schemes through the government to improve energy efficiency in homes. It is in people’s interest to do this, we have got the funding, particularly for families on low incomes, and we can contribute significant amounts to help people insulate their homes. There are about 13 thousand households in Coventry with home energy ratings below C – we have programmes running at the moment and we want people to say “yes please! Do it at my house.” Also, things like recycling, making sure that people separate their waste and reducing food waste. A lot of these are simple things but they do make a big difference.
There are also collective things such as our food network which has got a number of food banks and food growing projects making people very environmentally switched on and trying to develop projects to address that kind of issue – and also working with other organisations to try and achieve this. One such example would be friends of parks groups which can help revitalise our parks (many of our parks now have green flag status) and we definitely need more people involved in this to shape the future of our parks. So, there are definitely lots of ways people can get involved at lots of different levels.
How do the challenges you face in Coventry compare to those in your previous jobs at other councils?
The problems are very similar across the country. I think it is more useful to look at this moment in time – wherever I was there would be a similar challenge. At this moment in time, the challenge is future energy management. The government is beginning to recognise that energy systems are becoming more localised, for example people’s solar panels, and not big power stations. This requires a change in how energy is managed – moving from a nationally, centrally controlled process to something that has got local control. We have been working with West Midlands combined authority on this and we have a project, funded by the government, that has looked at energy demands across the city, what the needs are and where the infrastructure is and what we need to do to make changes. If we leave it to the national system to do, it will take too long – but if it is left, we can develop partnerships with the private sector to develop this infrastructure. The big challenge is how to achieve this: keeping in mind public procurement laws, how to leverage the level of investment we need, how to achieve massive scale improvements to energy efficiency within homes and how to develop renewable energy sources especially in a small city such as Coventry with limited opportunity for both solar and wind.
Furthermore, electricity demand is bound to increase quite dramatically. Coventry will probably be home to the Gigafactory which will be one of the largest industrial processes to reproduce all car batteries for the future of Britain’s car industry. This will need zero carbon energy. We also need to change our cars from diesel to electric. It soon becomes clear that the amount of energy demanded will increase quite a lot and to meet these challenges a lot of investment is needed.
Where does your passion for the environment and sustainability come from?
Living opposite Wimbledon Common as a kid was the initial spark. But I also did a degree in the field and am an ecologist by profession. As a young child I used to complain to my parents if they had aerosols as they didn’t understand what CFCs were and I had to explain the ozone layer, etc. I remember I was the one at school that used to not play footy but potter around looking at insects and things. I suppose I always had a passion for the environment and it's so great that I get to do a job which is almost like a hobby, not a job, and that is worthwhile and makes a difference. There is nothing better than a challenge, and you couldn’t pick a better challenge!
Transcribed and edited by Oliver Ind.
The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Bret Willers — not Oliver Ind, nor TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the interview, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.