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Drastic Action

 For a local authority, the prospect of ‘climate-proofing’ its existing building stock, as well as creating new more eco-friendly developments is a daunting prospect.  Yet, the longer we delay, the worse it will become, argues Nick Woolley.

Local authorities are under no illusion as to the urgency with which they must embrace the climate change agenda.  With their vast stock of housing and municipal buildings, their contribution to the UK’s (now ‘minimum’) target of a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is pivotal.   When one considers that a full 50% of all emissions are caused through the construction and use of buildings, LA’s responsibility in this area is starker still.

There is no shortage of information and guidance.  Indeed, a raft of helpful reports and initiatives from organisations including the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust, have recently been launched to help local authorities get to grips with this complex issue.

Why then is ‘climate-proofing’ buildings, proving such a challenge?  How can local authorities actually get started?  Are any beacon authorities providing an inspirational lead to others?  Fortunately, the answer is yes.

For example, one far-sighted council in Lincolnshire, South Holland DC, is supporting an experiment to ‘green’ an existing and affordable three bed council house, stripping out the old boiler and double glazing and giving it a full green makeover so that it can will become almost complete autonomous in both energy and water supplies.  SEArch Architects has promoted this initiative and has set up a semi-autonomous sub-committee in Groundwork Lincolnshire to undertake the work.

Most Effective Results.

This carefully costed and researched project will provide vital data as to which improvements, at what cost, will provide the most effective results.  It will enable the council – and others – to understand more clearly how to extract best value when planning climate-related initiatives to building stock. Of course, this is but one scheme.  We need many more.  All councils and housing associations should be carrying out similar projects and sharing the results.

Another positive development is the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Silver Jubilee Cup to the London Borough of Merton for its work to recognise the modern spatial nature of planning and of planners’ role in tackling climate change.  The ‘Merton rule’ requires developers in the borough to ensure at least 10% of all energy production for new development comes from renewable energy equipment on site.  This rule is now being more widely adopted by other local authorities and, if this continues to be the case, it is a welcome step.

The biggest challenge to local authorities is the perceived cost of implementing trial schemes and/or adopting measures such as the Merton Rule.  I’d argue that, in fact, we need to understand better the cost of not taking these steps.  Certainly the ‘costs’ of climate change set out in the Stern Report are already conservative, particularly as they were based the UK taking immediate action to counter the problem, which we haven’t done. As a result, things are tough and will get tougher, the longer we delay.

My advice may sound drastic but we must get real about climate change and the sheer economic cost of remaining reliant on a fossil fuel economy when energy costs have increased by 700% over the last ten years.

When we talk of ‘affordable homes’, what do we mean? Affordable for whom? If we really want to build homes that are affordable for people to live in, then we should act now and ensure that all new homes are virtually, if not completely, autonomous. I know of four award winning affordable homes which have total outgoings, before council tax, of around £3/week. That is truly affordable! So councils:

  • should undertake immediate environmental and economic audits of all their municipal building stocks.  While environmental issues are important, councils face a more pragmatic challenge – that of running costs.  They must ask themselves whether they can actually afford to run their buildings and, if so, will they still be able to run them in ten years’ time, given the huge rise in the cost of energy and water?
  • should consider stick and carrot approaches.  I’d like to see councils raising all local council taxes to raise revenue to green their portfolios.  They can then offer rebates to those who undertake such improvements to their own properties on a sliding scale according to the size of the house.
  • must plan ahead for energy/environmental enhancements and build them into existing refurbishment schemes. As part of this process, they can ensure that key items such as boilers are always replaced with new, more energy efficient versions and that insulation is checked and improved where possible. Often, boiler size can be reduced if solar panels are installed.
  • must get tougher with developers and insist on far greater energy and water autonomy.  We must force the issue and, in so doing, we will all learn more about how cost-effective change can be delivered.
  • must also get tougher with architects.  Despite what the RIBA tells me, we still have very few true ‘eco-architects’ working in the UK today. A architects who don’t just tinker and ‘add eco-gizmos’  but actually go back to the fundamentals of house building to ‘design out’ energy needs.
  • must exploit the increasing range of new technology to help generate renewable energy.  For instance, the cost of solar panels will shortly be decreasing significantly while their effectiveness soars thanks to a breakthrough in photovoltaic (PV) technology.  A team at Johannesburg University has developed a new material known as CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenium).  It is claimed that five microns of CIGS will deliver the same energy output as 350 microns of silicone and, on a square metre for square metre basis, CIGS could deliver ten times the output of silicone.  Once this is industrially produced, we can use it on new buildings and existing homes to bring our housing stock into the 21st century, even when the house is a listed building.
  • Fi must also get tough with their own planners.  Planners must realise that the agenda for planning and design has changed and that our priorities must be primarily to make our whole building stock more environmentally friendly and affordable to occupy.  They must not prevent the careful ‘greening’ of listed buildings without very good reason.

Local authorities have a unique and vital responsibility to embrace the challenge of climate change and, in so doing, ensure that we have a building stock which is viable, affordable and environmentally friendly throughout the 21st century and beyond.

Public Sector and Local Government Building – September 2007

PSLG | September 2007

September 5th, 2007
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