Category Archives: Environment

From warm words to warm homes in Stroud

This article was published in Greenworld – the membership publication of the Green Party.

New research suggests that the UK’s retrofitting industry needs to grow ten-fold if the UK is to decarbonise its housing stock at a suitable pace in line with climate science. This challenge is substantial. We are missing much of the skills, supply chains, and wider infrastructure to make this happen. The Government continues to talk the talk of decarbonisation and retrofitting, but has so far failed to put significant money where its mouth is. 

For this challenge to be addressed we need central government, local government, businesses and residents working together.

Local government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start efforts to tackle this by investing now in its own housing stock. And that’s exactly what Stroud District Council’s Housing Committee has proposed to do. The plan will see us investing £180m in the next 30 years to retrofit, insulate and decarbonise the Council’s five thousand homes. This is part of the Council’s ongoing commitment to address the climate emergency as part of its wider Carbon Neutral 2030 strategy

The impact of this investment will be significant. It will see a reduction in emissions of up to 24.5 per cent, with council tenants saving up to 11 per cent on fuel bills. This new investment will mean that, on average, council homes will meet Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) C ratings by 2030. 

The Stroud District Council Housing Committee’s plan, which was agreed this month, now needs full council support – if passed, the programme will be accelerated, with more money invested. It will first be targeting houses with the poorest SAP ratings, ensuring those that will benefit the most receive support first. 

For those who don’t know, Stroud District Council is run through a ‘Cooperative Alliance’ made up of 15 Labour Councillors, 13 Green Councillors and three Liberal Democrats. The Housing Committee is chaired by a widely respected long-standing Labour Councillor and the Vice-Chair is a newly elected Green Councillor, Chris Jockel. This level of investment stands as a testimony to the possibility of progressive politics in power. It also shows how a Green voice on the council over many years – Stroud District Council being one of the first councils to elect a Green Councillor – has shifted the Overton window to such a degree that now these bold measures were agreed with little disagreement, even from the Conservative opposition.

There is good climate thinking behind focusing on residential properties. They currently account for the second-largest source of carbon in the district, about 17 per cent, following road transport. However, the five thousand homes the council owns is only a drop in a heavily polluted ocean. In this sense, there is a wider question about how the council can ensure that its investment can lead as a catalyst for action from within the private sector.

This ‘early’ – in terms of market economics, not climate necessity – investment can and must act as a guarantor of a base-level of demand within the region, in order for the private sector to sure up supply chains of skills, labour and technologies. Businesses will know that it’s the Stroud District where there will be decarbonisation and retrofit work taking place. As such, the District will offer a degree of security for medium-term business planning, and, crucially, can stress test the currently shaky supply chains as heat pump demand grows

Council investment can also act as a catalyst for the training that is currently missing from the labour market. Stroud is well placed to deliver this with its highly praised Further Education (FE) college in Stroud. 

But, and this can’t be stressed enough, these policy challenges could and should be fixed through central government intervention much more efficiently. This does not mean repeating the mistakes of the disastrous Green Homes Grant that installed just 49,000 efficiency measures to date, saving a meagre 0.04 per cent of total residential sector emissions, but instead focusing on the use of large-scale financial levers to enable bodies like local authorities to invest at scale.

It shouldn’t be up to local authorities to stretch their Housing Revenue Accounts to fund these projects. The Government could, with the stroke of a pen, free up borrowing from local authorities’ general reserves linked to expected savings to allow for much bigger investments. It could also be providing more strategically directed grant funding, which we know has a dramatic effect in bolstering local jobs and skills. These are, by definition, shovel ready ideas, with local authorities like Stroud District Council pushing their finances to deliver as much as they can.

Lastly, all of this requires a public behaviour change campaign on a scale rarely seen. You can install as many heat pumps, insulation, and other energy efficiency measure as you want but if one doesn’t empower people on how to interact with them efficiently, then we are doomed for failure. In Stroud District Council, there is significant investment happening on improving council/tenant interactions, but much more needs to be done in an area traditionally characterised by poor engagement and basic service delivery. The success of the programme might well stand or fall on whether we get this piece of people-oriented work right. Only time will tell if we do or do not.

