How COVID and climate change may reinforce social cohesion at a domestic level

1. Apart from COVID, a major challenge for government, in both the long and short term, is meeting climate change targets for the reduction of carbon outputs. But the White Paper on Energy and the provisions of the Environment Bill can make the targets and objectives appear inaccessible (even incomprehensible) to the average consumer.

2. COVID 19 has led to an upsurge in community spirit/neighbourliness. It would be beneficial to find a way to link improving social cohesion with controlling government spending, and to integrate high level aims with grassroots projects at a local level.

3. One of the most pressing problems likely to affect people directly, is the need to replace domestic gas boilers with low emission forms of heating in our homes. A key issue is how to ‘retro-fit’ new forms of energy into the existing housing stock, rural or urban, and whether in a large detached house with grounds, an isolated farmstead or a terraced city Victorian house, or serving a 15-storey block of flats in a densely populated urban centre.

4. There are practical implications across several areas, financial, technical & legal. The Energy White Paper Foreword shows Government has billions to spend on improving energy efficiency, especially in supporting vulnerable or low-income homes. But there’s a range of circumstances which mean many will not be able to ‘buy into’ the project. Tenants, or people with terminal illnesses or reaching the end of their natural life span will have no reason to instal a heat pump or join any ‘District Heating Scheme’. Previous research on that topic should be re-evaluated.

5. There’s always a risk that Government funding for Intermediaries’ fees may soak up money intended for the infrastructure improvements (as in neighbourhood planning). Ideally Government funds will be channelled more effectively, whilst also building social cohesion. So projects involving numerous households sharing a scheme could include incentives to share/work together, and/or tapering reliefs and model legal agreements. Collaboration on schemes of mutual benefit is known to help social cohesion. Such schemes must build in proper maintenance costs over the long term, and legally enforceable access to shared facilities (as in many leases), plus flexibility for a few to ‘buy into’/join a scheme later, as their circumstances change or property changes hands. NB: leasehold enfranchisement arrangements may offer a comparison, and the buy-in provisions for LB Bexley in the TFL + Five Boroughs Agreement (quasi s.106) for the abandoned Thames Gateway Bridge.

6. There is a range of devices for reducing carbon outputs, such as the “ground source heat pump”, the “air source heat pump”, or a much larger shared geo-thermal installation, (as in Swaffham Prior Village). Larger underground schemes count as “engineering operations” which need planning permission (cf Castle Howard’s pump under its Lake). Smaller wall-mounted air source devices may not. But thought should be given to instituting a licensing system for the smaller schemes, conditional on use of an approved Eco-design & compliance with any registration process), to keep them out of the delay and complexity of getting full planning consent.

7. The cost of individual installations seems to range from a few £1,000 to £20K. The possibility of sharing installations has not been explored in depth across the range of dwellings and landscape nationwide. What suits London will not suit Cumbria. Local authorities will already know their local landscape and housing stock, and hopefully can assess which types of heat pumps etc would be most appropriate in their area. This is not something that central government authorities can deal with so effectively. It would be helpful to undertake a consultation with local authorities on this issue, to calculate number and type of installations required, and likely cost & potential subsidies. Feedback from Eden District Council in Cumbria will be very different from (eg) LB Brent. Councils may already have a “Green Energy” specialist, but if not, they could be funded to develop this expertise, straddling planning and environmental health, and to provide monitoring & annual progress reports (and enforcement).

8. Installations must also have their details recorded on a public register, so that any new owner can confidently discover the exact size, type and location of any retro-fitted system. Any linked financial liability should be noted as a ‘financial charge’ in the Local Land Charges Registry. Details would be in the routine Local Search when ownership changes. This would be a routine conveyancing check.

9. Schemes like the Green Homes grant inevitably have glitches and delays. For many people the capital cost will be a big deterrent to replacing their existing heating system. So Government Funds – held by a public authority – could be used both: – To smooth out such glitches and get contractors paid promptly (once they prove compliance by lodging any registration details required), and: – To subsidise installations until they have paid for themselves (often 7 – 10 years). Rather than a massive outlay, the owners/users would simply continue to pay their bills at the old rate, and the monthly amount saved would be off-set against the capital cost allocated to the individual property. At any point it should be possible to find out how much was outstanding on any property individually or in a shared scheme. Once the capital was re-paid, the owners’ energy bills would reduce substantially. Planned regular maintenance must be in-built as part of the calculation. Linking public funds to compliance should provide better control over their spending and effectiveness.

10. Summary Shared schemes, such as at Swaffham Prior (Times 9.1.21, p19), and properly regulated subsidies could provide a long term boost to a temporary uplift in good neighbourliness, provided too much red tape and delay is avoided. They would encourage job creation in technical areas, and a useful niche specialism in local government, whilst not adversely affecting the housing market and minimising landscape impact over a wide national area.




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