Monday, 12 September 2011


Following the publication of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ proposals for liberalising the planning system, a chorus of the Green Great and the Good has sprung up to attack the proposal to promote planning policies that incorporate a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ (whatever that might mean). Green luminaries such as Jonathan Porritt are quite rightly questioning the Government’s definition of ‘sustainable’.

The terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ are being furiously bandied about by both sides. But listening to the discussions, I despair of either side having thought honestly about what those terms really mean. They join ‘zero-carbon’ in the collection of meaningless Government words and phrases trotted out by a succession of Ministerial Talking Heads

In the name of sustainability, high profile champions of the environment, including the National Trust,  George Monbiot, The Council for the Protection of Rural England and many others decry the prospect that developers will ‘concrete over the countryside’ and call for the presumption against developing ‘the countryside’ to be retained. The National Trust are rallying their troops against the anticipated developers’ onslaught on our green fields and Sir Roy Strong is quoting Browning and singing Jerusalem in the Daily Telegraph.

The current presumption against development seems to be very rigidly enforced. In my experience, planning officers will move heaven and earth to try and stop any development in rural areas, imposing draconian conditions on consents and in some cases even pouncing on minor technicalities relating to trivial planning conditions in order to reverse an expired consent that has previously been granted. They use village boundaries like a straightjacket.

Yet just how ‘sustainable’ are the green corsets that the planners have spent decades erecting around our towns and villages and that these voices are defending? Should we really be continuing to support the planners’ meddling in rural development and their misguided attempts at social engineering by using planning policies to prevent villages from expanding as they so obviously did in times gone by? When did grass become so precious?

Sustainable development for Local Authorities seems to mean concentrating all our commercial and retail employers and housing developments around the large towns and cities (where a lot of us do not want to live) while preventing any developments in villages and rural areas where many of us would like to live and work.
It seems that if one has to use a car to get to and from your home, that is not considered to be sustainable. But by that logic, shouldn’t many of our villages and hamlets be evacuated forthwith? Many have already been turned into ghost villages by planning policies.

If green campaigners and rural councils think they can continue to use planning policies to force us all to live in towns and cities while preserving our villages in aspic, they are sadly mistaken. What seems to have happened over the last ten years or so is that house prices in villages have soared, as the lack of new development means demand far outstrips supply. The only people who can afford to move there are rich and ageing NIMBYs who don't care about the loss of their local services because for now, they can afford to drive everywhere or use taxis. Most of them can also afford to pay their recently escalating fuel bills.

As a result, far from being ‘conserved’, our villages have been strangled, ironically in the name of conservation and sustainability, so that their local schools, shops, post offices, pubs and public services become no longer viable. Our increased personal mobility over the last few decades has moved our demand for all these local services from our immediate village neighbourhood to the nearest big school, supermarket, retail park or gastropub.

So the incumbent, comfortable, wealthy, rural NIMBYs have now enlisted the support of conservation bodies like the National Trust to frighten us into thinking that all our precious green spaces are at constant risk of being concreted over. This is clearly nihilistic and selfish nonsense based on ‘we are all right Jack in our rural idyll and the great unwashed can stay in the towns and cities where they belong’. They moan like hell when the local village pub, shop or post office closes but then object to any new development that might just mean that they could have remained viable. They also queue up to object to wind farms which might spoil their views. These smug rural owner occupiers remind me of the Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers in which Groucho sings “whatever it is, I’m against it”

If the conservation groups are really concerned about sustainability, they should see that in rural settlements, social and environmental sustainability go hand in hand, and often require more, not less, development. How sustainable, in any sense of the word, is a settlement where, thanks to a complete lack of new development, the local services have all shrivelled and died and where there is no public transport either so everyone, wealthy or not, has to drive or be driven to shop, to school, to see the doctor, or to go for a drink?

Building well-designed and genuinely sustainable new homes in villages could help with all of this and might also help ease the upward price pressure for buying or renting (though there are many other factors affecting these costs, of course). It should also be noted that allowing almost unrestricted residential development in the countryside in countries like Ireland and Spain has not prevented their economies from nose-diving into recession

I am certainly not arguing for giving carte blanche to the volume housebuilders to disfigure our communities with their usual offerings. I think we are sadly all too familiar with their hideous developments of unimaginative, featureless boxes faced with cheap and nasty materials with no relevance to their architectural context. The popularity of these ghastly developments clearly shows that planners cannot be trusted to control the quality of our built environment. In fact, it is the fear of a repeat of the sixties and seventies building boom that is fuelling most of the opposition to the proposed planning reforms. A toxic combination of Architects’ fixation with modernism and developers’ greed gave us some of the worst buildings in the developed world outside Eastern Europe.

