Submission to the Lyons Review on Housing | Brussels Blog

Submission to the Lyons Review on Housing

posted by on 21st May 2014

A note for the Lyons Housing Review

Geoff Beacon, May 2014


In this note I propose radical solutions for housing based on two themes: the unfairness built into the housing market and the damage our lifestyles are causing to the world. Political aspects of these proposals may be difficult.

Today’s standard two bedroomed, bricks and mortar house is expensive. It is possible to build dwellings at a small fraction of the cost, but the planning system works to prevent this. The system supports the housing shortage which keeps house prices artificially high and benefits house owners at the expense of others, particularly the poor.

At the same time, the huge amount of embodied energy within a standard brick built house is largely ignored and conventional affordable housing often has associated social problems.

In this note I propose radical solutions for housing , political aspects of which may be difficult.
I hope that the members of the Lyons Review can use their experience of business and academia to listen to these proposals that, at first glance, may not be in interests of their organisations.

This note is divided into four sections.

1. Low cost housing.

2. Land use, landscape and food production.

3. The environmental impact of housing.

4. Discovering new ways of living.

Carbon emissions

The Climate Change Act (2008) commits the UK to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels. This will require per capita emissions to reduce to around 2 tonnes CO2 per annum from more than 10 tonnes in 1990.

The UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions Provisional Figures 2013 estimate that the UK’s emissions have reduced by more than a quarter since 1990, but these estimates hide the true impact of UK lifestyles on carbon emissions. These figures are compiled according to the Kyoto protocol and ignore the greenhouse gasses created in making our imports and the greenhouse gasses from international air flights.

In 2013, the Committee on Climate Change published on this issue, following in the footsteps of the work of Sir Robert Watson, when Chief Scientific Advisor to Defra. Both show that instead of falling by a quarter since 1990, UK carbon emissions have increased by more than a third. Consumption based emissions in the UK are now about 20 tonnes CO2e per capita – this is exactly the same figure I challenged the CCC with in 2008.

Oil and the economy

Oil, or more generally liquid fuel, is key to our economy. The economist Jeff Rubin points out that this century will see only a few exceptional years of growth because of the high cost of oil. He doesn’t claim oil will run out just that growth and globalisation will stall because of its high price. “Take away cheap oil, and the global economy is getting the shock of its life.”

I have just started to read The Energy of Nations by Jeremy Leggett, a British green-energy entrepreneur, who began his career as a consultant for the oil industry. Its topic:

Systematic global risks of oil supply, climate shock and financial collapse threaten tomorrow’s economies and mean businesses and policy makers face huge challenges in fuelling tomorrow’s world.

Jeremy argues that the oil industry is overstating its capacity to produce enough oil for our economy (as it is currently structured) at an “affordable price”.

In addition, oil and other fossil fuels may have a regulatory burden placed on them, possibly through taxation. This would reshape our economy and lifestyles. Given the damage that the use of fossil fuels is doing to the world, high taxes on fossil fuels is the an approach many economists would support. A tax that was effective would bring in enormous revenues, which could be used to reduce other taxes or pay for schemes to help the transition to a new economy and way of life.

Setting aside special interests

The first chapter of Jeremy Leggett’s book has a telling piece says

These days in my chosen path, I am discovering what many an entrepreneur does. It is difficult indeed to wear your principles on your sleeve.

This highlights a typical problem in policy areas; those that have experience often have other obligations which may bias judgement.

In the building industry, it is good to see that some organisations are managing to tackle climate issues, particularly the carbon dioxide created by building construction: Land Securities, Derwent London and British Land have sponsored the Green Building Council’s Embodied Carbon Week 2014. They, and civil engineers such as Arup, are ahead of UK Government Departments on this issue.

I hope that the members of the Lyons Review can use their experience of business and academia to listen to these proposals that, at first glance, may not be in interests of their organisations.

