A lesson in Ministerial Defence or Defiance?

During this week The Rt Hon. A. Rudd Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change gave a strong demonstration of why she has been appointed to her post, namely her ability to defend an indefensible position. A necessary attribute for all Tory ministers in the current Cabinet, it would appear. If this demonstration is anything to go by, she has a long career ahead of her, hopefully not defending the indefensible, but promoting the new direction that the Government will take to enable the UK to meet its obligations to reduce the risk of climate change and meet the aspirations of the electorate.

You can watch the full story unfold here, I recommend having a glass of something strong by your side.

She was called to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to explain why she had claimed the following two opposing views in quick succession. The first to the House of Commons, to say that the UK was going to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020, and the second where she wrote to her counterparts in the ministries for Transport,the Cabinet Office and The Treasury to ask for their help as under current policies the UK will not meet its renewable energy targets by 2020.

I can’t help wondering whether the leak was a political move to assign blame for this mess on the shoulders of colleagues in the Cabinet Office and Treasury whose decisions have left DECC with no room for manoeuvre after a series of swingeing cuts to renewable energy subsidies which have left the industry in disarray and investors running in the opposite direction. Among the suggestions for solving the problem was the suggestion that the UK could buy in renewable energy from other countries through interconnectors. When pressed on this matter, she said that this was not her preferred approach!

The explanations that were given to the Committee for the confusion were as follows:

– due to shortfalls in progress with renewable heat and transport, the result of current policies will be 11.5% of renewable energy by 2020 instead of 15%, a shortfall of 4.5% of all UK energy or a shortfall of 23.3% of the 15% target. Not a small amount of energy.

When asked whether the shortfall was a result of the recent cuts to subsidies and support for renewable energy, she responded:

– ‘we are going to meet the planned target for electricity, so we don’t think that cutting the subsidies will make any difference’

– ‘electricity is on target to provide 30% of electricity by 2020’

– ‘we don’t think that the answer is to provide more (renewable) electricity’

-‘ there is a greater role for electricity in transport’

Bizarrely the Committe didn’t ask the obvious question here, which is: if transport is to make a greater use of electricity to achieve its renewable energy targets, then wouldn’t it be sensible to make sure that there is greater capacity in the generation market to provide that renewable electricity? If we can provide more renewable electricity and (God forbid) exceed our electricity target to compensate for the lack of progress with heat and transport, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Sadly , no such question was forthcoming.

The Minister should be writing to the Dept of Transport to tell them that they are going to make use of more renewable electricity, that DECC is going to provide it, and to propose that they to work together to ensure that there are fleets of electric cars  and other vehicles ready to use this electricity by 2020.

There was also an opportunity to point out to the Minster that the cheapest way of meeting the heat targets is to reduce energy use, and some concerted action, like a replacement for the Green Deal would be a good start, but again, sadly, no such question was posed.

When asked how much of a fine the UK could face if it doesn’t meet its targets, the Minster robustly claimed not to know how much, and explained this away by saying ‘I am commited to making sure that the UK meets its targets’,  which is very reassuring, but at the same time a bit unbelieveable. The Minister was asked what policies she planned to introduce to meet the shortfall and responded with this gem:

-‘I have some ideas that I would like to take forward’ which are curently being evaluated under the Current Spending Review. I take this as Ministerial speak for , ‘I have made my point, I have given the options to the Treasury, they will say no, and I will be absolved of responsiblity’.

Expecting to produce new policies, implement them and to convert 4.5% of the UK’s energy demand to renewable sources by 2020 is simply unrealistic. It would be unlikely to happen even in a sympathetic Government, but particularly in the current fiscal environment where cuts to tax credits are off the table which will mean that cuts to absolutely everything else will be on the table, and given the recent behaviour of this Government there is zero chance that renewable energy targets are going to be a priority.

And in Other News...

There were a couple of unrelated gems in the session that will draw hollow laughter from many in the energy sector. When asked about investment plans for nuclear she stated:

-‘the  last thing the energy sector needs is surprises’

and when asked about the options available for EDF if the Chinese were to pull out of the Hinkley deal, she stated without blinking, that

-if the Chinese pull out, EDF will find another investor’

Cue hollow laughter by every economist.

Where is the backbench opposition to Green cuts?