In Stroud, we are ambitious in our efforts to tackle the climate emergency and to offer residents safe, warm, and green homes to live in. We are putting as many pieces of this jigsaw together as possible. At this stage, it’s important to be open and honest about the challenges we are facing; finance, supply chains, skills, tenant engagement; and as we move forward, it’s important to also be honest about our successes, challenges and mistakes. This process will, in the medium-term, help to build confidence in the private sector, which is where we need super-sized action to occur if we are to meet the climate action targets that science dictates.

Details of the decision made by the Stroud Housing Committee can be seen on agenda item 6 on last month’s report pack to the committee.

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Why we need a legally binding target to reduce plastic pollution in the Environment Bill

plastic bottles

‘This is the government’s last chance to show real leadership ahead of COP26’

This article was first published on Left Foot Forward – please do support them. We need independent media outlets now more than ever.

For many, the defining image of plastic pollution is the one shaped through Blue Planet 2 – that of floating plastic bottles in the middle of the ocean.

It’s a heart-breaking image that has spurred much action but in truth it barely scratches at the surface of the problem. Literally. It is thought that the majority of plastic in our oceans is between 200 and 600 metres below the surface.

And while this prevailing image of floating bottles has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for incredible action, and it has spurred the development of some positive policy decisions like that of the now sadly significantly delayed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), it has, seemingly, blinded decision makers to the wider problem of plastic pollution that is in the air around us, in the food we eat and the oceans we rely on. 

At the latest hearing of the Environment Bill at report stage, Conservative backbencher Chris Loder MP submitted an amendment that specifically would force government to set legally binding targets to reduce plastic pollution – covering the entirety of the problem. This amendment was backed by businesses, MPs, faith leaders, academics and campaigning organisations alike, including City to Sea. 

The Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow’s, response was telling. Pow’s reply was that government could not (or would not) support Loder’s amendment because they want a more ‘ambitions and holistic target’ that deals with all kinds of waste not just plastic. On the surface this seems reasonable, but like plastic pollution itself, if you scratch the surface of this logic you find a much bigger problem. 

Firstly, and crucially, by tying up efforts to tackle plastic pollution with “resource efficiency” you miss major sources of plastic pollution including most microplastics. These pollutants are not even entering our waste streams but are going directly into our natural environment. They are found in alarming numbers in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the oceans that sustain life itself.

These often do not come from conventional “waste and resource” sources like floating plastic bottles but are often shed directly into the natural environment. Think for example of the microplastics from car tyres that are responsible for over 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year. Microplastic pollution may be largely invisible to the human eye, but it is profoundly felt in our natural environment and can have a potentially devastating effect – especially as it can be mistaken for food by some of our smallest ocean creatures, which are then eaten by bigger creatures as part of the food chain.  

Secondly, think of all the plastic that should, but for various reasons, doesn’t, even enter our waste streams. For example, every year water companies are spending millions on unblocking sewers that are overflowing due to plastic wet wipes and period products that have been flushed down the loo. Our riverbanks are strewn with these grim physical reminders of the plastic crisis we face. 

The government’s response and refusal to include plastic pollution in its targets section of the Environment Bill is born from either ignorance or lack of concern.  Instead of focusing on reducing the metric that really counts, plastic pollution, this government repeatedly echoes the language of the plastics industry in talking up the role of recycling. Recycling is important, but it must be seen as one of the many steps needed to reduce plastic pollution, not the end goal in of itself. 

We know, and I am sure the Minister knows, that recycling doesn’t currently work at the scale we need it to and we can’t recycle our way out of this plastic crisis. We need government to focus on what does work – and that’s to implement and enforce the waste hierarchy in all areas of policy, and to then set concrete, legally binding, targets to reduce plastic pollution in their flagship Environment Bill. 

They can still do this. The Environment Bill is due to come after the Queen’s Speech in May – this is the government’s last chance to show real leadership ahead of COP26 on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our ages. The only question left to ask is, will they? 

Steve Hynd is Policy Manager at City to Sea, a not-for-profit that campaigns to stop plastic pollution at source.

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