Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Save before generating

Uninsulated gable end wall, 1960s flats
at Austin Close, Frome, Somerset
It is good news that local communities will be supported to develop renewable energy generation schemes if the profits are to be used effectively to reduce energy demand. There are, however, major problems with most of our housing stock that are not being acknowledged by the construction industry, the green deal tick boxes or government, such as incomplete and badly installed insulation, including cavity wall insulation. There is also a substantial pre 1970s housing stock constructed of dense concrete blocks that the Government does not include in its 'hard to heat' homes categories (which it seems to think is confined to older solid walled properties). Much of this concrete-block housing was built as council housing and a lot of it is still occupied by social housing tenants on low incomes. There is usually an uninsulated concrete slab floor (= penetrating cold),  the walls don't "breathe", the cavities are narrow and difficult to fill, and once sealed in with double glazing these properties suffer badly from condensation and mould. Residents get blamed for the latter, when it is the construction that is the issue. A response (recently seen in one property) is to make a hole in the wall for ventilation - which means a constant blast of cold air and higher heating bills. Very few people, including those in charge of managing social housing properties, have a good understanding of what measures are needed to reduce heating bills and take people out of fuel poverty in this type of property. It isn't  solar panels that are needed, but training schemes and skilled people who will design and oversee projects to make houses warmer while using less energy.
Uninsulated sections of a property that have received
cavity wall insulation (blue). Condensation occurs
in these areas (see below), with consequent rapid growth
of mould - a serious environmental health problem.
This situation is experienced in many houses, especially
those built of impermeable dense concrete blocks, but it is also
being found in more recently-built (e.g. 1980s) houses.

My colleague Paul Buckingham and I, and many other contributors to Green Building Magazine, know that there are few builders who are competent to do the necessary work to an appropriate standard, and that green deal assessments are too superficial, just like the ridiculous Energy Performance Certificates. The one done for my house was completed by someone who didn't even visit it and who failed to record cavity wall insulation and a condensing boiler had been installed. This meant I had to complain to the issuing company, which subsequently had to redo the assessment. Similarly, I am now claiming under my Cavity Wall Insulation guarantee - as we have found installation has been incomplete - with large unfilled gaps found during our own survey of the property.

Investment into making homes warmer is far more of a priority than generating energy, and I am not convinced that profits from community renewables will be sufficient to unlock enough cash to address the mountains that have to be climbed to achieve energy-efficient housing in Britain. Another option could have been to use Quantitative Easing cash for this purpose, something my colleague Ken Neal has been pushing for. By this means money would be circulated within the local economy with multiplier effects (rather than being given to banks and effecting further increases in house prices).
Mould growing where condensation is occurring on the 'cold' bridge
which is the wall area above the soffits and under the roofline. This is a tenanted house privately owned. In this case the landlord is taking the problem seriously and engaging Paul and a local builder to do remedial work. This will involve taking two rows of tiles off the roof, removing the cavity wall closer, filling the cavity with vermiculite and placing insulation above the soffit on the outside wall. Loft insulation will also be increased and will link up with the new insulation, to effectively remove the existing cold bridge. Active mechanical ventilation will also be installed in the kitchen and bathroom to reduce the quantity of water vapour in the house. In an ideal situation the use of a heat recovery ventilation system would be better, such as the Lo Carbon Tempra kit that I have installed in my own kitchen. This will all help. However, the ideal would be a complete and comprehensive whole house audit and eco refurb but most landlords and house owners are not prepared for either the cost or the upheaval involved.

Hold back the floods

Waterlogged maize field near Frome, January 2014.The area in the foreground is also contaminated by leachate originating from a manure pile (not slurry as previously stated),  so it isn't just water and soil washing off the land into watercourses. Two springs rise in this field which is located on a heavy clay soil liable to waterlogging. Maize-growing is not an appropriate way to farm this land in an environmentally sustainable way.

