In the real world the targets for reducing carbon emissions from the existing housing stock will not be met

Recently I was talking to a conference organiser about the issues around upgrading the energy efficiency of the UK’s existing housing stock. I expressed my doubts about the basic deliverability of the EU’s and the UK Government’s carbon reduction targets within their stated time-scale, and the organiser asked me to write a brief to inform their panel chairman during the discussion sessions.

These are the Key Pointers which I set out:

“ I believe that most, if not all, desk top studies on the costs of upgrading and retrofitting insulation to existing homes underestimate the actual costs. They seem to ignore: the costs of removing and refitting radiators, skirting-boards etc; of redecorating; the costs of removing and storing furniture and belongings to give room for the works to be carried out; the costs of removing things stored in the loft, storing them and putting them back.  In other words the consultants seem to think no one lives in these homes, and that people redecorate a complete home in one go, and assume that retrofitting insulation will always coincide with this redecorating and/or the gutting of kitchens and bathrooms and their refitting; so they fail to count these costs. However, real people understand this and don’t want the disruption and can’t afford the total costs.

If the experts answer the above by saying that all this can be addressed and avoided by fitting external insulation, they  ignore the fact that many people buy their home because of the way it looks externally and don’t want brick replaced by render.

The studies ignore the fact that people store things in their lofts, and put them back there after the insulation upgrade which compresses it and thus doesn’t work as predicted by the theory.

The studies ignore that fitting new gas boilers may not be as simple as a straight swap. It may be necessary to fit a bigger gas supply pipe, and this means taking up floor coverings and floor boards, and if this is not possible major re-routing and thus costs.

The studies ignore the fact that many people don’t want the disruption – they don’t want it even if the work is done for free, and will live with higher energy bills. This isn’t new – in the past local authorities funded toilets and bathrooms but many old people said ‘no thanks – I don’t want the mess’.

We need to remember that for energy to be useful if has to cheap enough to use, and thus cheap enough to ‘waste’ at at least some level and to some extent. So, trying to price people into upgrading their energy efficiency will be a very slow process with those who can afford to do so choosing ‘waste’ over inconvenience, and those who can’t suffering from more and more fuel poverty.

The sales methods used – cold calling/telephone cold calls from firms you have never heard of – all appear as if they are from a bunch of ‘cowboys’ and are going to be the next mis-selling scandal, so I know of no-one who will talk to them. Contact and sales calls from names you know, such as the energy suppliers, are assumed to be over-priced rip-offs and also likely to be mis-selling.

So, in summary, the government has based policy and their targets on studies which ignore the human factor. Their targets were always undeliverable.

I am not sure if there is a simple answer, apart from making it obligatory to do the upgrading when a home is sold (or at tenant change) but this means it will take many years to hit the target which the Government wants – but it is going to take far longer than they want to anyway to meet their target at existing rates of take-up.  In any event, upgrade at a house-sale still involves disruption and extra costs (people will have to be out of at least one home while the work is done; and the costs may not be affordable – unless this is reflected in lower sales prices and this isn’t going to be popular).

On top of all this, there is evidence (but this isn’t talked about much) that the predicted level of energy savings (and thus £ savings) do not materialise: after a while people spend their additional income on higher temperatures (or other energy use) anyway. The £12bn smart meter programme will turn out to be a scandal – the energy and cost savings will not materialise (or will be very small), and the energy companies get 48% of the benefits but their customers pay 100% of the costs of fitting the meters – something which will not be popular when customers finally understand this.“

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Growth Outside of London, High Speed Transport, and Tax Raising Powers

Back in May 2014 Public Finance Magazine published a piece of the progress of The City Growth Commission, chaired by Jim O’Neill. I wrote a response which they asked to publish in their printed journal – I thought I would repeat it here:

“Before anyone gets carried away (with the interview with Jim O’Neill) they need to read carefully what is actually being said. Firstly, he seems to be saying that SOME cities may be capable of increasing their tax take BUT even then this is not enough to solve the problems of insufficient growth and success outside of London and the South East. To my way of thinking it is the other things he mentions which are the important ones which will help to increase growth across the country. In my opinion most cities do not, in the short to medium terms, have the potential tax-base to raise anything like the investment required without massive transfers from the centre.