When the Tories won the election, I asked myself, and some colleagues, ‘who will keep them in check’? The answer from one particularly wise colleague was: ‘they will, they will keep themselves in check’. So it has proved to be. The response to the tax credit cuts from backbenchers and from Tories in the Lords has been decisive. (I was particularly surprised by the appearance of Lord Lawson voting against the Govt, I had long since dismissed him as a climate-change denying basket case, but it appears I might have been wrong about him, climate-change denier apart, he isn’t a basket case). Why then has there not been a similar response to the Tory dismantling of environmental legislation? In case you need a reminder of the damage, Here is a handy list, I suggest that you cut it out and keep it. Has there been any response from the Lords or the backbenches? No there hasn’t. Labour have been too busy deciding whether to elect Corbyn, and having elected him, whether they have consigned themselves to the opposition for a decade. [It is notable that the time when an opposition is most needed in modern politics is in the first year of a new term, so the policy of losing party leaders throwing themselves on their swords is exactly the wrong approach for an electorate that needs a strong opposition at the beginning of the new term. We don’t need a strong opposition leader to turn up when most of the policy changes have been made].

In the end, politicians across the spectrum don’t see these cuts to environmental legislation as a vote loser. The damage this is going to do to the renewables industry or to the climate is perceived to be either too small or too distant for them to worry about it. Whatever negative impact these cuts will have are too distant for politicians to worry about. What is startling about this is that the outcome is more similar to the impact of tax credits than they think. But since most of the people affected don’t have a vote in the UK they are not being considered in quite the same way.

The outcome of climate change on those affected will be much, much worse than any tax credit cuts. Instead of being a bit worse off, millions of people will be displaced. This article mentions some of the countries where a lot of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rises, picture the problems in East Africa if Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are strongly affected by climate change, as is predicted, and how an influx of refugees from those countries would affect Sudan, Uganda and the Congo? Given how much impact a mere two million refugees from Syria is having on the EU, how do we think the worlds politics, industries and economies would be affected by the movement of 150 million people?

Somehow we haven’t managed to couch the message about the dangers of runaway climate change in the right way. It is too much about energy, and too much about what needs to happen in the UK. We need to reinforce the message that the position of the UK on the world stage is at stake here, not as a Trident wielding superpower, but as a compassionate nation full of sympathy for those victimised by circumstances, through no fault of their own, impoverished by their history and at risk from our thoughtlessness.

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.


VELUX Daylight Symposium 2015

The Location: The event was held at the Tobacco Dock, a reminder that some reused buildings provide stunning locations for events, and in this particular case the event was held in daylight. It may sound obvious, but most conferences are still held in locations where daylight is excluded, in case it interferes with the presentations. The usual result is a lot of sleepy attendees watching a lot of fairly tedious slides. When light levels are lowered, our bodies natural inclination is to go to sleep, a fact that the designers of most auditoria seem to have ignored. 
The lantern lights of this tremendous building were modified by simple banner-like screens to prevent glare and the two days were spent with the delegates bathed in full daylight but still able to view the screens. I cannot emphasise enough how much nicer an experience it is to spend a day in this way, rather than buried in the bowels of some convention centre.


The Content: The Daylight Symposium is a unique event, bringing together the worlds leading experts in daylight research and practice. It happens every two years and brings together the authors of CEN standards, the authors of daylight calculation software, the research community working on the effects of daylight on productivity and well-being, and the authors of guidance on the provision of daylight in design. There were also a few architects like me who tried to keep up with the science and not make fools of ourselves by asking really stupid questions, like, ‘what is the difference between lumens and luminance?’*

Some Conclusions

Over the two days I listend to a diverse range of speakers, from all over the world, many technical, some beautiful, all of them interesting. There were some particular highlights for me.

Daylight Autonomy, The CEN Daylight Standard draft appears to signal that the time has come to move on from Daylight Factor as a means of measuring daylight in architecture. Daylight Factor is a simple metric that predicts the amount of daylight in a room expressed as a percentage of the daylight available from an overcast sky. There are several problems with this.

Daylight Factor is not comprehensible to most people, including many professionals. It doesn’t relate either to the location of the space being examined or to the likely weather conditions in that location. So a room of the same size will achieve the same results in Iceland as in Uganda, despite the available daylight being quite different in the two locations. It doesn’t take into account the availability of greater amounts of daylight and sunshine available under typical weather conditions, so a part of the country where there is routinely a lot of sunshine will appear to perform as well as an area that has much less sunshine. As overheating becomes more of a problem, this is counterproductive. 

The CEN recommendation, based on several presentations during the event, is that we move to a measurement based on the availability of light in the room for a proportion of the day. This is similar to Daylight Autonomy, the US standard used in the LEED sustainable buildings assessment method. The draft CEN standard will suggest that we use a measure of the light levels in lux in the room expressed as the time that a desired light level is exceeded in a proportion of the space. The example given as a minimum is 300 lux in 50% of the room for 50% of the time. 300 lux is enough light to read, write or carry out office work, so it is adequate for many activities likely to be carried out at home. 50% of the space allow for variations in the lighting, particularly spaces only lit from one side. 50% of the time allows for variations over the day, so a room that is well lit in the morning can still comply with the requirement, as well as a room that is well lit in the afternoon, or early evening.