Housing in particular was piled high and flogged cheap because energy costs were relatively low and property value escalations were just a distant nightmare to come. The causes of the disappearance of affordable housing can be traced back to the de-regulation of the banks, the availability of over 100% mortgages from greedy building societies and finally the planners allowing housing developers to surround our towns with characterless estates.

Many of these ubiquitous housing developments by the major housebuilders are still under construction, having scrambled for consent prior to the upgrading of the energy-saving standards in the Building Regulations in October 2010 so they are not even built to the current woefully inadequate energy standards. They will stand for a century leaking their fossil-fuelled heat into the sky until there is no more gas coming down the pipes.

They are a shameful testament to our misguided Government's concept of "sustainable development”. No development, in city, town, village or open countryside, can call itself sustainable if the buildings require so much energy to run that it beggars both the occupants and the planet. The Code for Sustainable Homes was supposed to address this issue for new housing but unless higher standards are enforced, it will just remain a code.

While mortgage repayments may have eased for now, energy costs are spiralling ever upwards. Surely we should only permit any new developments if they meet very stringent sustainability standards, especially in respect of energy use and waste disposal.

We must achieve standards of insulation and air-tightness way beyond the current requirements if we are to have any chance of reducing our total energy consumption by buildings, or if the occupants are to have any chance of affording their future energy bills. For housing, my definitions of ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ are completely different to those used by Government and Local Authorities, predicated as they are on quality of life, their impact on the environment and the ability of the occupants to pay the energy bills over the lifetime of the building rather than short-term developer profit and equity gains.
A small estate of 3-bedroomed, terraced houses for rent is currently being built in Houghton-le-Spring by Gentoo to German Passivhaus standards and at current prices, the anticipated ANNUAL bills for heating and hot water are estimated to be around £70. According to the website, that is around 5% of the current average annual fuel bill of £1350. Passivhaus provides what I call genuine ‘affordable housing’.
There are parts of Germany that now insist that ALL new buildings must meet Passivhaus standards for energy use. Over 30,000 houses have been built to this standard in Germany and Austria over the last 20 years. We in the UK are so far behind the rest of Europe and Scandinavia in energy conservation in building, mainly because of vociferous lobbying by vested interests in the energy supply and construction industries. This will have to change or all but the very wealthy will end up in dire fuel poverty within the next ten years.
Real low-energy homes, such as those built to Passivhaus standards, use very little energy and so place limited demands on the services infrastructure, wherever they are built. Yet there is absolutely nothing in current Local Authority planning policies or Government policies that encourages genuinely affordable and sustainable development by the use of energy-efficient building techniques. There is still 20% VAT on insulation materials.

What is worse is that the Government refuses to provide any incentives to build real "sustainable and affordable" homes, choosing instead to squander money on the "Green Deal" which barely scratches the surface of the problem by encouraging us to try and generate more energy rather than to use less of it. The Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive just encourage wealthy home owners to stick some eco-bling on their roof or under their lawn to get some subsidised heat or electricity at the expense of the rest of us.
The FiT, the RHI and the Green Deal are all Government con-tricks to make us think that something is being done to combat climate change. In terms of our future energy demands for buildings, these measures are like piddling in the sea to increase the size of the waves. If we could all concentrate on ensuring that our buildings and lifestyle used less energy rather than trying to generate more with renewables, we would not need to cover the hills with wind farms. The ‘green corsets’ in the countryside are another con-trick to make us think the rural way of life is being safeguarded and preserved while our villages crumble and die.

If planning policies were drawn up to insist that all new developments will only be permitted if they meet very high standards of design and energy use and if they add to, rather than detract from, architectural enrichment, social and community sustainability, common sense would finally have arrived in the planning departments. I won’t be holding my breath

Philip Newbold
Director & Passivhaus Consultant
new bold design limited

Friday, 8 April 2011

Green deal or no deal?