I am not convinced by his ‘lessons’ from the USA. For one thing, the USA is much bigger than the UK and distances between cities are greater which helps to mitigate tax ‘competition’ between cities; but even then there are many examples of cities reducing taxes (rather than increasing them to fund infrastructure), and the hollowing out of cities as people move out to the lower tax hinterland but still expect to use the infrastructure which they don’t want to pay towards. Secondly, there are lots of examples in the real world (in USA and Europe) of local government undertaking lots of borrowing via bonds etc and then not being able to pay the money back – so let us learn from these before we say ‘it has worked elsewhere’, because in fact it hasn’t worked.

His assumptions about making large savings in time (between London and Northern cities) from HS2 are full of ‘ifs’ which don’t to me seem to be based on reality. I think there is lots to be gained from connecting our midland and northern cities to each other but not by linking them (especially via hubs which are not actually in these cities) to London.”

So, there it is , short and sharp, and not a line-by-line commentary on the work of the commission but a few ‘from-the-hip responses’ to an interview.

An interim report has recently been published by The City Growth Commission, so I had better get round to reading it to see it the earlier interview and report matches the contents.

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Waste to Energy

My world of Urban Regeneration and Sustainable Growth consultancy is very varied, ranging from big picture policy and strategy to very detailed, hands on delivery and implementation. One aspect of this is economic and environmental sustainability, getting policy makers, businesses and communities to think about their energy use and waste streams.

To deliver this I am working with Kent based company Metamo who design, deliver and operate plant which turns waste into energy; and last week I spent a few days in Birmingham, helping out on their stand at the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Expo at the NEC.

Metamo Stand

It was good to talk face-to-face with some interesting people and businesses who have wide-ranging (and sometimes strange) types of waste streams which we can turn into energy via Anaerobic Digestion on their sites. They can save money by not having to dispose to landfill and by generating their own energy (electricity, hot water, heat and even cooling). Finally, by selling any surplus energy they can even make money.

Just as importantly from a regeneration and sustainability point of view they are reducing their environmental impact and beginning to particulate in the Circular Economy.

Metamo Process Technology Limited is based in Kent, and uses years of engineering and practical experience built up in the energy-from-waste industry in Germany to help UK companies to turn their waste into wealth.

If you like the sound of this contact me and I will put you in touch.

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Woolwich Regeneration Wanderings

I was in Woolwich, south-east London, yesterday so thought I would put a few thoughts and observations down.

The recently regenerated General Gordon Square is working for the people of Woolwich, being busy on a nice sunny day

Gen Gordon Sq

It’s good to see Hydrangas planted en masse at last – looking good:


And it’s not just small boys who like to get their feet wet on a hot day:

Wet Feet

However, there is still lots more to do in Woolwich.

This is a nice looking building with real potential to help in place making – but it looks empty and unloved, even though it is actually open. Come on put some effort in:

Corner Pub

Woolwich Public Market (known as The Covered Market to the locals) needs some loving attention.

Covered Market Ext

Does this look enticeing? Are you drawn in?:

Covered Market Entrance

Obviously not just me who thought twice about going in:

Covered Market Inside

Come on – it’s an interesting space, with an interesting structure which should be buzzing as it’s right opposite the new Cross Rail Station.

Covered Market Roof

I understand that the local authority would prefer to see this demolished and redeveloped to the same scale as what’s above the Cross Rail station-box,

Cross Rail Station Box

but let’s see something better happening on at least a temporary basis. I have plenty of ideas and contacts but need the cooperation of the owners. Also, why do we have to have high towers on both sides of the main road – how about a bit of variation and granularity? What about a real bit of Place-Making?

Finally, Woolwich is now a poor area but in this part of South East London it used to be the place to go to for your posh shopping. The town centre (and the rest of the town) has some wonderful buildings.

Modern Shop

Before this one was a bank it used to be a top-notch furniture shop. I remember going there with my Mum to buy a new Ercol dining table and set of chairs – I have these in my house now over 40 years on.




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People and Politicians seeing the same problem in different ways

In the last few days I have been talking to a few people about the demolition and re-development of the large Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle.

Heygate June 2014

Then today I stumbled across a review I previously did of the BBC series ‘The Secret History of our Streets’, specifically the  episode on Deptford High Street which was a brilliantly interesting piece of television. One theme it dealt with was the large scale demolition and development of the area in the 1950s to 1970s and how the local residents saw the issues quite differently from the politicians who led the redevelopment agenda. This immedietly made me think of the re-development of the Heygate Estate. So, I thought I would reprise it here:

The residents interviewed (in Deptford) say that the claims of the officials, that the houses were damp and were not capable of refurbishment to acceptable standards, were untrue: there was no damp, and there was plenty of room to built extensions for the provision of indoor toilets and bathrooms. Recently found evidence showed that many of the local authority surveyors agreed – there was no damp; the homes were structurally sound and could be updated to meet modern standards and needs. In the same way some of the residents of Haygate say that, contrary to what was said about it and them, it was not a slum, it was not a problem area, they were not problem people and it was a supportive community.