The draft CEN standard suggests that there could be three levels of such a standard, a minimum, set at 300 lux, a good at 500 lux and a high at 750 lux.

Rendering with Daylight: A particular bugbear of mine is architectural rendering that shows interiors bathed with light, when in fact such light is either impossible or unlikely at best. This doesn’t do anyone any good. Architectural rendering has a purpose, but that purpose should not be to mislead the designer or the client. It was heartening to see a presentation of Keyshot, a photorealistic lighting tool that can interface quickly with the VELUX Daylight Visualiser. They are both written by Luxion and they are now capable of interacting with each other. The VELUX tool can check the daylight in the room and Keyshot can produce a verifiably accurate daylight render. It can also deal with materials,textures and artificial light, but the important point is that it renders daylight accurately so that designers can check what actual difference their design changes make to the spaces rather than being fooled by a rendering engine that allow the designer free rein with the amount of light available. (In case you think that software doesn’t mislead, and I am overstating the point, one well-known and widely used rendering tool allows the designer to make the sun bigger!)

Thought Provoking: Paul Bogard: The organisers, VELUX, like to intersperse the hard science with some thought provoking speakers, and this time there were two presentations, one at the end of each day. The first by Paul Bogard was not about daylight, but about darkness. His book, The End of Night concerns the fact that most children in developed countries have no idea what a starry sky looks like. I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area where starry skies were often visible, and the full majesty of the universe could be felt by anyone coming outdoors after dark. Today there are few places in the Western world where this is possible without having to get into a car and drive long distances. Will we end up in a world where fewer children want to become astronomers because they are unaware of the possibilities, or fewer philosophers because they haven’t seen how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. Paul points out that much of the problem is caused by security concerns and homeowners and property owners being sold lighting systems that waste a lot of light, and don’t even provide good security.

Thought Provoking: Olafur Eliasson: The presentation at the end of the second day was by Olafur Eliasson an Icelandic artist who, among other works, has filled the Tate turbine hall with a sun, and put large chunks of Arctic ice outside a hall where one of the COP talks was taking place. Bizzarely, one of the delegates contacted him a year later to ask him to bring the ice to the next COP. He had to tell the delegate that sadly, the ice had melted, but that there was more available in the Arctic.

He presented his kickstarter project with Little Sun which aims to bring artificial light to countries where children currently cannot read or study after dark unless they use kerosene lamps. His talk was deeply contemplative, almost mystical. His use of language was amazing, given that he works in Berlin and was born in Iceland, so must use at least three languages every day to express the most complex of thoughts. Two thoughts that stayed with me are:

The Shaping of the world is the creative act, and not the work itself.

Cultural institutions allow people to share without agreeing.
* ‘Lumen is the total luminous flux emitted by a light source, and luminance is the amount of light emitted from a surface in a particulat direction’ Obviously!

New Nuclear Disaster

If we want New Nuclear, we should be prepared to invest in it ourselves instead of paying others over the odds for electricity in order to de-risk their investment. This decisions isn’t good for the market, for consumers bills,for UK industry or for low-carbon energy when there are more realistic, practical and deliverable alternatives, e.g. onshore wind.

A recent Study by Prognos, published here demonstrates that the cost of nuclear power to the UK will be up to 34% higher than the cost of new Photovoltaic in Germany, or 50% higher than the cost of new onshore wind. The Conservative led backlash against renewable energy looks to be a much worse deal for consumers than large scale renewable energy. Even offshore wind is predicted to be 15% cheaper, so if you are willing to pay an additional 35% for your power to move it offshore, then even that is cheaper than nuclear.

The announcement that China is going to help to support the construction of nuclear power plants in the UK comes as no surprise to people involved in energy in the UK, this has been mooted for some time. The reasons why this is being welcomed by the Treasury are worth examining though, or they would be if there was any particular reasoning behind it. It is happening simply because no-one else wants to fund the addition of nuclear in the UK. The nuclear ‘market’ isn’t working because it doesn’t exist.

New Nuclear has been on the shopping list of successive governments in the UK for a decade, but because of the lengthy delays in bringing such systems to fruition elsewhere, most funders have backed off. There is little support for nuclear among the electorate, none among the banks, and only one power company, EDF, is still willing to consider investing in one, but is unwilling to do so alone, so hence the Chinese investment.