1. Low cost housing.

Very low cost housing is possible

In my article Can your children afford to live in York? I discuss a report in the Daily Mail about a couple and their teenage son in the US. After losing well-paid jobs, they downsized from a 250 square metre house they could no longer afford, to a 32 square metre shotgun shack with their son happily living in the roof space. The shack was set in pleasant surroundings.

According to the Daily Mail: “Their house cost them less than $20,000 to make their home and they only pay $145 rent for the lot on which their shack and workshop stands.” That’s a home for £12,500 for a family. The response by readers of the Mail was overwhelmingly positive.

Residents can value cheap housing.

There is a comment by Esther Dent Dodsworth following my article Can your children afford to live in York? which says:

My Grandma lived in a Victorian house in Bristol. She didn’t know her neighbours and there was a busy road outside. She could walk to the shops using her stick, but when she slipped over on the ice no one helped her up so she became housebound during the cold weather.

Her family bought her a holiday chalet by the sea in Westward Ho! It was hoped she’d spend a few weeks every year there.

But she began living there 9 months a year. The rules at the holiday village meant owners weren’t allowed to occupy the chalets any longer than this.

Aged 90 she swam in the sea. The chalets were arranged in a u-shape and she knew everyone. Her neighbours watched for her curtains to open in the morning and came knocking the day they remained closed. People looked at her photos, gave her a lift to the shops and invited her for dinner.

Last year she said she dreaded going back to Bristol for the winter. She enjoyed her time in Westward Ho! so much. But knew she wasn’t allowed to stay over much past November. One of her neighbours called me to say she’d had to use the spare key my Grandma had given her to get into her chalet one morning in late October. It was gone 12am and Nora’s curtains were still closed.

I believe she died because she couldn’t face the loneliness and struggle she faced back in Bristol.

A sample of this type of accommodation, a two bedroom semi detached holiday chalet, is on sale for £39,950. There are restrictions on it’s use:


The chalet has the remainder of a 10 month holiday lease running until 2050, the site closes through January and February. Ground Rent £1514 per annum Service Charge £1553 per annum and Insurance £240 per annum. The Chalet is available fully furnished.

The value of Esther’s Grandma’s flat in Bristol? In 2012 it was £227,000.

Planning restrictions suppress the demand for cheap accommodation.

Grandma’s chalet had restrictions similar to “the site closes through January and February”. Restrictions such as these are common and often imposed by planning authorities under Section 70(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. These restrictions make this cheap housing less desirable and switch demand to more expensive alternatives. Who benefits from these restrictions?

House owners should be grateful for these artificial restrictions because they keep the price of houses high. Cheaper new houses undermines their investments.

Land owners and land option owners are also beneficiaries of the system that restricts the supply of cheap housing. They can receive hundreds of millions of pounds when they acquire planning permission as I explain in York’s billion pound give-away and How the ‘Halifax tax’ adds £50k to the price of every new York house.

House price rises keep the economy going – but is unfair.

Double the value of our houses and we have a few years of national income to spend. In times of booming housing markets, the wealth of house owners rises much faster than most of them can earn. This boosts the economy but is unfair on the poor. As I said in a response to the Barker Report in 2003:

Changes in tax and benefits since 1997 [until 2003] have made the poorest families better off by about £30 per week. Over the same period the wealthy have seen their property assets increase by hundreds of pounds per week. Wealth distribution is from the poor to the rich and from the young to the old.

It would be dangerous, given the way our economy currently works, to depress the value of houses too much by allowing the freedom to build cheap housing: It would cause a fall in property prices which would damage house owners and also investors such as pension funds that own property or land banks.

I wrote to the Lyons Review on 4th January to ask about the macroeconomic effects of depressing house prices by allowing very cheap housing:

As much of the personal debt in the UK is secured by mortgage loans and a fall in the cost of new homes leads to a fall in the value of residential property, there are dangers in devaluing these assets. I think you need to commission some urgent macroeconomic studies so that your committee can take this into account.

