Home truths: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Idox supports RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2021.

These awards recognise and promote high quality, impactful spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools and planning practitioners in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and internationally.

The 2021 Awards competition is now open and there is still plenty of time to enter – the deadline for entries is 17 May 2021.

About the Awards

The RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are intended to:

  • recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools;
  • highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice;
  • recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research; and
  • promote planning research generally.

The award categories are:

  • Early Career Researcher Award, aimed at researchers at the beginning phase of their academic careers;
  • Student Award, for students who are working towards or have recently completed a non-research university degree;
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, which recognises high-quality research that is likely to make an immediate impact beyond academia;
  • Planning Practitioner Award, open to non-academic planning practitioners and organisations conducting valuable research with the potential to inform planning policy and/or practice.

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. And here at the Knowledge Exchange, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence.

This is the seventh time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, and we will once again be sponsoring the Planning Practitioner Award, the Student Award, and the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence.

Winners in 2020

In 2020, the Sir Peter Hall Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professor Anthony Crook from the University of Sheffield and Professor Christine Whitehead from the London School of Economics for their research looking at how far ‘unearned increments’, particularly those arising with planning permission, should be taxed for the public good.

Jacob George of Newcastle University won the Student Award for his research into the much-debated permitted development right for office-to-residential conversions, focusing uniquely on its social impacts in a city in northern England.

The Planning Practitioner Award for 2020 went to Lucia Cerrada Morato and Becky Mumford of the Place Shaping Team at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for their research exploring the lives of residents living in high density and tall buildings.

The Early Career Researcher category was won by Dr Hannah Budnitz from the University of Birmingham,  with Professor Lee Chapman, also from the University of Birmingham, and Dr Emmanouil Tranos from the University of Bristol. Their research found that by proactively addressing the accessibility of non-work destinations, planners can help telecommuters travel more sustainably.


Further details on the award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available from the RTPI here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 5pm on Monday 17 May 2021.

The winners of the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence 2021 will be announced at an awards ceremony, to be held virtually by Newcastle University on the afternoon of Wednesday 8 September 2021.

Glasgow Green photo essay: a park for all seasons

For generations, urban public parks have been places for communities to meet, to connect with nature and to enjoy recreational activities. Parks have multiple benefits for biodiversity, human health and the environment. They can help with flood prevention and during the summer can help control temperatures and humidity.

One of the oldest public parks in the UK is Glasgow Green, a short walk from the centre of Scotland’s biggest city. In 1450, the Bishop of Glasgow gifted the common lands of Glasgow Green to the people, and for centuries it was the city’s only green public space. The park has witnessed some important moments in the city’s history, including demonstrations, sporting and cultural events.

During the early years of the industrial revolution, the park became an oasis for residents from unhealthy housing and working conditions. Similarly, in our own times, Glasgow Green has been an important refuge during the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, Glasgow Green remains open 24 hours a day, with its 136 acres of lawns, flowerbeds, fountains and architectural monuments maintained by workers from Glasgow City Council’s Parks Department. This photo essay reflects on some of the sights and stories associated with Glasgow’s oldest public park.

Flora, fauna and the Glasgow Green geese

Glasgow Green is home to a variety of plants, flowers and trees, as well as a wide range of wildlife species, including birds, butterflies and red foxes. One of the more unexpected sights in the park is a flock of geese.

For more than 50 years, geese were deployed to guard the stocks of Ballantines whisky maturing in Dunbartonshire warehouses. Geese are famously territorial, and act as a vocal alarm against intruders. With the advent of CCTV in the 1990s, the “Ballantines Bodyguards” were retired to Glasgow Green, and placed in the care of the Glasgow Humane Society. Coincidentally, their new home looks onto a grain distillery, perhaps serving as a reminder of their past life.