There are at least good reasons why the Chinese would want to do this, it gives them a stake in a major asset in the UK. It would demonstrate to the rest of the world that Chinese construction ability is up there with the best. Don’t we think this already? Do they need to build a nuclear power plant to convince anyone? Apparently they do, because this deal will give them an entry to the UK UK power market which could be followed by their building a new ‘safer’ reactor design that ‘cannot fail’ and if the Chinese can be part of new nuclear in the UK, then the reasoning goes, they could be part of one anywhere.

Whatever happened to the Conservative belief in the market? Let me remind you of Amber Rudd’s Savoy speech a few weeks ago.

“We are committed to climate action; committed to economic security; committed to decarbonising at the least cost.” A. Rudd Aviva speech.
Constructing this type of plant will take at least a decade, and cost £25 billion pounds at current estimates, and EDF haven’t confirmed that they are willing to go ahead, even with Chinese involvement. Costs will double, because that’s what happens with long term high cost infrastructure projects, and the investment of our money will fund technical development in China and France. The Treasury is even going to guarantee the Chinese investment money, so they are going to accept little risk, but will be rewarded if the project succeeds. How any of that contributes to climate action or economic security is unclear. It is very unlikely to deliver low cost power. It is currently projected to be profitable at double the current market rate. Yes, nuclear is low carbon, but it is a lot more risky than a distributed energy generation network based around a wide range of renewable energy systems. The proposed plant is planned to contribute 7% of the UK power demand. So when it goes wrong, and it will go wrong at some point, it is in the nature of technology to fail, then the UK Grid will have a big task to replace it. If a wind turbine in the North sea falls over, the network doesn’t blink. The economic benefits appear to be heading out of the country to other economies, presumably including the construction investment monies.

A 2010 DECC study showed that onshore wind and new nuclear were on a par when it comes to the cost of providing new power at a figure of £80-110/Mwh. What that fails to take into account is the by the time nuclear is delivered, the world will have moved on, inflation will have made nuclear much more expensive, and the changes to oil and gas prices will either have made £80/Mwh look very good or very bad. In either case the current crop of politicians won’t be here to take the blame or the credit. It is the ultimate cop-out, taking a decision that you cannot possible follow through on, for an electorate that cannot think ten years ahead.

Meanwhile a decade when low carbon de-centralised measures that could have been introduced is going to be wasted as effort and time are put into centralised nuclear power which is going to further strengthen the grip of the Big Six on the UK’s energy market.

The UK Government has no obvious decarbonisation or energy policy that makes sense. On the one hand green measures are scrapped ‘to protect taxpayers bills’ and because the Lib Dems supported those polices during the Coalition period; on the other hand a deal is proposed with a Government with an appalling human rights record to fund the riskiest and most expensive power system we can buy, from a market that doesn’t exist because everyone else apart from the UK Treasury thinks it is too risky to invest in.
This deal is being proposed so that this Government can say it has done something positive about energy after all the measures they scrapped in the summer, a deal which will cost us dear in the long run.

Some sobering reading on this subject can be read here: http://www.prognos.com/fileadmin/pdf/publikationsdatenbank/Prognos_A_Renaissance_of_Nuclear_Energy_final.pdf

Amber Rudd Green?

If the Tories want to achieve any progress on climate emission reductions, and its not clear that they do want to, despite the Rt Hon Amber Rudd’s speech last week, then they have to set out clear market signals that they mean to do so and that they will do so in a way that supports a market which lasts beyond this Parliament. This is too serious an issue to be left to individual Governments to deal with and to be subject to political whims. If ever there was an issue that needed cross-party agreement, this is it.

Clouds over the Capital

Clouds over the Capital

Amber Rudd’s speech on climate change at Aviva sets out some important pointers for how the Government plans to deal with a low carbon economy over the next decade. Having wiped the slate clean of environmental legislation over the last month, their plans appear to be based on a fairly simple idea, that the markets can solve the problem. Given that the environmental problems that we face have arisen because of what Lord Stern called ‘the largest market failure the world has ever seen’, it seems optimistic to me to believe that this approach will work.  That the markets can actually do the work that is required without some significant action by the Government through legislation and policy seems to me to be both unproven and naïve. It is unfortunate that the regulations that the Government has recently abandoned were all sending the right signals to the market; that this Government supports concerted action on climate change mitigation and would use a series of long-term initiatives to achieve that.  In contrast to this, large numbers of the companies who should be lining up to enter this new ‘market’ have objected in the strongest terms to the recent dropping of ambitious environmental targets. It is hard to believe that Amber Rudd has the backing of the Cabinet when she said. ‘We are committed to taking action on climate change and we are clear that our long-term economic plan goes hand in hand with a long-term plan for climate action.’