I did speak to Sir Michael Lyons at a Fabian Conference shortly after. As I remember he said that there was no budget in the review to undertake such a study. As the members of the review are not economists, this is a pity.

Types of informal housing

There are several kinds of cheap accommodation. Here, I will use the term informal accommodation to cover these. They include:

park homes,
post war prefabs,
tiny houses
chalets by the sea
homes made from shipping containers.

The experience of Esther’s grandmother shows that informal accommodation can be valued over more traditional accommodation which costs possibly ten times as much. Why was she stopped from living the life as she wished to? Is it prejudice that has little justification?.

Prefabs, sink estates and mixed neighbourhoods

In Prejudices and Housing, I recalled a particular post war prefab housing development:

My earliest memories of prefabs, which were on a beautiful site on Broom Hill, Strood, Kent, overlooking both the Medway and the Thames rivers. I remember my parents warning me not to play with the children from the prefabs.

My parents were hardly snobbish but it is possible they had heard rumours or read reports in the local press that led them to believe that the residents would not be suitable friends for their son. I think their attitude changes with time. Years later ..

I remember that my father got to know some of the men, who worked at the same factory and, when the prefabs were removed to make way for a park, told me that the residents loved their life there and did not want to move. They were a community. A familiar story for prefab estates.

But if my parent’s perception was wrong about the nature of the Broom Hill Prefab Estate, the worries about the so-called sink estates may have more justification. The UK Housing Wiki says:

Sink estates were largely created by the ‘right to buy’ system popularised by the Conservative party in the 1980s and 1990s. Council tenants in more popular areas (usually those which included larger, terraced or semi-detached properties) were far more likely to buy their property, leaving less popular areas (usually inner-city areas, those with higher crime rates or less attractive housing) under council ownership, exacerbating existing problems and further alienating the people ‘abandoned’ in those areas from wider society.

The conventional wisdom is that we should produce mixed housing to avoid any ghetto effect. Mix poorer people and wealthier people with “affordable” housing mixed into otherwise expensive commercial developments. This is not always welcome. Following my article How the Joseph Rowntree Foundation could do more for the poor, this comment was posted

I lived in a “affordable” house with my husband and two children. Both of us parents were on minimum wage. The housing was at The Croft, Heworth Green, not a JRHHT development but it was meant to be affordable according to the conditions of the planning permission. We simply couldn’t afford the rents and the council tax (band E).

Of about 100 houses or flats only about 10 were social housing or part owned. Many of the other neighbours were wealthy. The people in social housing were friendly an we got on together. We did not get to know the wealthy ones and they seemed to look down on us.

We swapped with someone in Tang Hall. Where I live now it is affordable, social and a typical community. It is a neighbourhood where people are on lower incomes or they are students.

An excellent article in the Daily Mail, Apartheid UK: How a controversial law to integrate social housing in new developments is creating mini-ghettos describes a recent housing development, ‘The Hamptons’ in Worcester Park, Surrey:

Here, people from all walks of life will live in harmony in ‘a relaxed sense of neighbourliness’ – or that was what residents were promised when they moved into the multi-million-pound project.


a series of recent incidents at The Hamptons – petty vandalism, rowdy behaviour and the like – has been blamed exclusively on [social housing] tenants.
The result? In a deeply controversial and divisive edict, the children of the social housing families have now been made the subject of a 9pm curfew, banning them from the communal areas after dark, while the offspring of their better-off neighbours are allowed to roam free.

The result, say critics, is tantamount to social apartheid.

This criticism has academic support. In Segregated neighbourhoods and mixed communities, Paul Cheshire says:

The belief that it is fairer if communities are mixed, with poorer people living alongside richer ones, can be traced at least to the late nineteenth century and the founders of the Garden City Movement. The idea was built into Hampstead Garden Suburb before the First World War. Although the appetite for new towns in the countryside has all but died, the ideal of ‘mixed communities’ as a mechanism for achieving a measure of social equality has gained momentum and is now firmly established in national policy.