Britain is once again under deluge. Prolonged bouts of heavy rain over the past couple of months mean the ground is waterlogged and low-lying land flooded.  Across much of the country, more water is reaches the floodplain more quickly because of land drainage in the catchment to enable more intensive farming. This has effectively removed the capacity of semi-natural vegetation (much of which has been removed or significantly reduced), such as associated with deep-rooted broad leaved herbs in pastures, wetlands, hedgerows and trees, to hold water back. Along with these land use changes, modern farming continues to cause vast quantities of soil erosion from fields and into watercourses. Even now, during heavy rain, slurry from dairy farms is also washing off fields – and this is another source of nutrient-rich silt entering rivers. This situation means many West Country rivers are now in a dire state and are failing to meet quality objectives for nitrogen, phosphate and fish. Watercourse maintenance is a vital tool in the box for reducing flood risk but it is overly simplistic, as many have suggested, to claim that all the problems being experienced now in the Somerset Levels and other flood-prone areas are due to a lack of river dredging. Moreover, in the past, over-deepening and over-widening rivers to facilitate drainage off low grade farmland and thus intensify farming practices have exacerbated flooding downstream. Some blame therefore lies with the former Internal Drainage Boards, the farming industry, National Rivers Authority (and predecessors) for colluding to create this situation that cost taxpayers dear, for the sole purpose of enabling landowners to reap agricultural subsidies for creating arable land, reseeding pastures and destroying flower rich meadows and other semi-natural vegetation – often in or adjacent to floodplains. The Somerset Levels is an area where this happened big time and tensions here in the 1980s and 90s led to farmers burning the effigy of a local Nature Conservancy Council official and then to the introduction of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme. But this was the past and everyone needs to look at the now. Today, politicians, planners, the farming industry and all those involved in flood-risk planning, need to take a breath and work together to develop holistic, landscape-based measures that will overall improve the resilience of areas prone to flooding and treat a major part of the problem - runoff and silt from farmland at source. Such plans must also sit within a longer term adaptation strategy that will enable communities to adapt to climate change – including higher winter rainfall and sea level rise. 

The Somerset Levels is low-lying, most of it only just above sea level (20% is below mean high tide), necessitating pump drainage at times of high rain and high tides. The rivers also outfall into the Bristol Channel, which has the second greatest tidal range in the world. No amount of dredging will move water off from the area when it is underwater and when tides are high. Owen Paterson, having visited the Levels yesterday, has come in for a lot of flack from locals who are baying for the blood of the Environment Agency (apparently it is all the EA's fault the water hasn't disappeared) and want the rivers dredged. Paterson is correct in seeking to get organisations together to come up with a holistic plan (albeit on an unrealistic time scale). Work to alleviate flooding in all areas must get away from the old dredge, drain and pump approach and look to a much rounded set of long term measures. It is, however, a tragedy that the shambolic Common Agricultural Policy will continue to give money to farmers with hardly any strings attached. That is the money that could have been used to achieve the necessary land use change.

The Wildlife Trusts (www.wildlifetrusts.org/floods) and Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) issued press statements in January, calling for the authorities and agencies responsible for managing flood and coastal erosion risks to prioritise natural and sustainable solutions in rural and urban areas. A spokesman from the Environment Agency said that there needed to be a pond in every field in areas where flood prevention is needed. Yours truly piled into the debate via Farmers Guardian’s 10 January leader article (see http://tinyurl.com/pwkopc2) while George Monbiot’s treatise (“Drowning in money, Guardian, 13 January) had received over 800 comments within a few days of it being published.

Progress on implementing natural solutions has been painfully slow, despite “upstream” measures having been a key recommendation of the Pitt Review of flooding, published in 2007. There have been a few pilot projects, but funding and difficulties of landowner/farmer engagement continue to be major stumbling blocks, while further agricultural intensification in recent years in some areas has led to more runoff and silt entering rivers. Mark Fisher, commenting on George M’s feature, lamented experience from the Ripon Multi-objective Project, saying that, “Despite ... positive findings ... the landowners proved unwilling to submit an application for planting floodplain woodland at any of the identified sites and a decision was taken to close the project (after 15 months).” He said that a primary reason for their recalcitrance was “the lack of sufficient payments/incentive to compensate for the perceived reduction in capital value of the land and loss of agricultural income, as well as for the increased risks associated with land use change”. Monbiot rightly turns the table away on the whingers who say that too little is spent on flood defences, highlighting the excessive spending on policies (especially the CAP) that make flooding worse. It all comes back to money. There is a lot of it around, but most of it (88%) will be used to support farmers' incomes, which will in turn keep agricultural land prices high. Delivering the necessary land use changes to deliver 'ecosystem services' will be unable to compete on price.