Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Watering down SUDS

I did wonder whether or not it was coincidence that the Annual Meeting of the Inland Flood Risk Management Group meeting was help on the top floor of the Local Government Association’s HQ in Smiths Square, London. Did they know something the rest of us didn’t or were they just being overly cautious?

Flooding in Armitage Bridge 2008
This was the first meeting of the group I had been to as their incoming Chair. The outgoing Chair for the last 4 years Cllr Mike Haines was leading proceedings and my role was very much to meet people and pick up the key issues and debate on current matters regarding flood risk. We started off with an interesting presentation on SUDS or Sustainable Drainage Systems to you and me. The basic issue is that due to climate change we are getting much more sustained heavy rain events. This coupled with the growth of impermeable concrete and tarmac surfaces (and less green fields for water to drain into) means that flooding events are becoming much more common. Events such as the Armitage Bridge flood is just one example among a growing number of flash floods that have affected communities. So flooding is not just about rising sea levels it is also about the capacity of our current drainage systems to cope with increasingly heavy rainfall. SUDS are techniques and methods of reducing run off of rainwater into conventional drainage systems. This could mean use of permeable paving or reed beds to aid slow release of rainwater into drains. This clearly is an issue for Planning Committees to consider and the draft National Planning Policy Framework also has things to say about SUDS. So I suppose you might expect SUDS would be used in all developments if we want to reduce flooding risk. Unfortunately it is not quite that simple. The message from DEFRA in the meeting was quite clear and it could be summed up as follows, “To promote growth regulation should not add cost”. So if SUDS are likely to make a development morecostly and so unviable then the developer could simply argue that they don’t want to do it and proceed with a conventional drainage solution. The question I asked was, “The National Planning Policy Framework has a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. If the developer says it is unaffordable to put in a Sustainable Drainage System it is by definition ‘unsustainable’ does this make it fundamentally out of step with the principles of the NPPF?” Well the question got a few knowing laughs from those present as we all basically knew that arguments for economic growth are paramount in the NPPF and ‘sustainability’ is so ill defined as to be meaningless anyway. The truth is that SUDS can in many cases be cheaper to install and maintain than conventional drainage systems but my principle concern is that standards and principles of development and regulation itself can be set aside in the name of economic growth. As a Green it is a principle for me that we don’t compromise our environment as ultimately this does not make economic sense. In actuality how much of an issue will this be?  I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating so we’ll have to wait and see but my concerns were certainly shared by many of the local authority officers at the meeting one of whom without a trace of irony said SUDS appears to be being ‘watered down’. A local SUDS Advisory Board will decide what is viable/affordable but I guess the question is what happens if there is a dispute with the developer? Is there an appeal process?

Lord Chris Smith, former Labour Cabinet Minister and current Chairman of the Environment Agency, spoke about the separation of responsibility for surface water flooding and watercourses from them to Local Authorities. They have also been holding capacity building workshops for Local Authorities to help  them with their new responsibilities and around 96% of Local Authorities have been involved in these which is pretty impressive. The key concern for the Environment Agency like many bodies is reduced funding and reduced capacity. It has a stretching target of giving 145,000 houses better flood defences yet has fewer officers on the ground and will be commenting only on high risk planning applications. The concern is that applications which might have been improved or benefitted from their input will now slip through the net.
All in all this was a useful primer for me to get a background in the key issues and test out some opinions on people who are much better informed than I am. I’m looking forward to learning much more about flood risk over the next year.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Green Deal - The challenge from Kirklees Warm Zone.

Article produced for the Heating and Hot Water Industry Council Journal

How compelling an offer will Green Deal be?
 With the Government’s Green Deal a year away it is a good time to look back at ‘what works’ in delivering large scale energy efficiency programmes and think about how Green Deal might match, or hopefully surpass, the very best practice.