This report argues that this is essentially a belief-based policy since there is scant clear-cut evidence that making communities more mixed makes the life chances of the poor any better. It is treating the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty. Efforts to improve social equity would be more effective if they were directed towards people themselves rather than moving people around to mix neighbourhoods.

Professor Cheshire has a book which will soon be published: Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging conventional policy wisdom – co-authored with Max Nathan and Henry Overman.

Prefabs are for people has a succinct summary:

People liked prefabs
Multistorey mass housing failed
The planners didn’t notice
They will get it wrong again

2. Land use, landscape and food production.

People living near green spaces have better mental health according to research reported in the Daily Mail. Also according to work reported in the Barker Report on housing by the economist Kate Barker, the public value urban parks twenty times more than green belt land. Walking from your home or seeing pleasant vegetation through your window – even from cheap informal housing – enhances the quality of living considerably.

I often read The Tiny House Blog. The latest blog features the Tiny House Tour showing a tiny house in an idyllic setting. This is in sharp contrast to the crowded group of caravans shown in my article How the Joseph Rowntree Foundation could do more for the poor, which shows a functional and crowded inelegant site of caravans. The crowded nature of the caravans emphasises their cheapness while the house shown in The Tiny House Tour looks desirable and idyllic. In fact, room for room (or bed space for bed space) the caravans may well be more expensive.

This highlights one of the effects with the scarcity of land that has planning permission. When land has planning permission landowners and developers want to maximise their profit. For any given plot of land with planning permission, there is an incentive to maximise its use because the supply of land with planning permission is restricted: Other factors such as good landscaping are squeezed.

This incentive to maximise development of a particular parcel of land is one reason that another informal housing type, the prefab estates have disappeared. They usually had a lower density than their replacements. Another excellent article in the Daily Mail, Absolutely prefabulous: Residents of Britain’s last prefab estate battle to save homes that were built to last only ten years Robert Hardman reports:

[The 210 prefabs on the estate] also sit on 12 valuable acres. And the council planners, along with their property developing partner, want to squeeze up to 400 new homes on the same patch.

This article describes much of what has been wrong with official attitudes to informal housing1: They are not liked by planners and or by developers that want to develop consequently their supply is limited.

There is also an article in the Guardian Prefab housing can have benefits if done well

This scarcity restricts the availability of informal housing and so increases the cost to the residents because land owners can increase their charges. These restrictions on planning permission are encouraged by argument similar to those, which also are used to justify green belt policies. These are

1. The UK is too crowded.
2. We need the land for food security.
3. Compact settlements are environmentally superior.

Population density

I calculated for my blog Mapping Population density with Prospex that the densities of people in the regions of the UK in people per hectare are

London 51.1
South East 4.5
South West 2.2
Wales 1.5
West Midlands 4.3
East Midlands 2.9
East of England 3.1
North West 5.0
Yorkshire and the Humber 3.5
North East 3.1
Scotland 0.7
Northern Ireland 1.3

Overall Britain is not a crowded place. The London Region is almost ten times as dense as any other region. Some regions are almost empty.

Green belts

The myth of crowding shores up green belt policy which concentrates settlements making housing plots smaller by restricting land for for development and leads to the demands that brownfield sites should be developed in preference to greenfield ones.

According to academic work reported as an appendix to the Report on housing by the economist Kate Barker, the public value urban parks twenty times more than green belt land. Walking from your home or seeing pleasant vegetation through your window – even from cheap informal housing – enhances the quality of living considerably.

These results suggest a different policy on green belts.: Turn brownfield sites into urban parks – or urban farms – and allow new development near the outskirts of towns but allowing for “green wedges” of green space.

Green belts have an enormous emotional pull and their political force cannot be ignored. I believe green belt policy is simplistic and depends on 2d maps which are a poor representation of reality. I have expressed some of this in Greening the Greenbelt.

