Gordon Brown has said that he wants all new houses to be carbon neutral by 2016. His government has also made much of its plans to create “eco-towns” of newly built sustainable homes.
The fundamental problem, however, is that New Labour believes the market has the solution, when in fact it’s the source of the problem.
Cutting carbon emissions is an urgent task. Rising emissions are causing severe climate change with disastrous consequences.
As ever, it’s the poor who suffer first and most, as graphically illustrated by the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the recent cyclone in Bangladesh.
The homes we live in – or rather, the way we live in them – are responsible for 25 percent of Britain’s carbon emissions.
Improving design and construction can certainly play a part in reducing this – for example better insulation and windows can substantially reduce energy used on heating. In Germany there are already thousands of homes that are so energy efficient they can reduce heating costs by 90 percent.
Less heating means less burning of fossil fuels – so less carbon emissions – as well as lower bills. Solar panels can heat water for almost nothing after the initial outlay, while forms of combined heat and power can produce cheaper energy and cut emissions by up to 30 percent.
Technology can make a real difference, but it’s only part of the answer. I regularly attend gatherings of the house building industry – and I include housing associations as part of that industry.
If government policy doesn’t change, it is these private companies who are charged with the responsibility of building sustainable homes. They’re not going to do it.
Estimates vary, but some say the cost of building a “zero carbon” home adds up to 30 percent onto building costs.
Assuming housing policy does not change, the expectation is that most new homes will be for private sale. A 30 percent price increase is not a cost that developers will either be willing to absorb or add to the selling price in a falling property market.
Private developers are also conservative – in more ways than one.
They often have a very fixed view about what a house should look like. Developers worry that any deviation will hit their profits and they certainly don’t want to invest in the renewable energy technologies that are crucial to meeting the government’s 2016 target.
The house building industry is wedded to a concept of individualism. Having a mortgage is the ultimate expression of this and is strongly reinforced by the government’s obsession with increasing home ownership.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with buying your own home, but we need to think about the impact on society and the environment, and the costs – financial and environmental – of individualised heating, laundry and so on.
The most obvious and pressing reason for building more council housing is that there is a critical shortage of genuinely affordable housing, but we should also see a restoration of municipally owned and democratically controlled housing as a vital step in helping our environment.
We need our house builders to be properly accountable – to us, not their shareholders or management boards. As well as affordable rents and security of tenure, we need homes that people can afford to run and heat.
A lot of our council housing stock is already more energy efficient than the alternatives and has greater potential to benefit from the new technologies than the individual suburban semi, but it will take proper public investment.
But as well as the physical improvements, we need to foster a more communal approach to how we live.
We hear a great deal about “community cohesion” and the problems of our fractured, atomised society, but government reliance on the market only reinforces isolation and alienation.
While it is not a utopia, council housing can offer an alternative. When people are poorly, expensively and insecurely housed, it is no wonder they find little energy or motivation for wider community participation.
Tower Hamlets in east London, where I live, has the poorest recycling record in Britain – it also has one of the most disadvantaged and poorly housed populations.
These things are connected. We need homes where people feel a greater and more genuine sense of community and can see the point of taking care of our environment.
The private sector cannot deliver this – the only route to sustainable affordable homes is through public housing.
Glyn Robbins will be speaking on building sustainable cities at the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union conference at University of London Union on 9 February. For more information go to » www.campaigncc.org