However hard it may be, I feel that there is little to be gained by complaining that this Government is heading in the wrong direction, because we simply cannot see into the future. There is no getting away from the fact that progress in achieving emission reductions through policy and regulation has been achingly slow. The Committee for Climate Change reflects that much of our current emissions reductions have come about because of the recession and less than one percent of the emissions reductions have come about through environmental improvements. In order to achieve our Carbon Budgets we will need to de-carbonise at a rate of 3% per annum. In order for this Governments plan to work, the market has to be three times more effective in delivering emission reductions than regulation has already achieved.

All of this effort could have been achieved more easily if we had kept some of the previous Governments policies going and not abandoned the ones that were working. I agree that the Green Deal was flawed, but it could have been rescued with a proper finance package, instead of abandoning it entirely. Similarly the zero-carbon housing regulations were heading in the right direction and had massive support from industry, ( with the usual exception of the housebuilders who don’t support any regulation that impacts on their bottom line) and also could have been made to work with some effort. Again this has been unceremoniously binned, sending housing regulations back to 2013, there to stay for the foreseeable future.

What the Tories don’t appear to understand, or are just ignoring, is that in order to create a functioning market you need investment. In order to attract investment, you need certainty, and in order to create certainty you need good governance that doesn’t change the rules without consultation. The stated objective of this Government, to achieve emission reductions through the market, has already been made very difficult by their wilful and short-termist treatment of the companies already active in the market. There is no way that we can achieve the emission reductions we need under the Climate Change Act, without the help of companies providing solar energy, wind farms, low-carbon energy, and insulation. But in dropping planned regulations including zero-carbon housing and the Green Deal, this Government will have alienated most of the companies in all of these sectors.

When the Green Deal closure was announced Amber Rudd MP said,: “ It’s now time for the building industry and consumer groups to work with us to make new policy and build a system that works.”

Having spent a good deal of time working on the development of the Green Deal and on the zero-carbon legislation I imagine I would be one of the people that the minister means when she says ‘building industry’. But why should I spend my time working with Government? The time I spent with the last three Governments has been wasted, as they have shilly-shallied with policy and regulation for a decade, only to bin all that effort when the colour of the party changes. I am certain that many large companies who have invested in Green Deal training and certification will think long and hard before coming back to the table for more.

Angus MacNeil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said, commenting on the Green Deal announcement: “The government has once again slipped out another announcement about cuts to green policies after parliament has risen for the recess. The Green Deal wasn’t working as well as ministers had hoped, but removing government support without bringing forward an alternative strategy is likely to cause further concern among businesses investing in and delivering energy-efficiency measures.”

It is possible that the long-term plan to reduce emissions will be met by extracting large amounts of shale gas to replace existing coal-fired generation, and by constructing new nuclear power rather than insulating homes and building new energy efficient ones. But both of these strategies are very risky propositions, and will continue to meet opposition among voters, and neither are likely to deliver much in the way of emission reduction during the life of the current Parliament. For every Tory who supports a ban on onshore wind, there will be two Tories who would be anti-fracking. Nuclear will continue to be eye-wateringly expensive and it will be difficult to convince an electorate that you are looking after their energy bills when you spend billions on a few projects that will always cost more than budgeted, and leave an expensive radioactive mess to deal with for the next 10,000 years or so.

A long-term decarbonisation plan for the UK needs to be just that, long-term. Energy efficiency measures in the building stock will need a programme of improvements and finance that lasts from now until 2050. Regulations for new housing that meets EU targets for 2020 needs to be considered now, and once set, needs to be left alone for the industry to develop solutions to meet it. Industrial research needs time and money, time that lasts longer than the life of a parliament, and longer than the political life of most politicians.

“We are committed to climate action; committed to economic security; committed to decarbonising at the least cost.” A. Rudd Aviva speech.

The future of our planet is at stake, nothing less. If the market is to be the vehicle that we use to cut emissions, so be it, but it needs to be a market with solid foundations that is left to function for decades, and not moments. The Tories have started their term in office badly, and have lost the trust of many in industry within a few months. If they are going to deliver on their promises, they need to start acting on them and delivering real change that both those in industry and ordinary people can understand and support. In the year of COP21 Paris when the world expects the UK Government to lead on climate action and to sign up to a global deal, they could have hardly gotten off to a worse start.