A gathering place for sport and culture

In all weathers, Glasgow Green attracts walkers, cyclists and joggers, as well as offering open spaces for team sports. Rowers from both Glasgow and Strathclyde University boat clubs train on the River Clyde beside Glasgow Green.  The park also has strong historical sporting connections. Golf was played here as early as the 16th century, and Glasgow’s two famous football teams – Celtic and Rangers – were both established on Glasgow Green. In 2014, the Glasgow Green Hockey Centre was opened in time to host matches for the Commonwealth Games.

Glasgow Green has also played host to some of the biggest names in music, from Radiohead and Iggy Pop to Coldplay and Lewis Capaldi. In 1990, the park hosted a summer concert celebrating Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, headlined by local heroes Deacon Blue. In the summer months, Glasgow Green also hosts the World Pipe Band Championships and Proms in the Park.  

Glasgow’s Arc de Triomphe

The McLennan Arch started life in 1796 as part of Robert and James Adams’ Assembly Rooms in the city centre. When these buildings were demolished, the arch was reconstructed at the northern edge of Glasgow Green. Since then it has been moved three more times, reaching its final resting place in 1991, a gateway to Glasgow Green’s western perimeter.

History matters: demonstrations, rallies and the birthplace of the industrial revolution

Glasgow Green has always been a focal point for popular demonstrations. In the 19th century, trade unionists and Chartists gathered in the park to campaign for workers’ civil rights. During the 1930s, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, thousands gathered in Glasgow Green to support the Spanish Republic against General Franco and his fascist allies. More recently, the park has seen rallies against war in Iraq and in support of Scottish independence.  

Close to the centre of the park, a statue of James Watt commemorates one of the driving forces of the industrial revolution. It’s believed that Watt came up with the idea for fixing the inefficiencies of the steam engine while taking a stroll on Glasgow Green. The moment of inspiration was the vital spark that would revolutionise Britain’s mining, iron, transport and manufacturing industries.

In the summer of 2020, a Black Lives Matter demonstration took place on Glasgow Green, and a notice was placed on the James Watt statue highlighting his role in the trafficking of enslaved people. History is being reassessed in Glasgow, a city that richly benefitted from the proceeds of the Virginia tobacco plantations and the slave trade.

A river runs through it

The River Clyde flows alongside Glasgow Green. In recent years, environmental protection regulations have cleaned up the river, and there are plans to make the Clyde a focal point of economic regeneration. However, the legacy of Glasgow’s industrial past continues to affect the river. A 2019 report by the Clyde Gateway regeneration agency revealed that toxic waste from a former chemicals factory was leaking into the river, posing risks to human health and the environment. Clyde Gateway and Glasgow City Council have been taking remedial action until a permanent solution can be found.

From carpets to cocktails

One of the most impressive architectural features of Glasgow Green is the Templeton Building. It was opened in 1892, and designed by William Leiper who modelled the building on the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The façade of the building reflects the exotic designs of the carpets that were made there for almost 100 years. The building has also been touched by tragedy. During construction, a gust of wind brought one of the walls down on a shed, where a large number of young women were weaving carpets. 29 of them died in the east end’s worst peacetime disaster.

Today, the Templeton building contains apartments, offices and a microbrewery. During the summer months of 2020, the bar extended its beer garden to create an open-air restaurant for visitors to meet together when the lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

A clean sheet

Almost from the start of its history in the 15th century, Glasgow Green was used for household washing and drying. The drying green, opposite the Templeton Building, was in regular use until 1977. The women of Glasgow washed their clothes in the nearby wash-houses (or “steamies”) and then chatted together while their weekly wash dried in the open air. Today, while the iron poles have been retained, they are rarely used for drying clothes.

On International Women’s Day in 2019, the drying green enjoyed a comeback when 30 bed sheets were hung to celebrate the work of women past and present. Local businesses sponsored each of the sheets, women gathered to celebrate their mothers and grandmothers, and the proceeds from the day went to charity.

The never-ending story

Glasgow Green is unique, but like so many other public parks around the UK, it is an important community resource, a gathering place and a link between the past and the present.