I have no doubt that there were some, if not many, homes in the Deptford area which did have damp; didn’t have room for the fitting of modern toilets and bathrooms and were structurally unsound, and it is interesting that the programme didn’t look at these homes, but concentrated on the homes occupied and generally owned by the more well-to-do residents, many of who were the local shop keepers and owners. Many of these more well-to-do residents felt no need or desire to move out, and many of them resisted the compulsory purchase orders, but eventually gave in once the area was demolished around them, blighted, and the building next door was demolished in a way which let water into their up-to-then structurally sound home.

Then the programme talked about the effect on the relocation on residents and the splitting of community and family ties, and the support system these provided. We heard about loneliness and depression of the women, and the dislocation of work contacts amongst the men. Some background information about the re-development history of Heygate, and where the residents have ended up can be found here:

The vast majority of this isn’t news. The effect of large scale and area wide demolition and redevelopment schemes on established, and mixed, communities has been well known for many years; as has the effect of blight of such schemes during the long-drawn out process, especially when budgets are cut and the schemes stopped or delayed.

So, moving from the 1950s, 60s and 70s to today (well nearly today), it is quite shocking that the Housing Pathfinder (‘Housing Market Renewal’) programme of the last Labour Government repeated many of the same mistakes when the lessons were there to be learned.

Why did most of these schemes practice wide scale demolition, when a more selective approach would have led to keeping communities in place; allowed an incremental approach to have been taken which would have avoided the risk of blight if (as has happened) the funding for the long term plan is reduced or withdrawn; and allowed for a greater mix of tenure and neighbourhood in all sences?

A more low key, less top-down, and less large scale approach would have led to the areas in question being improved by the market much quicker, and more cheaply to the public purse, than this large scale approach which relied on wholesale clearance of an area and then handing over the cleared site to large scale developers. The whole approach (with a few exceptions) lacked imagination and showed a lack understanding of the lessons from the past which anyone with an interest in regeneration (and town planning) history knows about.

The problems of The Pathfinders Housing Market Renewal Programme were easily predicted, as indeed I did, so why was the Government’s good intentions ‘delivered’ in this old fashioned, and failed, way? To me it seems that there are too many people involved in regeneration and sustainable growth who aren’t really interested in proper, holistic and balanced, regeneration and are just commercial surveyors who’s main interest is in, and excitement comes from, doing a deal than providing places which work for people. In other words Re-development not Regeneration

And finally, I think the programme showed too bleak a picture of Deptford High Street as it currently is: no mention was made to the bustle which is there, in the market, on a Saturday, nor of the large numbers of butchers and fishmongers (I haven’t seen so many in one place) which line the street in permanent shops. It may be poorer than many other parts of London, but it has a buzz to it and seemed to have a sense of community even now.

I repeat this here because what happened in Deptford 50 or so years ago seems to have been repeated now (and not just at Haygate). We are once again (or still) doing things to people rather than with them.




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Pop-Up and Pocket Parks

I have mentoned Pocket Parks and Pop-Up parks before.

This one is both a Pocket-Park (that is, it is small), and a Pop-Up Park (being temporary).

Pop Up Garden Bedford Square 2014

We ought to be doing more of this in our towns and cities as part of our Place-Making and Tactical Urbanism – and it is not that expensive.


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Random Regeneration Thoughts

Just a few Urban Regeneration thoughts prompted by a recent visit to a well know town.

Shop fronts and window displays don’t have to be flash or expensive, and you can often use what is already there with a well chosen paint scheme:


Town centres are about more than just shops. Training and events run from retail space is also interesting, useful and brings life to an area:


Odd spaces can be used – such as this in an old storage or workshop yard – and tatty can be atmospheric:


Make sure there is something interesting at the entrance to draw people in:


Fruit and Vegetable stalls on street corners:


Streets markets can be simple:


If I ruled the world, pubs which brewed their own beer on the premises wouldn’t pay duty or tax:


A new, purpose built, market building lacking atmosphere (I have cheap ideas on how to improve this):


Simple and effective planting in a park:


Local shops – 100% occupancy:


Another simple shop front with cheap and simple interior and furniture:


On nice days people will sit in parks:


especially if there is a cafe:


This beach needs some trees to provide some shade and greenery – it could be done:


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