The Public Route to Sustainable Homes

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Glyn Robbins is a member of Unite, the largest manufacturing union in Britain, and a supporter of Defend Council Housing. This article is a contribution to the discussion at the coming Trade Union Conference on Climate Change, to be held at the University of London on February 9, 2008. For more information on the Conference, phone 07803 763 265 or email

The government says it wants to see 240,000 new homes built a year and that by 2016 all of them must be ‘zero carbon.’ Both of these targets are very ambitious and raise numerous serious questions about existing housing policy. The fundamental problem is that, as in many other areas, New Labour believes the private sector has all the answers, when in fact, it’s a large part of the problem.

To embark on a discussion about the environment is to run the risk of being overwhelmed by the scale of the problems and this can undermine our sense that we can do anything about them. Meanwhile, environmentalism has spawned an industry of agencies and quangos, with a lexicon of jargon. It’s important that the trade union movement both demystifies and convinces rank and file members that we can change the situation, which is why the conference on the 9th February is so welcome and important.

While there are still a few people in denial, the scientific argument on climate change is now closed. Global industrialisation and consumerism are causing enormous damage to our planet and the consequences are literally disastrous. 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. There are more to come. The cause of climate change is global warming which is the result of greenhouse gases that are produced by our industrial processes which depend on burning fossil fuel (gas, coal and oil). Reluctantly and belatedly, all governments now acknowledge the problem and are committed to various targets for reducing carbon emissions. Prime Minister Brown has said that he wants to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050. The target of zero carbon homes is part of this.

The homes we live in – or rather the way we live in them – are responsible for 25% of UK 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 thousands of homes that are so energy efficient they can reduce heating costs by 90%. Less heating means less burning of fossil fuels – and lower bills, particularly important for our poor and elderly. Using solar panels can heat water for almost nothing after the initial outlay, while forms of combined heat and power (CHP) can produce cheaper energy and cut emissions by up to 30%. Recycling water could cut consumption dramatically.

Perhaps you are beginning to see part of the problem. Re-read the paragraph above and imagine that you are a fat-cat director of one of the privatized utility companies!

Technology can make a real difference, but it’s only part of the answer. David Cameron with his wind turbine on his roof is not going to get us to zero carbon homes.

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’s 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 that the cost of building a ‘zero carbon’ home adds up to 30% on building costs. Again, assuming that policy does not change, the expectation is that most new homes will be for private sale. Even in a buoyant housing market, a 30% price increase is not something that developers will want to pass on to their customers – much less in a struggling market we are now seeing the first signs of. Private developers are also conservative, in more ways than one! They often have a very fixed view about what a house should look like. Go round most new developments and you’ll know what I mean. Developers worry that any deviation will hit their profits and they certainly don’t want to invest in the renewable energy technology that are crucial to meeting the government’s 2016 target.

The house building industry is also 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 way it impacts on our society and environment.

Take the washing machine as an example. It has become a foregone assumption that all new homes will have one (and not necessarily one of the more energy efficient models). No developer or housing association would dream of not providing for one, even in homes where space is of a premium. In flats, a dryer may also be provided, rather than communal drying space. Our use of washing machines, dryers and dish washers create five million tones of carbon a year, at a cost of £800 million. We need to add to that the environmental cost of producing millions of new appliances every year, many of which also cause serious environmental problems when they are disposed of.

There is an alternative – the launderette! Many council estates were built with on-site launderettes and drying rooms. Admittedly, this was in a time when owning your own washing machine was not an expectation and along with the rest of council housing, these facilities have suffered from neglect and under-investment. But the idea is sound and it’s the type of thing we need to urgently revisit if we are serious about low carbon homes. With improved technology and especially if linked to a CHP, communal launderettes could make real savings on emissions and bills, but they could also serve another important function, by restoring part of our ever diminishing public realm.

We here so much from government about ‘community cohesion’ and yet we live in a society where individualism and private ownership is deeply enshrined. The aspiration of private home ownership is also directly linked to our patterns of consumption. Dixons and Currys don’t want to see a revival of the launderette, just as General Motors don’t want us to reduce our use of petrol.

To meet the 2016 zero carbon homes target will require a radical rethink of housing policy, but it is one that government must make for a number of other reasons. As repeated Labour Party conferences and all the big trade unions say, we must start building council housing again. The most obvious and pressing reason for doing this 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 Boards. As well as affordable rents and security of tenure, we need homes that people can afford to run and heat. In fact, a lot of our council housing stock is already far more energy efficient than the alternatives and has far more potential to benefit form 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. Tower Hamlets, where I live, has the poorest recycling record in the UK. 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.

Expecting the private sector to do any of this is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

1 Comment

  • I like this article, but want to make a couple of comments.1) Many houses in the UK are under-occupied – i.e. they have considerably more rooms than the occupiers need (or probably want). This is the result of the ageing population and the long-term decline of the bourgeois nuclear family. It is mainly because the family is becoming smaller, resulting in many more households, that the demand for more housebuilding is so great. The existence of second homes doesn’t help.2) On communal provision and the environment: I would go further, including provision of local restaurants, providing cheap, wholesome food and even the promotion of communal living, instead of the current trend towards (poor quality, but expensive) single-person flats in city centres.To put it crudely, packing more people into our houses (in a planned, democratic and consensual way) and improving the quality and environmental performance of the existing stock, will go a long way to cutting the CO2 emissions from housing.PhilW