A study by the Social Market Foundation reported on research that estimated the wellbeing value of UK parks and green spaces at £32.4bn. A further 2020 report by NESTA highlighted the threat to parks as a result of budget cutbacks imposed on local authorities, noting that some councils have reduced spending on parks by as much as 87%.

But during the pandemic, the value of parks has suddenly become clearer, as individuals, families and communities have rediscovered the benefits of spending time in green open spaces. As visitor numbers have soared, councils have acknowledged the importance of parks. In March 2021, Liverpool City Council became the first UK local authority to legally protect the future of its parks and green spaces. As the council’s acting mayor observed:

“…the benefits aren’t just health related. Access to green spaces improves our neighbourhoods, tackles climate change, supports education and economic growth and they frequently become the stage on which we host many of our hugely popular cultural celebrations.”

That’s certainly true of Glasgow Green. More than 500 years after its establishment, the park continues to generate joy and jobs, stories and memories. Glasgow Green truly is a park for all seasons.


Further reading: more on parks from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

15 minutes to change the world: people-friendly neighbourhoods for a post-lockdown recovery

Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

What kinds of cities do we want to live in? It’s a question that has taken on increased urgency in the past year. But even before the global pandemic, there was growing concern about how to address the challenges facing the world’s cities, especially the threat of climate change.

Tackling traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, improving sustainable mobility and ensuring easy access to green space and essential services are all significant factors that can advance the quality of life in our urban areas. The lockdowns and other restrictions imposed by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have thrown these issues into sharper focus.

An alternative vision

There is now a growing consensus that a new road map is needed for the development of liveable cities. This means changing lifestyles so that sociability, sustainability and wellbeing are prioritised – in short, the common good should drive decisions about urban planning.

One of the ideas for promoting this approach is the 15 minute neighbourhood, in which home, education, work, healthcare and other essential services are all within a 15 minute reach by walking or cycling. This is the vision of Professor Carlos Moreno, scientific director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

In a recent webinar, organised by Solace and Catapult Connected Places, Professor Moreno outlined his concept, where the six functions for city life –  living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying – are all within easy reach, making neighbourhoods not just convenient places to stay, but satisfying places to live.

The concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood contradicts urban planning ideas that have predominated for more than a century, where residential areas have been separated from business, retail, industry and entertainment. Professor Moreno stressed that the new approach requires careful planning and implementation, political will and financial support from local and national authorities, and – essentially – the engagement of citizens.

A rapid, radical transformation

The first wave of lockdowns in 2020 showed that it is possible for radical change in our cities to happen far quicker than we might have ever imagined. In a matter of days, millions of people changed their lifestyles, with many working from home and travelling only locally for essential provisions. Soaring numbers of visitors to parks demonstrated the importance of local green spaces for physical and mental health. And in some UK cities, reduced levels of traffic led to improvements in air quality.

Of course, keeping large sections of the population confined to home has had many negative effects, and lockdowns are not part of the 15-minute neighbourhoods concept. Instead, the opportunity has arisen for an equitable and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 restrictions by rethinking the way cities work.

Paris: the 15-minute city

As special envoy for smart cities to the mayor of Paris, Carlos Moreno has been influential in the city’s decision to turn miles of roads in the French capital into cycle lanes. Reducing traffic is a key component of the concept, and can help cities achieve their targets for lowering the emissions that every year cause millions of premature deaths and countless more health impacts. In addition, Professor Moreno envisions greater use of remote working to reduce commuting times, as well as opening schools for community activities at weekends. With less time spent travelling to work, shops and healthcare services, people can enjoy a slower pace of life, devoting more time to families, friends and leisure, which in turn can bring multiple health and wellbeing benefits.

Paris’s advanced participatory budgeting scheme is a critical element for ensuring the 15-minute city concept thrives. 10% of the city’s spending is determined by participatory budgeting processes at neighbourhood level, meaning residents have the opportunity to participate in the design and selection of projects to be implemented in their own local area.