Food security

Food security must be a major concern of how we live our lives today. Our food is grown not just in this country but all over the world. Much of our food is imported – as raw materials or finished products which re distributed to supermarkets for us to collect from their shelves and carry back home.

Many things might go wrong with this food chain including, for example, the economic collapse that would have occurred had the last Labour government failed to guide us through the crisis of 2007. It has been argued that the Arab Spring was caused by a oil price rise that had the knock on effect of raising the cost of staple foods. The measures taken in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union show that the problems with the monoculture embedded in the world food market.

In Oil scarcity and food crisis: the Cuban response, Abby Caparros-Janto says

Industrialized agriculture is completely dependent on petroleum.  Oil is used to power tractors that sew and harvest crops, trucks and ships that transport food all over the country and the world, factories that process food. Fertilizers and pesticides used to grow food are made from petroleum, as is the plastic used to package food. Imagine what would happen if the vast majority of this precious resource we depend on so heavily were to suddenly disappear? How do you think the people in this country would react? How do you think our government would response to a crisis of that proportion?

A report on the BBC website, The vegetable gardeners of Havana, by Sarah Murch says

Climate change, drought, population growth – they could all threaten future food supplies. But global agriculture, with its dependence on fuel and fertilisers is also highly vulnerable to an oil shortage, as Cuba found out 20 years ago.


Havana has almost 200 urban allotments – known as organiponicos – providing four million tonnes of vegetables every year – helping the country to become 90% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables.
Alamo Organiponico is one of the larger co-operatives, employing 170 people, built on a former rubbish tip that produces 240 tonnes of vegetables a year.

Farmers in the UK largely follow the dangerously oil dependant monoculture, providing raw materials for a food industry which creates unhealthy diets. In Modern Diet Of Takeaways And Microwave Meals Leading To Rise In ‘Wartime’ Diseases, Dr Mark Temple, chairman of the British Medical Association’s public health medicine committee, is quoted:

Food standards in the UK are worse now that they were during the rationing during the war. That’s a strong indictment on the food industry. Obesity is a major health threat and we ought to be doing something about it.

The climate impacts of farming is enormous. The article in Nature, One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, probably underestimates the problem. Beef production probably has one of the worst possible climate impacts and is not efficient in terms of food produced per hectare.

The organised introduction of food production with housing could easily produce more food value than our present climate damaging way of producing our unhealthy diets. Much of our food could be grown with a few kilometres of our homes. This would mean a changed way of life that would give more food security, more greenery near to home but slightly lower density housing. Using food security as a general argument for densification is fallacious.

3. The environmental impact of housing

Carbon footprints and the 100 year measure.

The emission of greenhouse gasses through human activity is causing climate change which is threatening the existence of life on Earth. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most import greenhouse gas so it has become a convention to measure the climate related impact of everyday activities in terms of the carbon dioxide emissions they cause. These measurements are called carbon footprints.

There are other important greenhouse gasses and aerosols that affect the climate. The effect of these are converted into carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Methane (CH4) is often regarded as the second most important greenhouse gas (but there are others that have significant effects). This is a much more powerful greenhouse than carbon dioxide but stays in the atmosphere for a relatively short length of time so the time over which it’s impacts are measured affects the relative weighting. Advances in science have also affected methane’s rating. These range from 21 times to 105 times carbon dioxide.

The main factor in this wide range of equivalence factors for methane is the period over which its effect is measured. Conventionally it is measured over 100 years. For this 100 year measure, methane has a rating of 21 times carbon dioxide but a widely cited assessment has updated this value to 33. When the power of methane is measured over a 20 year period the latter becomes 105 times carbon dioxide.

In calculating the carbon footprint of new buildings, carbon dioxide is the most important. Activities such as brick making, cement manufacture and the energy to transport building materials emit only minor amounts of these other gasses.

