Tackling Crime and Climate Change

By Lisa-Maria Kretschmer

Lambeth/London – London’s Low Carbon Zones sprang into life this March. Last autumn, Mayor Boris Johnson announced the ten boroughs in Britain’s capital which now get funding in order to reduce their carbon emissions about 20 percent within the next two years. The local authorities aim to engage the community and encourage businesses as well as every single resident to change to a “greener” lifestyle. Thereby, not only the environment is in the focus. The projects are also promoted as the solution for community problems like fuel poverty and exclusion of marginal groups.

The projects range from building electric vehicle charging points, installing solar photovoltaic panels on schools and community buildings over analyzing the individual energy consumption with smart metering schemes to the training of local “Energy Doctors” who help residents on their doorstep with heating control and bills.

Mayor Boris Johnson expects a lot from the experiences with these different measures. “These energy busting zones will create an armada of flagships across London, focused on finding the most effective ways to rapidly cut carbon and slash energy bills.”, he states in a press release.

Ghetto Borough as Test Field

Amongst the chosen districts is Brixton which is located in the heart of Lambeth in Inner London. So far, Brixton has been a synonym for social deprivation. Its reputation of a problem area with a mostly African-Caribbean population is based on high rates of unemployment, poverty and drug crime. In the course of the Low Carbon Zones project, however, the Mayor and the Lambeth Council now aim to cut down carbon emissions and solve these social problems and exclusion there at the same time.

More than £300 000 has been handed over to the Council to pay for energy saving measures. A community party in Brixton’s centre was the starting shot for the project. Next to free food and children’s activities, the residents of the 3000 homes in the zone could ask questions to environmental experts. Later on, ‘Green Doctors’ will be walking from door to door to let them know how they can reduce emissions.

Recycling - a first step towards a greener lifestyle for Brixton's residents

Poverty as Brixton’s Big Problem

But the Lambeth Council’s plans go further and do not only target climate change alone: “Cutting people’s fuel consumption by making their homes more energy efficient saves them money, which is vital for families on low incomes.”, Council spokesman James Savours says.

The Brixton Low Carbon Zone scheme is supposed to help some of Lambeth’s least well off residents who face more often fuel poverty than the average Londoner.

Families in every twentieth household have to spend more than ten percent of their income on fuel to heat up their homes to an appropriate temperature of 21 degrees – or they even can’t bring up the temperature to that healthy and comfortable standard.

Low Energy Architecture helped Angell Town

“The first step to tackle social exclusion and fuel poverty must be increasing the energy efficiency and therefore investing in sustainable low energy buildings.” Frances Bradshaw agrees with the Council’s approach. As a partner of ‘Anne Thorne Architects Partnership’, she works on regeneration and green projects, with a strong focus on community involvement.

Bradshaw speaks from her own experience. She already left her design marks in Brixton – more specific in its most deprived part, in the Angell Town Estate.

The social housing complex next to the Brixton road was originally built in the early 1970s when the idea of sustainability had little weight. The 800 dwellings had been renovated over the past ten years. Frances Bradshaw incorporated her green approach in the refurbishment and new-building of three apartment complexes there – and proved that it does not even cost more than traditional renovation.

Cheap and Simple Improvement With Sustainable Fabrics

“The refurbishment with environment friendly materials has been done with the standard budget for social housing renovation. And yet, the simple measures like cellulose insulation in the roofs, double glazed timber frame windows and external insulated render for cold bridging could improve warmth and comfort.”

At the same time, energy consumption and fuel bills were reduced by 50 per cent, as the University of North London confirmed. This first environmental housing project for Lambeth achieved an Ecohomes ‘excellent’ award.

A solar roof with a photovoltaic system was set on the top of the new building at Boatemah Walk where also rainwater is recycled to flush WC’s.

With efficient insulation and solar panels on the top, the Boatemah Walk in Angell Town is a showcase of sustainable architecture.

But other than these installations in the new building, financed by private grants, no renewable energy systems were included in the renovations in Brixton, nor will there be.

“There is just no money for that in public pay offices, especially not in an area with a relatively high level of social housing and poverty.” Bradshaw explains.

Taking Away the Stigmata of Fuel Poverty

Although the Low Carbon Scheme fund is also limited, Lesley Tudor-Snodin smells a chance for the government’s social approach. The press officer of National Energy Action, a national charity that campaigns for policies to eradicate fuel poverty, explains:  “Social exclusion comes often directly with fuel poverty. Houses get cold, damp and start to smell. Concerned people are embarrassed to invite people to their homes and become socially isolated.”  She calls that Brixton firstly has to take away the stigmata that fuel poverty brings with it. So far, people do not talk about it because they are embarrassed to not be able to pay their energy bills.

Raising Knowledge and Awareness of Climate Change

Throwing light on that topic and addressing the people personally could therefore be a key for success. Especially since local involvement also proved to be thriving in Angell Town, as Thomas Esterine, the manager of the Angell Town Community Project tells. “There was no consultation from outside over the sea. We got involved in every level of decision making- from the choice of the architects to the design of the buildings. We were part of the puzzle and now we are proud of our neighborhood.”

The personal engagement changed the environmental thinking, he explains.  “There exists the prejudice that poorer people in social housing don’t care about the environment. We cared but we didn’t know much about it.”  In question and answer sessions with the architects, the residents recognized sustainable housing as a way out of their depressing living situation and saw the financial benefits. “People are convinced by the advantages of a greener way of life and now even want to install a solar roof on the planned community centre in Angell Town.”

More Behind Social Exclusion Than High Energy Bills

Despite these experiences, he has mixed feelings towards the starting-up project: “The Low Carbon Zones project can benefit us as the sustainable housing did. But it is still unclear what will be done with the money.”

He also needs to be convinced that these measures actually tackle social exclusion. “We now live in stylish social housing but we are still not free of issues and many people are socially excluded”. Deeper problems like unemployment, racism and crime are unlikely to be solved by making people ditch their cars for bikes, separate their waste and start to grow their own food.

“There is still a lack of social opportunities especially for young people. I don’t know how green policy could help with that. It seems a little bit far-fetched.” he explains his concerns.

More Carbon Emissions from Warmer Houses?

Tackling climate change and fuel poverty at the same time sounds politically attractive, admits Ian Preston. The expert for energy poverty policy works for the Centre of Sustainable Energy which provides help to people and organizations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to meet the twin challenges of rising energy costs and climate change.

But the solution for the Brixton Low Carbon makes only partly sense for him. According to him, retrofitting area by area is efficient. But if there are mostly fuel poor people living in such an area, then “they will hopefully all get warmer in the end” as a result of the initiatives. As an effect, they will probably also produce more carbon emissions due to their new opportunity to heat more.

London’s Low Carbon Zone are taking off right now. All you have to know about project you get here

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