Zero Carbon – Zero Chance

The axing of the zero-carbon housing legislation yesterday put an end to a decade of efforts to define a standard for new homes that would support the UK’s drive to reduce emissions from new housing. It was contained in a document from the Treasury, apparently now setting more UK housing policy than DCLG, entitled ‘Fixing the foundations – Creating a more Prosperous Nation’

There is much to welcome in the document, and a lot that seems eminently sensible, I say this to deflect any criticism that I am singling out a single issue to the exclusion of the rest, all 88 pages of it. But it seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed to drop this proposal now, after planning for it for such a long time, and after so much work has been done to prepare for it. I have seen no justification for the decision yet, and I await that justification with interest. The document is about planning to improve the UK’s productivity, so the assumption must be that dropping these proposals will improve productivity in the UK housing industry.

Whether this is really the case or not depends how you measure productivity.

Will removing this requirement mean that more houses get built than would otherwise be the case?

Probably not, as housing starts have more to do with sales values than build costs. The introduction of previous regulatory changes have not had any visible effect on housebuilding numbers as DCLG usually has a fairly relaxed transition period allowing housebuilders to prepare for the new standards over a long period. Housebuilders are also very skilled at passing on the costs of improved performance to their supply chain.

Will more plots receive permission with the legislation removed?

Probably not, as planning authorities will want to see evidence that new homes are sustainably developed and this would have been one way of demonstrating this.

What we will see is that the costs of occupying new homes will stay higher than it would otherwise be, as will the CO2 emissions from them. This could affect up to a million new homes if housing numbers improve towards the 200k per annum mark and this situation lasts for five years 2016-2021. (see graphic)

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The additional running costs will be in the region of £200 per annum per household, meaning a spend of £200M on energy by consumers that could be avoided and the additional CO2 will  be around 2 tonnes per dwelling, reaching a total of 2 Million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions that could otherwise be avoided.

To meet our CO2 budgets this extra 2Mt of CO2 will need to be abated elsewhere, which will come with a cost, and our energy system will need to be developed to include the additional energy supply needed.

It makes little sense to me that a nation that prides itself on its universities and innovation, and associates both of these with improving productivity,  would make this decision. Housing manufacturing in particular is a very innovative and productive industry, and can meet these higher standards already, but needs a willing market to thrive. The companies that will benefit from this are the ones looking backwards, the brick manufacturers, the housebuilders, the landowners. The ones that will suffer are the ones looking forward, the innovative manufacturers, the developers of high quality homes, the purchasers and occupiers of the homes themselves. This change in direction simply retains the status quo and extends the period within which housing can continue to be built using traditional and low productivity methods, and removes any regulatory driver for the industry to improve and innovate.

By 2020 the UK is expected to have introduced legislation to deliver Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB’s) together with all other EU partners. The proposed 2016 regulations would have been a strong stepping stone to this higher standard and made for an easy transition. The Chancellor appears to be betting on that standard either going away, or being optional for the UK to adopt come 2020.


Jane Jacobs on Street Life

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs paints a rosy picture of urban street life. Particularly urban street life and the urban children she observes in it. She writes about the children playing in Hudson Street where she lives in Greenwich Village and draws firm conclusions from her experience.

She observes that shopkeepers are part of the lifeblood of the street, they partially supervise the children playing, tell them off for being troublesome, help them out when they need it, give directions to strangers and hold keys for residents who are away for the weekend. She notes that they don’t become close friends with many people, but have a relationship based on nods and smiles and the occasional sentence in passing. A relationship based on mutual self-interest. The shopkeeper is saying, ‘I’ll keep an eye on things and you can trust me because I need to retain your trust” 

She observes that the children benefit from the mixture of parenting from their real parents and the guidance and commentary they get from neighbours, shopkeepers and passers by. This tells the children that the world in general cares about them and takes a small but important interest in their well-being. They in turn learn that its important that they too take an interest in the world and the well-being of their playmates and the world around them. Soon, they too begin to offer help to strangers, giving directions or advice.

At no point does she mention the impact of traffic on active play, there probably wasn’t so much of it that it had a major impact on Hudson street, although photographs taken at the time show plenty of cars parked on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. She does state that to be effictive ‘play’ streets, the ‘sidewalks’ should be ‘thirty to thirty-five feet wide’ to accommodate any kind of play that could be required, but acknowledges that the requirements of traffic mean that there are few streets of that width even then.


Greenwich Village,New York, 1950’s Getty Images

She strongly criticizes the idea that ‘managed’ or supervised play space in parks is any substitute for ‘unmanaged’ street play. Her main problem with ‘managed play’ is that children beyond a very young age don’t want to be actively supervised by their parents and lose interest in such play very quickly. Play spaces in parks are also unsafe because they are usually too far from street life to be supervised by the passers by. She also critizes the lack of male intervention in such places, where children are usually supervised by their mothers only, in contrast to the street where they are supervised and protected by, and able to interact with, a host of different people, men and women, young and old, locals and passers by.