In use, the methane (natural gas) used to heat buildings and power some electricity generation end up mostly as carbon dioxide: Although there is a concern about gas leaking from the distribution network and with fracking the unresolved issue of fugitive emissions.

In the wider consideration of housing, the lifestyles of the people in new settlements should be of concern. See for example my Ecotowns aren’t eco. In this context non-CO2 greenhouse gasses have much greater significance. I will discuss this in a later section.

As noted above, the values given to many of the other greenhouse gasses (This should also include aerosols.) is very dependent on the time scale over which the effect of they are measured. The most often used time scale is 100 years.

Why is 100 years the chosen time scale? The best explanation I have heard is this: In 1990, the first IPCC Assessment Report calculated the equivalence factors of greenhouse gasses relative to carbon dioxide on three time scales 20 years, 100 years and 500 years as examples for consideration. Governments that were party to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change simply chose the middle figure. It was “Pick a card. Any card – but the middle one looks good”.

Our climate is in a precarious state and there are several climate feed backs that climate models have not taken fully into account. A time scale of 100 years for measuring present climate impacts is reckless.

Construction carbon and operational carbon

Choosing the 100 year time scale has helped those that seek to create standards for carbon footprints to come up with numbers that are relevant to measuring our impact on the climate (e.g. such as the PAS 2050, Publicly Available Specification from the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institute). But choosing a 100 year time scale gives a wrong impression of the impacts on climate of many human activities.

Building homes by conventional housing techniques creates several tens of tonnes of carbon dioxide – an inconvenient truth for the building industry and UK Government Departments. I have tried to address this issue with several relevant organisations with limited success. For example the such as BRE Limited who have created the BREEAM standard for the environmental assessment of new buildings. An email to me from BRE, May 2009, says

BREEAM does not put an absolute value on the embodied carbon, it’s true. Partly because the science behind the process is still open to debate. It aims to provide a relative assessment, and gives credit to those buildings which choose the lowest impact solutions out of the available options.

I have found that most people think that BREEM calculate embodied carbon. It also seems that BRE Limited have made little progress. Colin Morrison, Director, Head of Sustainability, Turley, writes:

Furthermore, despite the extensive consultation, and though many companies are already addressing this issue, there remains little reference to embodied carbon within the new scheme (though it is mentioned once in the credit aim of MAT 01). As such, there is still not an incentive within BREEAM to drive down embodied as well as operational carbon emissions. BREEAM New Construction 2014 – All Change?

One of the organisations that have taken embodied carbon seriously is the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. I received an email from Bob Hill, last year, who has used RICS methodology. He says:

It would be useful in view of the government’s perceived need for more housing to assess embodied energy based on measured net materials as per the Standard Method of Measurement as compiled by the R.I.C.S. Body.

A practical approach would be to take a development approach and measure a property from the rear boundary fence down to the centreline of the estate road which would then be all inclusive for a full development and it would be advisable to incorporate a detached side garage with runway to the dropped kerb.

I have done an assessment and have come up with 91 tonnes which includes prelims

Other sources suggest this is about right. The Guardian reported The carbon footprint of a house: 80 tonnes CO2e: A newbuild two-bed cottage.

Some have argued that the importance of embodied carbon is small compared to the greenhouse gas emissions in building use. In a paper from the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, The 40% house, Bordman et. al. say

5.5.1 Energy in construction and demolition processes Construction and demolition processes all use energy, but the amount is relatively small compared to the energy consumption in the use of buildings. When an old, inefficient building is replaced with a new, efficient one, the embodied energy in the construction process will be offset within a few years by the lower energy consumption of the more efficient building in will represent savings throughout its lifetime (Matsumoto 1999, XCO2 2002).