A growing interest in living locally

Paris is not alone in attempting to realise the 15 minute neighbourhood vision. Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan and Portland are all exploring this approach, and it has also been endorsed by the C40 network of cities that are committed to addressing climate change.

In Melbourne, the city’s plan for growth over the next 35 years is guided by the principle of living locally. Its 20-minute neighbourhood plan was launched in 2018, and is being delivered in two stages to test the practicalities of delivering the concept across the city.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government has a strong focus on localism, and in a recent webinar, Scotland’s Chief Architect highlighted a 20-minute neighbourhood project in Edinburgh. The city council’s local place plan includes many elements that will be familiar to the proponents of 15 minute neighbourhoods, including new opportunities for cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

A lifeline or a threat?

Encouraging residents to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time locally will be music to the ears of smaller town centres. Even before the pandemic many local businesses were struggling to adjust to the changing habits of their customers. A resurgence of neighbourhood life could be the lifeline they need.

At the same time, a move towards more localised living could pose a threat to high streets in bigger cities. A recent paper in Covid Economics found evidence that higher levels of home-working has led to the relocation of economic activity from a few densely populated city centres to the suburbs. A further study by Centre for Cities found that in the UK’s 11 largest city centres, spending did not recover last summer when restrictions were eased after the first national lockdown.

Policymakers and planners will be watching these developments with great interest, as they have significant implications for economic activity in towns and cities. If the mass adoption of remote working hardens into a permanent feature, the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that once depended on a steady stream of office workers could go out of business. Once-bustling city centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and London could turn into ghost towns. But if workers return to their offices in large numbers, the momentum for 15-minute neighbourhoods could be lost.

Final thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives, but it has also presented the opportunity to rebalance our thinking about how and where we want to live, learn, work and play. The 15-minute neighbourhood is part of that process. As Carlos Moreno has observed:

 “The pandemic has caused us to think about how to move differently, to consume differently, to live differently. We are discovering that by working differently we have more spare time, to have more time to be with our families or friends. We are discovering and appreciating our neighbourhoods much more. This will make us all more engaged inhabitants.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on liveable cities:

Building sights: how offsite construction could help solve the housing shortage

“Offsite construction” by psd is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Long waiting lists, high rents, thousands sleeping rough, millions living in insecure or unsuitable homes and a generation of young people priced out of the market: these are the hallmarks of the UK’s broken housing system.

In England, the government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But in 2019, the number of new homes amounted to 170,000 – fewer than half of which were affordable homes. It’s a situation that is almost certain to get worse. Housing analysts have suggested that the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 will mean a 30% reduction in homes delivered.

Local authorities are rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. Between 1999 and 2002, councils delivered just 60 new homes as a consequence of central government housing policy. But in recent years councils have been returning to housebuilding in large numbers. A 2019 RTPI report found that:

“…more than two thirds of local authorities are now involved in directly delivering housing and local authorities are delivering homes in numbers not seen for 20 years.”

In the same year, The Guardian newspaper highlighted some examples of council housing projects:

“Bournemouth is building housing above many of its surface car parks, and has won planning awards for the results. Wigan is transforming tricky former mining sites with an exemplary programme of housing for older people. Exeter has one of Europe’s largest Passivhaus schemes underway, while Liverpool is developing rent-to-buy homes.”

Going modular

But if councils are to succeed in their efforts to deliver more affordable, low carbon housing, they will need to change the way homes are built. Increasingly, prefabricated modular construction is being seen as a way to meet some of the demand for new housing. Built offsite in factories, with fittings included, prefabricated housing offers comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly.

An article in the 12 November 2020 issue of MJ magazine reported further benefits, noting that:

“…these homes are delivered with up to 40% less carbon, fewer defects, and less disruption to neighbourhoods where sites are located. Once completed the fact they are made in a factory is not obvious to the passer by or occupant, it is just great housing, beautifully built, with low running costs.”

