Retrofitting and pushing for net-zero

"Councils, even parish councils and community bodies, if they are smart enough, can make a start while Boris Johnson dithers." Robert Lindsay, Green Councillor for Babergh District Council and Suffolk County Council, explains what can be done on a council level to ensure homes are equipped to help the UK towards its net-zero target. 

Solar panels on roof
Robert Lindsay

Why aren’t all new houses zero carbon?

As a Green councillor, I get asked that a lot by fellow Greens and increasingly by ordinary residents. Of course, it is a source of frustration that the Government is making it impossible for councils to fully back in planning rules the zero carbon concept for new homes.

But it is important for Green councillors to focus on what we can do at a council level, not waste too much time moaning about what the Government should be doing, and acknowledge that, actually, the biggest energy leaks are coming from old houses, not from new ones.

This is because there are 29 million homes in the UK, and only a few hundred thousand new ones are built each year.  

So, if we are to make a serious and quick impact on carbon emissions from buildings, we need to focus our efforts on getting councils, communities and other bodies to retrofit existing houses, to make sure they are well insulated, and also that they are not burning fossil fuel for heat and power.  

But again, I hear you say, surely only the central Government can supply the funds and the encouragement to retrofit all the houses in Britain? Its Green Homes Grant has been beset by poor take-up and in response, rather than redoubling efforts to remove the hurdles to retrofitting, the Government is cutting the amount made available for it in future years. 

But councils, even parish councils and community bodies, if they are smart enough, can make a start while Boris Johnson dithers. My Suffolk village, like many in rural areas across the country, has never been connected to a gas grid and we must get huge diesel tankers to come and fill up an oil tank in our back garden at great expense every year.

The villagers of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire may have found an answer. In an old barn on the edge of the village, work is about to begin creating an ‘energy centre’. A series of bore holes around the village will power ground source heat pumps in the barn, which in turn will heat a giant boiler of water. That water will be piped to villagers to heat their homes, allowing them to get rid of their garden oil tank and cut their carbon emissions. Villagers pay the village Community Land Trust for the heat, which ploughs any profit back into the community. A win-win.

To get this underway, the enlightened villagers needed to pay consultants to do a feasibility study to ensure this would all work. They got the money for this from a grant from the obscure Greater South East Energy Hub. I happen to know the man who is in charge of doling out these grants, and he has had virtually no takers!

So if you live in a village or town still dependent on oil-fired heating, it’s worth trying to get your community inspired by the Swaffham Prior example.

In the meantime, there are communal schemes that councils can operate whereby residents join forces to order solar panels for their roofs and get bulk discounts from a single supplier. Suffolk County Council runs Suffolk Solar Together which is having some success. Our budget amendment to Suffolk’s Conservative’s budget included creating a Suffolk insulation scheme to buy insulation jointly, as with solar panels. Sadly it was voted down. But officers felt it was feasible.

At the district level, where I and three council colleagues make up the Green group on Babergh District Council, our Green budget amendment, drawn up by my colleague Leigh Jamieson, is asking for £2 million more to be spent this year on retrofitting our own council stock. It was voted down but it is a good way to make the point that there are things councils can do, even with this shambles of a Government.

Robert Lindsay is a Green Councillor for Babergh District Council and Suffolk County Council