Monday, September 29, 2008

Transition Town Lewisham?

The Transition Towns movement is growing rapidly. Having started out in Kinsale, Ireland and Totnes, just a few years ago, there are now more than 100 initiatives around the globe, with many more in the process of setting themselves up.

So what's it all about?
In a nutshell, the Transition Movement is about communities deciding they can't hang around for local/national/international government to act on climate change and peak oil, but they need to start building up local resilience to prepare for an era of ever-rising fuel prices, fuel shortages and the impacts of climate change. The activities they get involved in are varied, but might range from insulating homes, setting up community allotments, establishing a local renewable energy company to establishing their own local currency to encourage people to shop locally.

First of all, Transition Towns go through an awareness-raising programme, where they organise lots of events, film-showings etc to get local people involved and understanding what it's all about. Brixton has been doing just that over the past year or so and this week is about to have its 'unleashing', which basically means they start to implement their 'energy descent plan', a plan to reduce the communities dependence on fossil fuels. They have a big event this Thursday in Lambeth Town Hall, with Transition Towns guru Rob Hopkins.

So why am I telling you all this?
Because lots of people are talking about this (even the Archers has a Transition Ambridge Movement!), a number of people locally are pondering setting up a Transition Town Lewisham and have been asking me if I know anyone else who is interested. The key thing about Transition Towns is that it needs to be a community-led initiative, not a Council-led thing, so it can't come from us councillors, but I'm sure we would be delighted to support any initiative that local people got off the ground.

The next Lewisham Green Drinks, on Monday 6th October, are going to have a Transition Town theme. The idea is that anyone with an interest in Transition Towns, and setting up an initiative in Lewisham, comes along and meets other like-minded people, and hopefully they take things from there! So do come along next Monday, 7pm onwards, Mr Lawrence Wine Bar, 389 Brockley Road, SE4 2PH. (And if you're a regular green drinker, do come along too!)

Sustainable Communities Act - making it work for us

The Sustainable Communities Act is the result of a determined 5-year campaign by a wide number of organisations, ranging from Friends of the Earth, trade unions, the Women’s Institute, Shelter and the Black Environment Network to the Countryside Alliance. Together they made up the Local Works Campaign.

Significantly, it’s the first piece of legislation that is specifically designed to be bottom up rather than top down. ie local communities can use it to tell Councils what they want, Councils tell the Local Government Association (LGA) and the government then has an obligation to work with the LGA to try and reach consensus. So this most definitely isn’t another piece of legislation imposed on us from the government, but a tool for us to use to make the government act on our concerns. But we do of course need to use it.

Theoretically, we can use this new law to find ways to halt the decline of some of our smaller shopping parades, to save post offices and pubs or prevent yet more betting shops, take aways and supermarkets from opening and draining money from the local economy. It could be used to make sure any new developments help to make our community more sustainable and better equipped to cope with the challenges of a transition towards a zero-carbon society, not ever more at the mercy of a globalised economy.

The challenge of course, is to make sure that local people are aware that this legislation exists and how to use it. Councils are also required to opt in to it. Tonight I am proposing a motion at Full Council calling on the Mayor to instruct officers to take the necessary action for the council to opt in to the Act, and to set out how he will convene the citizens' panels with which the Council must agree which proposals to present to government. I imagine this panel will somehow fit in with (and maybe give some teeth to) the existing ward assemblies. Given that the bill received cross-party support during its passage through parliament, I'm not anticipating much opposition to the motion, but am keen to use it to highlight locally the new legislation and the powers it brings.

I am also organising a public meeting in the town hall on Wednesday 29th October, with Steve Shaw from the Local Works campaign, to talk about how communities can use the act to protect their community from unwanted developments or to push to make it more sustainable in some way. The Deputy Mayor has also kindly agreed to come along and talk about how Lewisham Council plans to use the new legislation. The meeting is in the Council Chamber at 7.30pm. All are welcome. If you wish, you can also sign up to the Facebook Event which will help us to get an idea of numbers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Heritage versus Energy Efficiency?

Hot on the heels of my last post about the need to insulate our period properties to make them as low-carbon as possible, comes the news that the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, together with English Heritage is considering listing the Excalibur Estate in Downham. The Excalibur Estate consists of 185 post-war pre-fabs. The Council wants to transfer them over to a housing association (L&Q) to demolish them and make way for new more energy-efficient (and higher density) housing, arguing that they can't bring the properties up to decent homes standard. They are in the process of balloting residents about this stock transfer. However, a number of the residents are very attached to where they live and feel their community will be destroyed.

I suspect that besides attachment to the homes they live in, a good chunk of residents' concerns is that their detached bungalows with individual gardens will be replaced with something much higher density with less outside space (L&Q's proposals are to increase the number of homes on the estate from 186 to around 460 homes, which they argue is a similar density to that of the surrounding areas.).