A shortage of skilled labour presents another reason why the old ways of building homes need to change, as a 2016 review of the construction market highlighted:

“We will not have the labour force to deliver what the country needs by working in those ways, and those ways will not create enough added value for clients or suppliers to allow construction firms to prosper, and make those investments in our people and performance.”

The report demonstrated that prefabricated housing can make a significant difference to satisfying demand:

“Tokyo alone is able to build nearly the same number of homes per year that the UK delivers nationally. This is purely due to the reliance on a different delivery model for single family homes which benefits from the mass market cultural acceptance of pre-manufactured modular housing.”

Housing the homeless

Further evidence that modern methods of construction can work well has come from a project in Cambridge, where six modular homes were installed on a temporary site to house local homeless people. A report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research noted that residents were impressed with the design, space and quality of the modular units, and were keen to be involved in efforts to build a thriving community.

The Cambridge project is especially important in the light of the UK’s large number of rough sleepers and ‘hidden homeless’. In March 2020, more than 14,000 homeless people were housed in England as part of the ‘Everyone In’ initiative to take rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. The programme was hailed as one of the leading successes of the government’s coronavirus response, but it ended in May and has not resumed during the current lockdown.

The future is modular?

So, could modular construction offer a solution to the UK’s housing shortage? Recent research published in the Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology set out to compare the traditional approach with modular construction, and to assess whether a shift in construction systems offers the potential to alleviate the UK’s domestic housing crisis. The study stressed that more research was needed to provide greater certainty about how modular methods could be more effectively grafted onto the current UK construction practices. However, the authors concluded that:

 “…modular construction promises strategic solutions to the lack of affordable housing currently experienced in the UK.”

In the meantime, recent developments suggest that the prefabricated housing sector seems to be going from strength to strength:

  • A 20,000 sq ft unit will be the manufacturing site for a new modular housing company in Durham, with plans to produce 1,000 modular homes a year.
  • A modular housing developer owned by Ikea has signed a 750-home deal with a housing association in the south of England.
  • Planning consent has been granted for 185 homes to be located in Bristol after they are shipped in from a factory in Yorkshire. Half of the homes will become part of the city council’s affordable housing stock.

The numbers of prefabricated homes are still too low. But if this trend continues, offsite construction might start to have a bigger impact on the UK’s housing shortage. The days of bricks and mortar could be numbered.


Further reading
More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on modern methods of housing:

Guest post: Sustainable cities after COVID-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?

Photo by Kaspars Upmanis on Unsplash

Guest post by Anupam Nanda, University of Manchester

The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.

The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of COVID-19 could last much longer.

In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.

Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.

The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.

The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.

The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.

There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.

Green spaces have been shown to improve mental health, as well as lead to a reduction in risk of obesity and diabetes – conditions which significantly increase vulnerability to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.

Barriers to green cities

A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.

The COVID-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.

In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.

The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks work really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.

However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.

While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.

Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, COVID-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.

Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics & Real Estate, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading: more from our blog on tackling air pollution in cities:

 

Season’s Greetings from The Knowledge Exchange

The Knowledge Exchange Information Service will be closed from 25 December, and will reopen on Monday 4 January. We wish all our readers a very happy Christmas, and best wishes for 2021.

The year of living differently: reviewing The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2020

2020 has been a year like no other. A microscopic virus – 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – has dominated, disrupted and redefined the way we live and work.

Although the pandemic is primarily a public health emergency, its effects have been felt in all areas of public and social policy, from economic development and employment to transport and the environment. Throughout this year, our blog has reflected on the impacts of the coronavirus and the restrictions introduced to prevent its spread.

The COVID-19 knock-on

While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news headlines, it has also obscured the knock-on effects on the NHS. In October, we reported on the impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures, such as screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

As the blog post noted, the impacts have been wide-ranging, including not only delays in care for case of physical ill health, but also for those seeking treatment for mental health conditions:

“Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this.”