Back in December 2009, Gregory Barker (now Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change) set out the Conservative Party’s ideas for helping us to save energy in our homes :-

The Green Deal: Under the plans, every household will have the right to have home energy efficiency work of up to £6,500. There will be no upfront cost, as the work will be paid for by the much larger savings on energy bills from the improved insulation. This will open up a whole new market in energy efficiency, create tens of thousands of skilled jobs and cut carbon emissions. It will also save families money and make local homes warmer in winter – helping the elderly and ‘fuel poor’ in particular. A typical home could see £30 a month knocked off its final bill. Conservatives believe in incentives to help and reward people to do their bit to help the environment

“The Green Deal of insulating people’s homes for no upfront cost and rewarding people for recycling will not only protect the environment, but also help families and pensioners who are struggling to make ends meet. These practical policies show how if you vote blue, Bexhill and Battle will go green and save money”

This is so easy to say when you are in opposition but not so easy to implement when you are in power, especially when you and your Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, have not got a clue what you are talking about. This empty promise of jam tomorrow for home owners will be about as much use as the sign in my local pub which promises “free beer tomorrow”

As we sit and watch energy costs go through the roof, literally as well as metaphorically, this particular pot of preserve will not be available till late 2012, when we were supposed to be just four years away from zero-carbon new homes. Thanks to intense lobbying from vested interests in the construction and energy industries, not to mention the financial sector, we have absolutely no chance of getting anywhere near our low energy aspirations for homes
If we were to construct or upgrade our houses to the standards we should all be aspiring to, the re-training of the construction industry would take years and the reduction in energy demand from homes would cause chaos in the energy supply industry. As I understand it, under the present proposals for The Green Deal, energy suppliers will offer loans to home owners to install insulation to be paid back from savings made on fuel bills. However, in the small print, this deal will only work if the expected savings are greater than, or equal to, the work being financed. So more expensive measures, such as externally insulating solid walls, will not be included. This will leave us exactly where we have been for years with the only affordable and cost-effective measures being loft and cavity wall insulation, double-glazing and more efficient central heating systems. Everything else, including eco-bling renewables, will still be out of reach for ordinary folk and will remain the preserve of “Grand Designs”

It is probably worth reminding ourselves how we got in this terrible mess in the first place. When I bought my first house with my partner in 1976, I needed a 20% cash deposit and the Building Society would only lend us two and a half times my salary alone. My partner was then still at University but if she had been working, her wage would not have been allowed to increase the size of the loan. This kept mortgage repayments within manageable limits and even though property values were gradually increasing each year, buying and selling homes was not really a way of making money and energy costs were relatively insignificant

Somewhere along the line, as investing in property became increasingly profitable, Building Societies and banks decided they would increase the proportion of salary that they would loan, allow a proportion of a second salary and then decrease the size of deposit required (eventually reaching zero). Egged on by greedy and unscrupulous Estate Agents (and later, the influx of foreign money in the south), property values began to spiral out of control so we arrived at 2006 with the average house costing nearly nine times the average salary

So in the space of thirty years, the financial whizz-kids had managed to move homes out of reach for ordinary folk and leave us with an unsustainable housing market that was always going to end in tears. The supply of cheap energy was coming to an end so some form of correction was inevitable. We managed to sell our house in 2008 and have been renting ever since while watching property values go down. The correction now required to make homes affordable again is probably in the order of 50%, especially for those with an Energy Performance Rating below D, which probably includes around 90% of homes in the UK

This is clearly not going to happen overnight but as the recession bites and unemployment rises, I predict that property values will probably need to reduce by at least 20% over the next twelve months and I am not the only person who holds this view. The situation in the Republic of Ireland will shortly be visited on the UK if this Government do not offer some real financial incentives to stop our construction industry from completely collapsing

The interest on our savings is not keeping pace with inflation and our plans to buy a plot of land on which to build a zero-carbon house are on hold till land values come back down to sensible levels. Thanks to the Government cutbacks, my recent redundancy at 58 from a senior post in a firm of Architects has pretty much put the project beyond my reach now

I am a mature building designer and along with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts, I am trying in vain to convince those involved in constructing or refurbishing buildings that we must achieve standards of insulation and air-tightness way beyond the requirements of our woefully inadequate Building Regulations if we are to have any chance of reducing our total energy consumption by buildings or if the occupants are to have any chance of affording their future energy bills. At present, if you want to build a house in the UK to meet CSH Level 5/6 or the German PassivHaus standards and achieve fuel bills that are less than 10% of those achieved by a house built to current Building Regulations, many of the components and equipment required to meet those stringent standards have to be imported