The image she paints is idyllic in some senses, a loose community of neighbours who look out for each other, particularly for each others children, while still going about their business in a normal way. Its the perfect mixture of privacy where no-one is prying into your personal affairs (associated with village life) and still enough human interest to know that if you didn’t show up to buy a pint of milk your neighbours would check up on you to see if you were OK.
The street itself had the interesting feature of steps up to the front doors of houses or apartment buildings. These steps gave places for residents to survey the street for a long distance from an elevated position in relative security. They gave children a small place to sit and play out of the way of passers by, but most importantly gave residents a place to watch, interact with or supervise the world as it went by.

Fast forward to London 2015.

Shopkeepers are rarely, if ever, at the front of their shops. Their windows are full of goods and it is often impossible to see the street from inside shops, particularly greengrocers and supermarkets. Even if the street were visible, the shopkeepers rarely own their shops as so many of them are chain stores and the staff are rotated on a regular basis. As automated tills come in the number of staff is dwindling, and the ability of shopkeepers to participate in street life diminishes. As retail moves more to the Internet, fewer and fewer shops are needed to sell goods on the high street, as they are being undercut by online businesses. 

The bright spark in this is food retailing, which appears to be getting stronger, and the increase of street life that comes with it is enormous, even if a lot of it includes the use of tables on already too-narrow pavements. Waiting staff come out to the street to bring food and deliver orders, deliveries come and go and the ballet of the street expands instead of contracting. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade. 

No-one plays on the streets for any length of time, and hasn’t done so for a generation. Children’s play takes place either in their back gardens, or in schools, or, for a short while, in the street while they go to, or come from, school. This is also supervised play insofar as there is almost always a parent or two there to ensure that they get to school on time. This concerns the minority of children who actually walk to school, most of them are driven by parents fearful of their children being hit by a car while walking to school. 

Public parks are often empty, they are very busy on sunny weekends, but often deserted in weektimes, particularly the play areas, children are often brought there to play on their way home, and then ferried home for dinner, by car.

Children are not usually let out to play before or after tea/dinner. They sit at home playing video games instead, possibly playing with their friends in nearby homes, but only connected via cyberspace. If they do meet their friends to play it is usually organised by parents and the children are delivered and collected, by car.

Cars parked in the street take up about 50% of the land left for the street. Pavements are wide enough to allow two buggies to pass each other and no more. Parents don’t let their children play in front of their houses because they are afraid that they might be abducted, or damage a neighbours car, and in any case there isn’t room for them to play in. 

The only extensive street play I have observed is streets being taken over by parents in high-vis jackets to close it off to through traffic, with the support of the local council. Children are encouraged to play in the street, but supervised by their anxious parents. I can image how Jacobs would laugh at this. I am sure these street closures are helping people to get to know each other and to enable their children to be more active, but it is hardly a solution to the problem, more of a symptom. The presence of hundreds of cars means that the kinds of games children would like to play cannot be played, there simply isn’t the space. 

Disability legislation means that it is now almost impossible to design houses with ‘stoops’ or steps in front that provide places to view or supervise the street. Residents of new neighbourhoods will be on the same level as those passing by, and rooms on the street frontage are that much darker and noisier as a result. Ideally the ground floors of urban buildings would always be gven over to commercial uses, but it is unlikely that there will ever be enough commercial uses to go around.


We don’t appear to have learned very much from the mistakes or from the successes of the past as described by Jacobs, modern places are still mainly designed with traffic in mind, not with people in mind. Traffic engineering rules, bin lorry sizes and utilities have a  much stronger voice when it comes to the design of places than any consideration of what type of society a place is likely to foster. Children are given play areas which are intended for them to play in, but what child wants to play in an organised way? Some of these places, usually corraled by railings, are even intended for ‘doorstep’ play. Play, by definition, is not organised. 

Finally, Jacobs firm belief was that public street life allows people to interact with each other equally, because everyone has the right to be there. The street is the ultimate social leveller.

‘If there is no public street life, and there are only opportunities for formal interaction, this tends to suit a self-selecting confident middle-class.’

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.

Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.


If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

More Homes Through Manufacture

There are many good reasons why modern homes should be made in a factory. There are no good reasons why they shouldn’t. Practically everything else we use in our lives comes from a factory and we are very happy with them, so why not our homes too? We expect our cars, TV’s computers and phones to be mass-produced, and would be very surprised to find that they weren’t, in fact we wouldn’t buy them if we found that they were hand-made by a group of people brought together in a muddy field and given instructions in how to build them, in a language not their own, and chosen because they provided the lowest price or just happened to be available that day.