This view is unrealistic if it is based on embodied carbon values that are tens of tonnes of CO2, particularly if we wish to develop lifestyles that are to avoid climate disaster. A better approach for existing building is refurbishment and powering them with low carbon electricity. We should hope that the provisions of the amendment in the third reading of last year’s energy bill requiring the virtual decarbonisation of the UK’s electricity supply by 2030 should be followed soon. The Guardian reported:

The MPs co-sponsoring the amendment – the Conservative’s Tim Yeo and Labour’s Barry Gardiner – argue that their “carbon intensity target” (in effect, a limit by 2030 of 50 grams of CO2 emitted per Kwh) would reduce risks for power sector investors and also better enable the nation to met its legally enshrined target of achieving an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. They are supported by a broad coalition of NGOs, think tanks, unions and renewables firms.

This changes the assumptions in The 40% House that the embodied energy will be offset within a few years. In a speech to the Overseas Development Institute in June 2009, Lord Turner, chair of the Climate Change Committee, said:

…we can pretty much totally decarbonise our electricity generation. UK electricity generation currently puts out approx 550gm of CO2 per KW hour … we believe it’s possible to get to a low of 100g/KW hour by 2030. And 10-20g/ KW hour by 2050.

That’s important not only to take the CO2 out of electricity generation, but once we’ve done that it’s likely we can apply electricity to a wider set of economic activities- largely electrifying the light end of the service transport – cars- and putting electric heating back into our houses, having spent the last 30 years taking it out.

That means removing gas central heating … and gas cookers.

Why put several tens of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when we could decarbonise electricity? The answer might be that electricity cannot be decarbonised quickly enough for economic or political reasons. But the laws of physics that govern our climate are stronger than the laws of economics or politics.

Houses with low embodied carbon

Much of the informal housing listed above has lower embodied carbon than traditional brick, cement and steel buildings. They can be made of materials with low embodied carbon and may even be carbon negative, when they include enough biomass. See Do wooden houses store carbon? .

In some cases the embodied carbon is lower because informal houses are smaller. Smaller homes mean lower embodied carbon. Smaller homes are also use less energy for heating. This is despite the fact that the ratio between their surface area and volume means that they are not as efficient per cubic metre of house volume. But if you want to live in a smaller more energy efficient space and gaze out your window onto greenery what stops you?

Building regulations might stop you. New informal accommodation with low embodied carbon and using decarbonised electricity might still fail building regulations while conventional construction with high embodied carbon with gas central heating may pass. There is an absurdity and unfairness here.

4. Discovering new ways of living.

The crises of climate, food, energy security demand that we adjust our lifestyles. We must find new ways of living. This may have been the driving force behind the UK Government’s eco-towns programme. Wikipedia’s entry says

The eco-towns programme was intended to offer the opportunity to achieve high standards of sustainable living while also maximising the potential for affordable housing.[8] Some 30% to 40% of housing in each eco-town is to be allocated as affordable, and made available to the thousands currently on the local housing waiting lists.

But Eco-towns aren’t eco

Given the location of proposed eco-towns, the suspicion must be that the new residents will come from demographic groups that naturally have high footprints. The P2 People and Places demographic system identifies that most of the eco-towns on the short list (but not Rossington) as typical places for demographic groups B4 (Rural Comfort) and C3 (Thriving Families). These groups are more likely to be frequent fliers and heavy users of transport fuel.

They also make the “affordable housing mistake” of mixing two groups with different lifestyles to the advantage of neither.

In the case of eco-towns it might expect that pioneers of sustainable living would wish to move in but in there was little indication that eco-towns were aimed at such people.

The Climate Change Act (2008) entails personal carbon footprints of 2 tonnes CO2e per annum. Currently a cars creates about 4 tonnes CO2e per annum and its manufacture creates a similar amount. It is likely that eco-pioneers would wish to avoid the use of cars. Those with low car use are severely disadvantaged when they are put into the same developments as demographic groups who want (and can afford) the luxury of high car ownership. I have argued this in A parable of four villages. (2010) and RSPCA News. (1976).

Finding truly sustainable ways of living that citizens will find acceptable will need experiments to see which ones work. I have outlined some principles in Making planning work differently.


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