This week, I was taken on a tour of properties owned by Islington Council. Islington is an area of London with many council homes (see 26 February 2010: Islington Council performance and plans on climate). The borough council was run by the Liberal Democrats until May 2010. However, in the local elections, it reverted to Labour control – it has been run by Labour for most of the last few decades. The Liberal Democrat leader, Terry Stacy, was personally very committed to action on climate and fuel poverty, and the new Labour leader, Catherine West, appears to be the same. She organised this tour for me and four others.
The most impressive thing we saw was a group of high-rise tower blocks, which have been cladded with an external layer of insulation, about 10cm thick. This makes them much more energy efficient. These blocks have also been fitted with much more efficient lighting in corridors and other common areas, reducing electricity use by around 65%. We were also taken to see some houses where the cavity walls were being filled in. Cavity walls are walls with two layers of bricks with a cavity between them. This was introduced as a way of stopping water getting in. It is more energy efficient than a single layer of bricks, but much improved if insulation is injected into the cavity. This requires some small holes to be drilled into the wall, but once done, they are filled in and virtually unnoticeable, so not a problem even in conservation areas. Then, we went to some other blocks of flats which have been given green roofs – soil and plants. This is good for wildlife and attractive for those in higher flats. It is also excellent insulation.
Next we saw a micro-wind turbine, located on the roof of a 17 storey block of flats. This was clearly a good location for harnessing the wind (of which there was plenty that day). However, it cost about £70,000 to install and the man showing us round thought that the scope for micro-wind expansion in the borough is not great. More impressive to me were some solar thermal panels on the roof of another block. These are not enormous, and provide enough hot water for 18 flats.
Much of the work we saw was carried out using grants from central government, but in some cases the council used its own capital funds to top-up the grants. The capital funds were recouped by one-off charges to leaseholders. Residents have benefited not only from warmer homes, but also from having to pay less annually for the electricity used in communal areas and for maintenance and replacement of lighting equipment in communal areas.
Local councils were hard hit by the central governments reductions in grants in the Comprehensive Spending Review (see 22 October 2010: UK Spending Review – not too bad, but open goal missed), so there is no guarantee that the work will continue.
Many people with whom I have discussed the Repowering Communities book have questioned whether local government has enough capable staff to play as great a role as we are suggesting is necessary. The widespread view is that UK local government does not have enough power or money to attract the best people. However, the man taking us round, Mike Rees, was extremely impressive: knowledgeable, articulate and determined. Of course, not all local government staff will be of good, but my experiences of working in central government and the private sector have shown me that staff there are also a mixture of very good and rather less good. There are some good people working for local government already and, if local government is given greater powers, more will be attracted.