Kirklees Warm Zone is something I know a lot about. I proposed the amendment that made this insulation scheme free to private householders back in February 2007. It has since gone on to win awards, be regularly referred to by ministers and has been held up as a beacon of best practice. A strong team of people worked on it and it is backed by years of experience of project managing energy efficiency programmes by the Council. DECC regularly updates statistics for local authority insulation levels and Kirklees remains at the top of that list with the highest proportion of housing stock insulated out of all local authorities in the country. The properties that didn’t receive insulation either already had it installed, were hard to treat with conventional insulation or there were access difficulties.

There’s plenty of impressive statistics in the Kirklees Warm Zone final report from the 3 and ½ years that the programme ran for:

• 51,155 properties received insulation (either cavity wall , loft insulation or both measures)

• 16,111 households received Benefits advice

• £1.6 million new benefits entitlement levered in (estimate)

• 111,174 households received free low energy light bulbs

• 602 households received central heating funded by local or regional schemes

• 2033 households were referred to Warm Front for central heating

• 106 jobs created directly for the schemes

• 200-250 jobs created indirectly

• 5.5 points increase in SAP

• 1,375 households taken out of fuel poverty

• £3.9 million fuel expenditure saving per year

• 23,000 tonnes CO2/yr savings average

There’s plenty to comment on here. The issue I mention most often in Council meetings is the economic regeneration benefits of Kirklees Warm Zone. For an investment of little over £10 million by Kirklees (and a similar amount by Scottish Power from CERT funding) around £4 million goes back into the local economy each year from savings on household fuel bills. Every time that the cost of fuel goes up, so also does the value of the energy savings. With the recent rises in gas prices the ‘payback’ on Kirklees Warm Zone has shrunk considerably.

Kirklees Warm Zone was certainly influential to an extent, though not as much as many of us wished. The Scottish Government’s Home Insulation Scheme was introduced as a response to the Scottish Green Party MSP’s unsuccessful attempt in 2009 to get the Kirklees Scheme replicated in the whole of Scotland. Energy Efficiency programmes run by the Greater London Assembly and also a number of small scale area based schemes have been strongly influenced by the Kirklees model. Interestingly very few have followed the ‘free insulation for all’ approach we pioneered. There are a number of reasons for this lack of replication of good practice not least of which is the severe constraints on public sector funding that has put paid to many worthy projects as Councils concentrate on cost cutting and trying to deliver basic services. Another important factor is the long policy hiatus as we await the Green Deal to begin. There’s not a lot of point beginning a 3 or 4 year programme to insulate all the housing in your area if the funding mechanism that supports it, in this case CERT, will be abolished in 2012 and the Energy Company Obligation that replaces it will not significantly help replicate Kirklees style insulation schemes.

One of the key challenges Kirklees Warm Zone offers to Green Deal is to match or exceed the rate at which carbon is saved. The scheme was limited to just over 3 years as part of a systematic, door by door, street by street, area based approach, with the aim of been able to say “job done” for basic insulation measures in the district by 2010. By the end we were able to show how quickly we could save carbon with a concerted, time limited, programme with a compelling offer. If Government policy truly recognises the urgency of addressing climate change then it is the speed of carbon saving that is important. Green Deal needs to rapidly ramp up into being a big saver of carbon, not a half hearted option for householders to consider, for only the committed to embrace and one which many will discount and ignore.

Green Deal is of course a much bigger proposition in terms of measures that will be on offer. It is not just cavity wall and loft insulation but solid wall insulation, internal dry lining, better heating controls , efficient boilers and microgeneration too. So in many ways the potential for Green Deal to exceed any other energy efficiency scheme to date is huge. Green Deal does not however lend itself easily to area based approaches. There could be many providers in an area all trying to sell pretty much the same product. Consumer protection and confidence in the Green Deal offer is going to be crucial if the scheme is going to get off the starting blocks without a hiccup and also for its long term reputation as a trusted energy efficiency provider.