Manufactured homes are more likely to meet the stringent quality standards demanded by regulations for new homes because it’s much easier to check quality when the product is being made in a warm building, out of the wind and rain. Workers of all ages and backgrounds can be employed in a factory because they are not expected to carry heavy loads up ladders, or withstand the cold. So the workforce can be from a wider demographic and different backgrounds.

In the current economic conditions this factor is lowering the cost of building homes in a factory as wages for fully employed people are stable. The self-employed sub-contractors who do much of the work on traditional building sites are raising their wages as much as possible because they can. In the rush to build homes, there is a shortage of labour such as bricklayers and carpenters, so the ones that are available can charge a lot for their skills.

Factories are less exposed to this wage inflation because their workers are permanently employed and therefore can’t demand increases in their wages at short notice. Factory owners tell me that last year, their homes were more expensive to build than traditional buildings, but could be built more quickly. This year they can be built for the same price, but more quickly, and next year they will be cheaper to build, and more quickly.

Hotel and Apartment building, Olympic Way, Wembley

Modular Hotel and Apartment Building, Olympic Way, Wembley. ©HTA Design LLP

There is a further promise of factory production which is the expectation that someday we will be able to order our home online and change the design to suit ourselves. If this sounds far-fetched, they have been doing this in Japan for decades. Companies with familiar names like Toyota have constructed tens of thousands of such homes for their customers, most of which have been customised to some degree. Factories with a high degree of automation can cope with a change in design easily, provided that the robot can be given the correct template to use, it doesn’t care if it does the same job ten times a day, or ten different jobs.

The key element is that the robot is given a template to work from. Customisation does not mean that the customer can have what they want in every case, it means that they can choose from a wide range of features that ensures that no two houses are ever the same. It only takes nine variants in a house design to produce over 300,000 different homes, so customers can be satisfied that they have a unique product and the factory can continue to produce a unique design from relatively standardised components.

There is a reason why the difference in quality between a factory-made home and a traditionally built home is not obvious to the average housebuyer or renter. No-one tells them, and the quality difference is not reflected in the sales price. We have the ridiculous situation where the location and number of bedrooms in a property sets the value, and the quality of the finished home counts for very little, apart from its use as a bargaining chip to reduce the price where there are defects, but rarely to increase it beyond what is normally paid in that area.

If a housebuilder does a very good job of building a traditional home, or a bad job, it makes no difference to the price. If the home is hard to heat or very efficient, it may be interesting to the purchaser, but it makes no difference to the price. If the three bedrooms of one property are bigger than the three bedrooms of the other, it makes no difference to the price. In a market like this it is very difficult for a housebuilder to concentrate on a quality product, since it makes no difference to his profits.

In new development this is exacerbated by the lack of previous sales figures in the area. Mortgage providers look at sales values for fifty year old properties in the same location to use as a benchmark for the values of new homes under construction, ignoring the enormous quality gap between the two in terms of performance.

We are trying to change this by introducing a way that purchasers and renters can see the difference in the quality of their new home. By creating a Home Performance Label with the help of BLP Insurance and The Housing Forum, we are enabling people to rank their potential purchases in order of size, if that’s what they care about, or in order of energy efficiency, price per square meter, daylight, or maintenance costs, or many other metrics. This way of making a purchasing choice is familiar to anyone who has bought a car, insurance, a phone, electricity or a fridge in recent years. We think it’s time that such a tool was available to the housing market.

By helping people to make their choices based on quantitive information as well as qualitative information we expect to drive up the quality of new homes in the same way that comparison shopping has driven the market in electronic goods. The product of tomorrow should be better than the product of today and offered at the same price. This is how markets should work. There should be room for low quality products and high quality products, at different price points, but the housing market currently values both the high quality and the low quality products in the same way, leaving no room for a quality premium. Because price is also set by location the current pricing system keeps the housing quality low in poorer areas and reduces the likelihood of regeneration where it is needed most.

Finally, in order to deliver anything like the number of homes we need, the housing industry in the UK must double in size. Output is currently about half of what we need to sustain the market without prices continually rising. This growth won’t be achieved b adding more workers from abroad, working in muddy fields at low productivity levels. It will be achieved if we create a functioning offsite manufacturing sector, distributed across the UK, using a well-organised workforce, operating in a market where higher quality products get the sales prices that they deserve.

A version of this article first appeared in The Housing Forum report, ‘More Homes Through Manufacture‘ supported by the Hyde Group.