That is a national disgrace and an indication of how far we are falling behind even third world countries in our commitment to reducing energy use in buildings. Even more disgraceful is the Government's refusal to offer any positive financial incentives to build real low-energy buildings. The Feed-In-Tariff involves sticking some expensive eco-bling on your roof which has been made in China from fairly nasty materials and generally gives extra money to people who don’t really need it. The Renewable Heat Incentive, amongst other things, encourages the use of wood-pellet boilers that produce toxic smoke in the name of producing green energy. This tinkering on the fringes is not going to significantly decrease our energy consumption but the Government seems to be pinning all their hopes on it. We need real low-energy building to become the norm, not the preserve of a handful of hippies and Architects serving up Grand Designs for wealthy clients to park their Porsches outside

I would suggest that we start by removing VAT from all building components and materials that improve the energy performance of a building. Then we can insist that all mortgage lenders must offer a sliding scale of discounts on their interest rates depending on the energy performance rating of the property being purchased or built. The Ecology Building Society already does this but they are the only one at the moment. Finally, we should ramp up the energy conservation requirements in the Building Regulations over the next four years to meet the German PassivHaus standards while removing incentives for eco-bling. Unfortunately, all of this is the opposite of what our Government are currently proposing

Feedback from the recent Ecobuild Exhibition in London suggests that there is presently insufficient demand in the UK for components and equipment that will enable us to build real low-energy buildings so nobody is bothering. So much for Mr Osborne’s pontificating in the recent budget speech about “designed in Britain and made in Britain”. An indication of our collective attitude to real eco-building can be judged by the fact that, when the energy conservation standards were increased in the Building Regulations in October 2010, the number of applications for approval from developers received in September 2010 was over eight times the number for the same month in 2009. That was in the middle of one of the worst recessions in the building industry since I was born, so desperate were the developers to avoid having to build to the new energy conservation standards. They should hang their heads in shame and in my world, they would all be charged double for the energy that their leaky buildings consume. The big problem is that most buildings are not occupied by those who build them and so it is the poor occupant who has to foot the energy bill for the life of the building. How on earth, Messrs Cameron and Clegg are we going to achieve zero-carbon homes by 2016 with the vested interests in the energy and construction industries and the financial sector running the whole show? We need some answers and we need them now

One thing is certainly true; a recession is a sure-fire way of reducing energy consumption

Philip Newbold, Director, new bold design limited

Friday, 31 December 2010

Sustainable building design

After decades of feckless consumption of natural materials and fossil fuels by the developed world, not only for constructing, heating and cooling our leaky buildings, some of us are finally beginning to realize that our current level of consumption is not sustainable, either economically or ecologically. Coupled with our relentless desire to acquire “stuff” that we have been brainwashed into thinking we need to support our lifestyles, we are in danger of descending into the black hole of fuel poverty while being surrounded by mountains of obsolete “stuff” we no longer need. Worse still, we seem to be expecting our scientists and engineers to invent yet more “stuff” to get us out of this mess

As a result, the whole business of sustainable building design is becoming a rather dodgy, hybrid bandwagon covered in greenwash and decorated with eco-bling. At the same time the concept of so-called eco-buildings is largely being perceived by the public in the UK as the preserve of Architects and their middle class clients who can afford to park their Porsches in front of their “Grand Designs” in beautiful locations. Either this or they have a vision of unwashed hippies living in straw bale huts in the forest, growing their own lentils and washing their clothes in the river. At least the hippies have made some lifestyle choices that genuinely reduce their impact on the planet but the wealthier converts to eco-living tend to spend the money they save on fuel on bigger steaks, bigger cars and flights to their second home in France

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is a small bunch of earnest and knowledgeable folk trying to see through the greenwash, strip out the eco-bling and create sustainable buildings for all the right reasons. They are surrounded by the modern equivalent of snake-oil salesmen who are peddling a dazzling plethora of eco-stuff and gizmos that promise the earth, the moon and the stars. Very few deliver anything of the sort and most of them rely on either toxic materials to make them or grid-based electricity to run them. Real eco-buildings have a super-insulated and air-tight fabric constructed from locally-sourced natural or recycled materials and make best use of solar gain

If we are serious about achieving one-planet living in the developed world we must all try and make the following changes to our lifestyle, in this order :-

1     STOP FLYING (especially short-haul)

2     EAT LESS MEAT (or preferably none)

3     DRIVE LESS (walk and cycle more)

4     BUY LESS STUFF (especially electric gadgets & cheap clothes)

5     LIVE IN A PASSIVHAUS (and if you can, work from home)