Like many others, I want Green Deal to succeed and the lesson from Kirklees Warm Zone is that the offer to the householder has to be compelling. In this case the loan arrangements have got to be unequivocally a ‘no brainer’ for the householder. The ‘golden rule’ by which savings in fuel bills meet or exceed loan repayments needs to be guaranteed. The costs of the work carried out under Green Deal needs to match or be cheaper than could be obtained independently from a contractor. The interest rates offered for loans under Green Deal should be attractive and better than could be obtained on the High Street.

The role of the Local Authority is key to the Green Deal’s success. Local Authorities are generally trusted bodies, they are permanent institutions, where people can go when they need support with concerns and issues. Local Authorities have access to householders through a range of media including letters, websites and an array of publications. Local Authorities now need to realise their power in assisting the delivery of Green Deal and conveying that effectively to the potential providers. The resultant partnerships should be good for Councils, the providers, the Green Deal itself and most importantly the householders benefiting from it.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Scrap time

Drain covers at a Huddersfield scrapyard
 I had an interesting morning today with Kirklees Licensing and West Yorkshire Police doing spot checks of registered and unregistered scrap yards and dealer. The first visit to an unregistered scrap dealer lead to an arrest for a drugs offence.  The other visits to scrapyards involved the checking of records against what we could see around the premises. We came across aluminium beer kegs which are not supposed to be sold as scrap, some very suspicious looking lead with no real explanation of its source and drain hole grates and covers. It was a good thing to do and sent a strong message that the authorities are keen to keep an eye on scrap dealers particularly with the number of lead and copper pipe and wire thefts going on out there. This is often linked, as so much crime is, to feeding drug addiction. It is an issue that many of us come across all the time. Burton Village Hall where we held our Parish meetings had the lead ripped off the roof three times. This is a community building run by volunteers and can ill afford this sort of crime. In Newsome the Roundhouse at Hall Bower Lane has also had similar lead thefts.

Police and Kirklees Licensing officers at a scrap yard
 So what can the Council do to try and raise the standards in the local scrap dealers and stone merchants industry? My contribution to this question is to suggest a voluntary code of conduct for the industry which the Police, the Council and possibly Trading Standards would endorse. The code would ask scrap dealers and stone merchants to sign up to the following or similar:

  • to inform the Police immediately of any suspicious metal/stone presented to them on their premises
  • to not not accept drain covers and beer kegs as scrap
  • to commit to ask the people presenting scrap lead and copper wire where they have got the material from and to make a record of their response
  • to prominently display posters around their premises saying they will report any suspicious scrap/stone presented to them to the police
  • to refuse entry to anyone who turns up in a taxi to deliver scrap
In return Kirklees, West Yorkshire Police and Trading Standards would display on their websites lists of companies that sign up to the voluntary code of conduct. This will mean that law abiding people wanting to use a scrap merchant legitimately to recycle metals will be able to choose one which at least publicly says it opposes receiving stolen material. The Council could provide logos and signage for the scrap dealers to display around their sites. Of course a voluntary code has its limitations but at least people will know something about the companies that do sign up and importantly they will also know something about those who don't.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Lib Dems call for end to tuition fees - 11 years ago

Kirklees Lib Dems in 2000
'Abandon loans'
While mucking out the cellar I discovered this classic Lib Dem leaflet from 2000. We see here Rana Younas Lib Dem Candidate (a nice chap as I remember him) standing with some students at Athene Court, Ashenhurst calling for tuition fees to be abolished. They had just been introduced by the then Labour Government. It does however get better than this on the rear of the leaflet they have a piece calling on the government to 'abandon student loans'. I'm not going to comment on this . The facts speak for themselves I think

Thursday, 22 September 2011

They're on! - Newsome South Methodist Church Solar Panels are fitted

They're on! After a jigsaw of fundraising and real commitment from the folks at Newsome South Methodist their solar panels are on. This is only part of the story. More insulation has gone into the roof and better controls. It is great to have yet another solar project in the Newsome Ward. Hart Street, Ing Lane Bungalows next!

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Electric Dreams?

