Shifting investment from grey to green

Given the range of benefits that it delivers, what is the current level of public investment in green infrastructure?

Green elegance: the Barking Arboretum brings shade, cooling and beauty to the new town square. The Arboretum, Barking, London by muf architecture/art ©Lewis Jones.

In preparing this report, the sustainability team at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has undertaken a high-level analysis of a selection of figures on public spending in order to ascertain the relative orders of magnitude of green compared to grey expenditure. One of the clear conclusions is that ‘green’ expenditure, as defined below, appears to constitute a very small proportion of overall spend at local and national level.

PwC examined the ‘budget books’ of four English local authorities to establish their current levels of ‘green’ spending. In particular, they analysed the combined capital and revenue expenditure broadly relating to green infrastructure in one local authority in each of the following categories:

  • a city
  • a town/borough council
  • a county
  • a rural district.

A summary of the data for the local authorities that were selected for this exercise, within each of these headings, is shown in the table below. The table shows that ‘green’ expenditure represents 0.1 per cent to 4.3 per cent of total expenditure. This includes expenditure on: regeneration and development planning; parks and nature conservation; public rights of way; rivers and brooks; flood defence and land drainage; allotments; open space improvements; cemeteries and sustainable development.

Our preliminary analysis of these expenditure figures, albeit for a very limited selection of local authorities, suggests that investment in GI represents a fraction of total spending.

In this analysis, we found that green expenditure overall represented a mere 0.4 per cent of total expenditure. Taking the four councils highlighted above, shifting 0.5 per cent from grey to green would increase investment in services related to green infrastructure across the authorities by 141 per cent.

The range of green expenditure per head in the four authorities was respectively:

  • city: £14 pa
  • borough: £16 pa
  • county: £2.50 pa
  • district: £9 pa

Other interesting points to note from this
analysis include:

  • revenue and capital spend on roads for the city council was 24 times its green expenditure
  • green expenditure is more significant as a share of expenditure at district level councils, though this probably reflects the much smaller range and level of expenditure undertaken in comparison to larger authorities
  • within the figures quoted above for green expenditure, a large proportion relates to spending on cemeteries. Twenty seven per cent of the green infrastructure budget for the county council relates to burial ground developments and 18 per cent of the rural council GI spend relates to spending on cemeteries.

Grey vs Green

  • 0.5% shift from grey to green investment
  • 141% increase in local authority green expenditure

These figures are illustrative and cover only four out of more than 300 local authorities. But they do suggest that direct green expenditure at local authority level is indeed a small proportion of total spending. It would be clearly valuable to do a similar analysis for all local authorities to examine whether, as we suspect, this finding is consistent around the country.

One set of figures that is readily available at national level relates to the so-called green fiscal stimulus that was announced in last year’s pre-budget report. This report announced a total economic stimulus package of £3bn, of which around £500m (17 per cent) related specifically to ‘green initiatives’.

It is important to note that much of what was included in the £500m goes far beyond what we have considered here to be green expenditure (such as mainstream public transport provision and flood defences). Nevertheless, this provides us with another benchmark against which to assess the extent of green expenditure.

It therefore seems reasonable to say that direct spending on GI represents a relatively small proportion of total spending; green expenditure is probably less than 1 per cent of total spending at local authority level.

Given the range of wider benefits that accrue from green infrastructure, this suggests that in principle we could grow GI expenditure significantly (in proportionate terms) by shifting a relatively small absolute amount of resource ‘from grey to green’.

From a strategic perspective, the custodians of public spending at national and local level might well explore further the opportunities for shifting spending from grey to green while maintaining the delivery of other public benefits and goals.

Greening the grey

The debate so far relates to how we might be able to ‘grow the green’. That is, transfer some expenditure from grey to green infrastructure.

However, given increasingly straitened public finances, it is worth noting that significant benefits would also be achieved by ‘greening the grey’ – by integrating green requirements into all mainstream infrastructure projects.

This could be achieved, for instance, if the bidding process for all infrastructure projects was used to incentivise the development of green infrastructure.

Green vs Grey expenditure


'Green' expenditure

Total expenditure

Large town/city

£18 million


£3,932 million


£1 million


£23 million


£3.5 million


£2,789.5 million

Rural district

£1.5 million


£37.5 million


a. All figures relate to 2009/10 and are rounded to the nearest thousand. All figures are drawn from the respective local authorities’ budget books.

b. In determining the expenditure that is deemed ‘green’ we have used the ‘analysis by portfolio’ contained with the budget books. We have included all ‘green’ expenditure that is easily identifiable within the portfolio analysis (detailed under point c below). We recognise that there may be other ‘green’ expenditure that is not identifiable in this way from within the budget books.

c. ‘Green’ expenditure is broadly interpreted to include expenditure on: regeneration and development planning, parks and nature conservation, public rights of way, rivers and brooks, flood defence and land drainage, allotments, open space improvements, cemeteries, sustainable development.


More about Grey to Green

  • Introduction to Grey to Green

    Introduction to Grey to Green

    We are at a new milestone in the planning and design of urban communities. A place where we start to co-exist with the natural environment instead of developing in conflict with it.

  • Why green infrastructure matters

    Why green infrastructure matters

    Twenty years ago, Chattanooga was a rust-belt, basket-case place in Tennessee. Today, thanks to green infrastructure, it is seen as one of the most attractive places to live in America.

  • The crisis of skills and leadership

    The crisis of skills and leadership

    We need to increase the number of people with the skills to deliver green infrastructure. Underinvestment in green space services means that good managers are in short supply.

  • What needs to be done

    What needs to be done

    The Victorians took bold steps to create places that met the challenges of the day. Our changing climate and economic imperatives provide the same opportunities in our towns and cities.

  • What green infrastructure offers places

    What green infrastructure offers places

    Strengthening green infrastructure is fundamentally about making the most of existing assets and it can transform the quality of places. A strategic approach can have a profound effect.

  • Conclusion


    The greatest obstacle to using green infrastructure is the challenge it poses for ‘business as usual’. This soft engineering contrasts with the capital-intensive, technological approach to the way you design and manage a place.