The ‘hidden epidemic’

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence had become known as a ‘hidden epidemic’ in the UK. In September, our blog highlighted the unintended consequences of quarantine for domestic abuse victims.

After the UK entered lockdown in March, calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25%. Three-quarters of victims told a BBC investigation that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received.

Despite additional government funding, the local authorities and charities which support victims of domestic violence have been struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Even so,  important partnerships have been formed between local government, educational institutions and third sector bodies to provide safe spaces for women and their children fleeing violence. Among these was an initiative at the University of Cambridge:

St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

‘Same storm, different boats’

As the recent Marmot review has stressed, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

In July, we looked at the uneven economic impact of the pandemic, focusing on the heavy price being paid by young people, women, disabled people and Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.

Women often work in the frontline of care services and have had to juggle childcare during lockdown. BAME communities are over-represented in key-worker jobs, and so were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

And although there has been much talk about ‘building back better’, our blog post drew attention to the observations of Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland during a Poverty Alliance webinar:

“She asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.”

The impacts of a pandemic

Many other aspects of the impact of COVID-19 have been covered in our blog:

  • How housing providers have embraced the fluidity of an emergency situation, including tackling homelessness, engaging effectively with tenants and addressing mental ill health.
  • Digital healthcare solutions for those with coronavirus and for the continuity of care and day-to-day running of the NHS.
  • Creating and managing a COVID-secure workplace.
  • How COVID-19 is changing public transport, including an acceleration towards contactless payment and mobile ticketing.
  • The additional challenges of the pandemic facing autistic children and young people.
  • The impact of the coronavirus restrictions on the arts.
  • The role of green new deals in tackling climate change and economic inequality as part of the post-Covid recovery.

Beyond the virus

Although the pandemic has been at the forefront of all our minds this year, The Knowledge Exchange blog has also taken the time to focus on other important issues in public and social policy:

We’ve also taken advantage of the ‘new normal’ experience of remote working to join a number of webinars, and to report back on the observations and ideas emerging from them. Most recently, our blogs have focused on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, which included contributions on how the planning system can help address climate change.

Final thoughts

The health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting – restrictions on travel, work and socialising will continue into the spring, and insolvencies and unemployment numbers are likely to rise. And the continuing uncertainty over the UK’s new trading relationship with the European Union will generate additional challenges.   

But, as a frequently difficult, often challenging and sometimes distressing year draws to a close, there is cause for optimism about 2021. Vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus have been developed with lightning speed. Across the UK people are already being vaccinated, with greater numbers set to receive the jab in the coming months.

Here at The Knowledge Exchange, we’ll continue to highlight the key issues facing public and social policy and practice as we move towards the post-Covid era.

Season’s greetings

It’s with even greater meaning than ever before that we wish all our readers a happy Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy new year.

Best wishes from everyone at The Knowledge Exchange: Morwen, Christine, Heather, Donna, Rebecca, Scott, Hannah and James.


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Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


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Role models for a new economic landscape: lessons from Europe’s Green Capitals

Hamburg: StadtRÄDER bike rental system

Last month, the French city of Grenoble was crowned European Green Capital for 2022. Since 2010, this award has been presented by the European Commission to cities judged to be at the forefront of sustainable urban living.

Being named Europe’s Green Capital is good PR for any winning city, and the €350,000 prize is an additional incentive to win. But the award also places demands on the winners to build on the environmental improvements that helped put them in first place.

The key message of the award is that Europeans have a right to live in healthy urban areas. Cities should therefore strive to improve the quality of life of their citizens and reduce their impact on the global environment.

Cities bidding for the award are judged on a range of environmental criteria, including climate change, local transport, public green areas, air quality, noise, waste, water consumption, wastewater, sustainable land use, biodiversity and environmental management.