Kirklees Councils Electric Vehicle Fleet
  The EU Seminar I went to in Rotherham on electric vehicles yesterday was illuminating in many ways. The capital cost of electric vehicles remains a key issue. There is still a significant premium cost above that of fossil fuelled vehicles. That is going to remain a significant barrier for many. The benefit of electric vehicles is the low revenue costs with a full charge overnight costing anywhere between £1-£2 to give 100 miles or more of motoring. With the life of the battery for new vehicles of at least 10 years you can see that there are sums to be done to work out the financial benefit in whole life cost terms for electric vehicles over petrol /diesel ones. I'm not convinced this work has been adequately done. I'm not going to attempt to do that here, but of course every time there is a fuel price rise the economics will change so there needs to be a predictive element to any calculations that are made.

The issue of 'well to wheel' came up with regard to carbon emissions related to the electricity used by electric vehicles. My own view is that there is a lot of lazy analysis by opponents of electric vehicles which doesn't fully take into account the benefits of overnight charging  using the spinning demand of the generators or the lower carbon mix from the use of wind energy generated at night. There are also the  plans to decarbonise electricity generation anyway so it makes sense to start to develop ways of storing energy that could be produced from a range of renewable technologies. Electric cars are part of the solution to our energy and transport problems.

Each local authority involved in the EU Programme was asked to provide information on how many vehicles the Council used, including the 'grey fleet' (employees own vehicles). For Kirklees this was 1050 vehicles including 1 x Electric 3.5 Tonnes Transit Tipper truck. This vehicle was purchased for emptying all the street bins around Huddersfield Town Centre and is a familiar sight to shoppers and it has a nice 'Tackling Climate Change' livery. It was  purchased as a result of one of our budget deals around 4 or 5 years ago and it is charged up every night at the Incinerator (sorry Waste to Energy Plant!) Effectively it is charged up by burning peoples household rubbish. Whatever your views about incineration , and my own are mixed, this is charging a vehicle at nil additional cost to the Council. Sadly the truck is still a lone electric addition to the Councils fleet.

One of the tangible frustrations Councillor Roger Stone of Rotherham had was the seeming reluctance/inability of the manufacturers present to lower the prices of their vehicles even with the 'tempting' carrot of the additional buying power offered by joint procurement. The story from the manufacturers is that there is not much if any margin on the product and production is not up to capacity yet anyway, so the opportunity to bring prices down is not high. The £5000 grant from the government obviously helps but there's still several thousand pounds above the costs of a petrol/diesel equivalent to find. Talking to one of the manufacturers I tried a different angle by asking what value they would place in marketing terms to a council that really went out of its way to promote electric vehicles. I suggested a package of measures:
  • lower fees for the licensing of taxis/private hire electric vehicles
  • Taxi ranks with electric charging points
  • Free on street parking for electric vehicles for the next 3 years
  • Charging points for electric vehicle at car parks
  • Section 106 agreements to install charging points on new developments
  • Promotion of the benefits of electric vehicles in council media and publications
  • More demonstration vehicles by the Council itself
These are just a few ideas but if Councils are to engage with electric vehicle manufacturers then joint procurement at this stage doesn't seem  a very fruitful or easy route, so other ways have to be explored which can help create a buzz (hum?) ampong the populus. We need imaginative policies which are about engaging with the industry to grab their enthusiasm and interest.  Councils need to show a genuine desire for a lasting partnership which goes on to deliver a significant concerntration of electric vehicle use.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Friend and relation

Cllr Friend Cooper, Mayor of Rotherham 1976
Today saw me heading to Rotherham Town Hall for a seminar on electric vehicles as part of an EU project on action to address climate change. I'd never been to the Town Hall before but I did remember that my Grandad told me that his brother, Friend Cooper, had been a Councillor in Rotherham. I thought I'd have a nose round and see if his name was on anything around the place. So I was chuffed to discover this photo of him on the wall showing him in his Mayoral robes in 1976. He was of course an 'Old Labour' Councillor. A couple of people I spoke to knew him including Cllr Roger Stone who was hosting the event. I unfortunately never met him. He had a gift name for his election leaflet 'Vote Friend'.

