Thursday, 24 April 2014

A chilling legacy

UK cities have severe problems with their Victorian gas guzzlers - row after row and terrace after terrace of solid wall, pre-1919 homes that dominate much of our inner-city landscape.

Badly built in many cases, these houses and flats are hard to heat, consume vast amounts of energy, exhale vast amounts of carbon dioxide and make a substantial contribution to the profits of the ‘big six’ energy companies which control more than 99 per cent of the UK energy market.

Furthermore, they have served ignobly in the cause of fuel poverty and contributed to the ill health of the nation. It really is time we all did more to deal with their domestic delinquency.

Brighton stock

Brighton and Hove has particular problems on this front. Almost 40 per cent of the city’s housing was built before 1919, compared with a national average of 25 per cent. Private rented housing, much of it neglected, makes up about 25 per cent of the city’s housing stock, almost twice the national average. Housing accounts for 42 per cent of the city’s CO2 emissions, compared with 27 per cent nationally.

Fortunately, a small army of enthusiastic green organisations is working in partnership to make the city’s older housing more energy efficient. Their number includes Brighton and Hove 10:10, the Brighton Energy Co-op, the Low Carbon Trust and the Brighton and Hove Peace and Environment Centre, which between them recently raised £242,000 from the government’s local energy assessment fund. They have now reached the last 30 groups bidding for the Big Lottery community living sustainably fund, which will award £1 million to each of 10 projects in June to help them tackle climate change.

In just eight weeks the Brighton group spent the LEAF money on 175 whole-house energy-efficiency surveys, which were carried out on a wide range of house types by the Green Building Partnership, a newly formed local co-op of contractors and suppliers specialising in eco-refurbishment. In addition, 400 households were given energy-efficiency packs that included energy meters, draft proofing and radiator boosters. A community energy-buying club was set up to help residents keep energy costs down through bulk buying.

Get retrofitting

The work also included a study of a terrace of 20 Victorian houses to explore how solid wall insulation can be applied externally to produce energy-efficiency improvements on a whole-street model while achieving significant economies of scale. The houses are small and external wall insulation is a practical option because internal wall work would reduce living space. The project has community buy-in. A highly active local group, Hanover for Sustainable Living, supports the work, which was carried out by BBM Architects and environmental management consultancy Phlorum.

While many case studies have demonstrated the benefits of retrofit on one or two houses, more research is needed on larger-scale projects, not least because the UK must retrofit its housing stock at a rate of 500,000 homes a year, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, for the best part of 40 years to meet the national target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Penny packets of one or two houses will not do the trick.

Energy modelling demonstrates external wall insulation is the single most effective improvement. Combined with internal basement insulation, loft insulation and window insulation it can achieve CO2 reductions of between 45 per cent and 60 per cent and cut fuel bills by as much as 50 per cent.

However, planning complications can arise, particularly in conservation areas where planners must be satisfied that any work will not materially affect the street scene. Finding a balance between conservation needs and the need to reduce the carbon footprint is critical. I’m all in favour of a handsome street scene, but there is the small matter of the planet’s future to consider as well.

Planning approval will be needed for a whole-street approach, and a legally binding agreement will be needed to ensure that homeowners and private landlords complete their own part of a street retrofit project. You don’t have to be Mystic Meg to foresee problems with some private landlords, whose only concern is collecting the rent and who show little interest in the state of their properties or the welfare of their tenants.

Footing the bill

Paying for the work is another issue. The detailed estimated cost of the energy-efficiency improvements of each of the 20 houses ranges from £16,290 to £23,300. The cost of external wall, loft and basement insulation is included for every house. Some estimates include door and window replacements and others modification of boiler flues and loosening and refixing TV cables while the external work is carried out.

So I’m afraid we come back to money, yet again. A combination of government grants and soft bank loans will be needed, if the 500,000 homes a year target is to be met.

The arguments for making money available are overwhelming: reduced CO2 emissions and fuel bills, an assault on fuel poverty and inequality, job creation and a healthier nation.

And here’s a way the money could be raised. Local government pension fund investments total more than £150 billion. Reinvesting 10 per cent of the total in soft loans for a nationwide retrofit programme is a safe investment and more ethical than investing the money in tobacco and arms. Public service pension funds are used for the public good in the US and Canada. We should follow suit.

Bill Randall is a Green Party councillor, leader of Brighton & Hove Council, and a housing journalist

Readers' comments (7)

  • Melvin Bone

    I think the Voctorian housebuilders need to be congratulated not castigated.

    How many of the homes built in the last 20 years will still be an anyway near as good condition as these Victorian ones?

    Far from being 'badly built' the Victorian homes I've lived in (all terraced) were very solid. Designed with open fires in mind they were fit for purpose and still are.

    Plus I'm not sure in a street of say 30 homes you'll get agreement from everyone for this modern version of stone cladding...The result will be a right hotch-potch.

    As for using the dwindling pension funds to fund it that's normal cloud cuckoo thinking I'd expect from the greens. Methinks you'd best stick to yogic flying to cut crime .

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  • Melvin Bone

    Hmm I'm not sure who the 'Voctorians' are either...

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  • I live in one of those, it is crumbling away as I type, no money even to do the basics.

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  • I live in one of those too, I was born in one too and love victorian drafy old houses. However if you dont turn on your heating too early in the year it allows you to climatise to the cooler weather then wear thermols and you'll definately not have so many colds, this is only for the healthy not for thse wo are unwell I am elderly. I began to do this when the heating bills soared and in defiance i reused to put the heating on, it's now i realise that it has saved me quite a bit of cash of course for my rise i rent.....

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  • Progressive Solutions Required

    I surprised at you Melvin.

    The Voctorians were the deadly enemies of the Vogons, and held the superior weaponary of deathly prose. Fortunately for the Vogons, in battle they were able to make good their escape whilst the Voctorians composed their next onslaught. This allowed the Vogons to compose a defensive line or two resulting in an impasse. After several centuries a peace of sorts was agreed as both sides had come to a full stop!

    Meanwhile - whilst Bill's observation about Victorian construction is true, and the lack of will of the private sector to put it's houses in order is no surprise, what Bill is overlooking is lifestyles.

    The modern trend to live in hermatically sealed environments surrounded by tonnes of lagging and insulation (which itself has a carbon footprint in production) may also be contributing to ill health.

    Those draughty old houses can also be thought of as well ventilated healthy homes. Instead of rushing for gas a simple cardigan is all that is really needed through Autumn and Spring - and for the worst of the Winter, heavy curtaining (like the Victorians used) and perhaps a vest can keep the body warm and the lungs healthy.

    Writing off the old Victorian dwellings and expecting replacement with shiny concrete ones is the mistake of the past decades. Perhaps refelection on lifestyle could save both carbon and 'green paper' for the future. (apologies to Mr Adams for any slight plagerism!)

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  • I am certain i saw one of those Vogons when i moved into this Victorian flat in 1988. It kept all it's weaponary inside the dumb waiter. It is sad that the house we live in is bad repair (storerooms) and private sector want to own all of it before they will do anything now.

    Anyway whats good news at present is we have stopped blaming ourselves for any negligence.

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  • I think the poorly constructed argument against Victorian stock has been suitably dissembled above, which is ironic. A lot of the assumptions about these houses are a priori non-sense of the highest order.

    I wouldn't let anyone hear my ca. 1880 brick frontage with a 30 foot cladding pole, regardless of how many £££s of pounds it saved me per annum.

    As for soft bank loans - the sector already has these in absolute abundance!

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