The award enables cities to inspire each other and to share examples of good practice. So far, 13 cities have been named European Green Capitals:

2010: Stockholm (Sweden)

2011: Hamburg (Germany)

2012: Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain)

2013: Nantes (France)

2014: Copenhagen (Denmark)

2015: Bristol (United Kingdom)

2016: Ljubljana (Slovenia)

2017: Essen (Germany)

2018: Nijmegen (Netherlands)

2019: Oslo (Norway)

2020: Lisbon (Portugal)

2021: Lahti (Finland)

2022: Grenoble (France)

Green approaches

Each city has adopted different approaches during its year as a green capital.

  • One very clear example of Stockholm’s commitment to sustainable development during its year as European Green Capital was the opening of a new tramway. The line opened in August 2010 and quickly achieved substantial environmental and economic impacts.

  • One of the campaigns during Hamburg’s year as green capital in 2011 aimed to make it easier for citizens to switch from cars to bikes and public transport. The Hamburg Transport Association distributed 2,735 free tickets to friends and acquaintances of season ticket holders, and many visitors made use of the free advisory and ‘get involved’ activities of Germany’s national bicycle club. During the year, Hamburg’s StadtRÄDER bike rental system was also promoted, resulting in an 8% increase in the number of users.

  • Even before it was named as a European Green Capital, Grenoble, had already made efforts to address noise pollution, promote cycling and reduce speed limits. It has also taken a proactive approach to maximising its limited green space by encouraging citizen-led planting initiatives. Grenoble reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005 to 2016 and is working towards a 50% reduction by 2030.

Britain’s green capital

The only UK city to be awarded the European Green Capital prize is Bristol, which held the title in 2015. The city hosted a number of art projects to raise awareness about sustainable development. Bristol also began a trial of ‘bio-buses’ powered by biomethane gas, using human waste from more than 30,000 households, an initiative that was developed further in 2020.

The selection of Bristol opened up a serious debate about  the true value of the award, with some regarding it as a distraction from Bristol’s serious environmental issues, such as traffic congestion, while others were critical of public funding for some European Green Capital projects as wasteful.

However, an important legacy from the year was the publication of the “Bristol Method”, a knowledge-transfer programme aimed at helping people in other cities understand and apply the lessons that Bristol learned in becoming a more sustainable city.

The Bristol Method is made up of a series of modules, each of which uses Bristol’s experience to present a ‘how to’ guide on a particular topic. Topics include:

  • how to use partnerships to drive change;
  • how to use grants to support grassroots change;
  • how to prepare a winning bid for the European Green Capital;
  • how to grow the green economy in a city;
  • how to get more people riding bikes and walking;
  • how to protect and enhance green spaces in a city.

Green shoots for a post-Covid recovery

Although the world is currently preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, that other serious planetary threat –  climate change – has not gone away. So it’s significant that many governments see this moment as an opportunity to build radical green policies into their packages for economic recovery.

Some of the practical ideas developed over the past decade by Europe’s Green Capitals are important in their own right, but may also be seen as key elements in rebuilding economies that have been devastated by restrictions to suppress the coronavirus.

The German city of Essen, for example, (European Green Capital in 2017) has developed one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects, restoring 80 kilometres of waterways and creating a network of green spaces. The project was not only an important climate adaptation milestone, but has also created new jobs and business opportunities. Essen has shown that it’s possible for a city which previously relied on heavy industry to transform itself into a vibrant and sustainable space for humans, animals and plants.

Another project, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, (Green Capital in 2018) is a social enterprise that collects, restores and re-sells second-hand goods. The venture prevents waste, as well as employing people who can put their repair and retail experience to good use. Similar projects across the Netherlands have collected 20,000 tonnes of goods a year, with 80% being re-used. They also provide jobs for disadvantaged and disabled people who have found it especially difficult to enter the labour market.

Europe’s Green Capitals have already become role models for green economies throughout Europe and beyond. Now they can demonstrate the economic as well as the environmental benefits of building back greener. 


Further reading: more on greener cities from The Knowledge Exchange blog