I've never really considered my family to be very political really apart from my brother Richard (the Tory Cllr in Harrogate), my Grandad on my mum's side who was an Independent Cllr (Tory really) and now Cllr Friend Cooper. This 'non political' family argument of mine doesn't seem to be going too well!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Time is reversing. The signs are everywhere.

Back in 2000. Eleven years ago the Green Group on Kirklees cut our first budget deal. We thought it was crazy that Planning Notices were anonymous bits of paper sellotaped to lamp posts. They could easily be missed by people and the implications could be a lack of objections to controversial applications . Decisions could be passed without comment leading to anything from an unsympathetic development on someones street to 'heaven preserve us' a wind turbine in a field. In 2000 we stopped that following our budget deal with Labour. Planning Notices were to be put on bright yellow corex boards saying 'PLANNING NOTICE' on them. Now quietly, without approval, this policy has been dropped. In Kirkburton today I saw this anonymous piece of paper on a lamp post, clinging on for dear life hoping a gust of wind didn't tear it away from the moorings provided for it. It was a relatively cheap policy but in these times of spending cuts (when bankers have been given 8 years to seperate their gambling and banking divisions) we have to make, penny pinching, but real cuts in small things which make society better, which inform people about things that affect their lives on a day to day basis.

Going back to the future here's what it used to be like. Here we see Kirkburton Greens Derek Hardcastle and Michelle Atkinson next to the old style Planning Noticeboard which stands out and won't be overlooked. OK this cut is not the same as the slashing of Housing Benefit, the clamp down on disability allowances. It is not as infuriating as the Tories, seriously, unbelievably and perversely considering cutting the 50% tax rate for the rich. It is however another nail in the coffin of progress and Labour have implemented it on the Council in response to teh Coalition Government cuts agenda. Is there anything worse than when politicians decide things go backwards in a society.

A rubbish decision lacking transparency forced on the Council by a rubbish government with a lousy sense of priorities who are kept in power by the Liberal Democrats. There is not nearly enough anger at the moment about this government.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Top Green Blogs - 7 UP!

In the Total Politics Green Blog Awards ' Greening Kirklees' hits number 15 up from 22 last year. Real honours go to Kirklees Green Party member and former Kirkburton Parish Councillor for Grange Moor Adrian Cruden. Adrian writes his blog under the title 'Viridis Lumen' which comes in from nowhere straight to number 3. It's a good blog with more analysis and less bad jokes than this one so richly deserved. I'll have to up my game for next year! Over the next week or so we'll get the results of the Top Councillor Blogs so I'll see if I appear in that one.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Dead and buried?

'Dead and buried' would have been a better headline but I'm glad it wasn't used with my photo by it! Maybe the Examiner are saving that one pending the outcome of the Planning Committee meeting.
Stirley Hill is an area is an area I know very well. I've delivered Green Party leaflets round there for years and also to the nearby houses and farms. I walk just below it on my way into town from Brockholes. It also is the only strip of land that has a shared boundary between the Newsome and Kirkburton Wards. On one side of the boundary I'm a Kirklees Councillor and on the other a Parish Councillor for Farnley Tyas and Thurstonland. It has a bleak beauty up there and great views over Huddersfield and across to the moorlands and is of course it is one of the backdrops to Castle Hill.

Local residents, 3 MPs, Kirkburton Parish Council and all 6 Kirklees Ward Cllrs either side of the site object to the proposal to put a cemetery there. The objections are not all about the visual impact of a site for 2700 graves, there are real concerns as to its suitability as a cemetery. There are issues with drainage on the site with standing water frequently seen on it (Kirklees say they can sort it).  It is fairly inaccessible for many people and the rural bus services past the site are constantly under threat. Local roads up to Stirley Hill have poor sight lines and in winter snow can be standing on the ground for long periods. It is far from ideal and far from where most people live

'Dead and buried' would have been a better headline but I'm glad it wasn't used with my photo by it!