I have sympathies with both sides here - it's a lovely estate, part of our heritage, but can the properties be insulated sufficiently to keep residents warm without having to spend a fortune on heating bills? As a rule of thumb, I would say that reducing our carbon emissions has to take priority over aesthetic/heritage concerns, but I would like to see more evidence to show whether the two really are mutually incompatible in this case. My experience from Brockley PFI so far has also been that reducing the thermal efficiency of properties has not been the central plank of the decent homes scheme that it should have been.

The whole heritage/aesthetics versus energy-efficiency debate is one that needs to be had, particularly around here, with lots of draughty Victorian properties in and around the conservation area. I think we probably can insulate our Victorian conservation area properties without needing to demolish them or change their appearance by externally cladding them, but if push came to shove, cutting the carbon would take priority for me.

I bet Steve Bullock is quietly cussing English Heritage for throwing a spanner in yet another of his plans (the recent listing of Louise House having thwarted his plans for rebuilding the Forest Hill Pools). What next? Max, any plans to get any of those modernist buildings in Lewisham you love so much listed? Citibank Tower, Ladywell Leisure Centre perhaps? Please no . . .

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Eco-retrofitting Conservation Area Buildings

My intention of going on the London Freewheel bike ride today was thwarted by a puncture in my front tyre, but I did get the tube up to Camden to go and see 17 St Augustine's Rd – a low energy Victorian house refurbishment. A friend was involved in the project and I was keen to go and see it at first hand.
It was basically a derelict property that Camden Council decided to refurbish so it could be let for social housing, but also to use it as an experiment in retrofitting a period property within a conservation area, with the aim of reducing its carbon emissions by 80%. The house was open as part of the London Open House weekend. It will also be open for the next 3 Sundays, then from October it will be let to a family on the Council housing waiting list.
All the windows have been fitted with high-spec wooden-framed double glazing (argon-filled). There is roof and floor insulation and also internal wall insulation (the latter makes the rooms a bit smaller, but it was a fairly large house so it wasn't that noticeable). The pictures show the depth of the wall insulation and the materials used.

The refurbishment wasn't cheap and Camden Council wouldn't be able to afford to do the same with all its Victorian housing stock without extra funding, but the house will be closely monitored to see how it performs and lessons learnt from the project will be used to inform future housing refurbishment projects. Arguably, the windows and the insulation are the priorities, to make homes warmer and bring down fuel bills, and the solar panels can be installed at a later date when costs come down.

I was keen to see the property at first hand both as someone who lives in a draughty Victorian flat and is close to investing in insulation and new windows to improve my own home, but also as a councillor in a ward with lots of Victorian property and midway through a council housing refurbishment scheme. There is considerable controversy over what will/won't be included in the Brockley PFI housing improvements, depending on whether you live in or outside of the conservation area (there has been a heated discussion recently about double glazing in the conservation area over on Brockley Central, something I have previously commented on).

If you're a tenant living outside the Brockley Conservation area, you will get double glazing (albeit UPVC, which goes against the Council's own guidelines), even if you live in a period property, roof insulation and wall insulation (if you have cavity rather than solid brick walls) to improve the thermal efficiency of your home. If you live inside the conservation area you will get roof insulation and unless your windows are so rotten/rusty that they are irreparable, your windows will just be overhauled and maybe a bit of draught-proofing added, but no double-glazing or wall insulation. So conservation area tenants will have less energy-efficient houses and higher fuel bills than those outside the area.

This is a wasted opportunity to make homes warmer, reduce fuel poverty and tackle climate change. Over 50% of London's housing stock is solid brick wall, like most of the Victorian housing stock round here and we urgently need to roll out a programme to insulate these homes properly. Yes, it costs more and is a bigger job than putting in cavity wall insulation, but we need to do this (assuming no ones wants to demolish all the housing stock in the Brockley Conservation Area and replace it with new low carbon housing).

The Brockley PFI housing scheme could have been a flagship project to pilot such large-scale insulation of solid brick walls and good quality wooden-framed double glazed windows (which if well-maintained will last over 100 years) but sadly it appears that the consortium's lawyers ran rings around the Council's legal team and we have ended up with little more than a paragraph on thermal efficiency improvements in a 1500-page contract, and little obligation on the part of the contractors to do more.

Name the derelict property #1

In a variation on Brockley Kate's I spy series, I bring you 'Name that derelict property', featuring a number of properties within Ladywell ward that have seen better days. Follow up post will then look at what can be done/is being done about them.

So, starting with an easy one . . . where is this property? Clue: owner probably isn't short of a bob or two.

Friday, September 19, 2008

London Freewheel this Sunday, meet up in Ladywell Fields 9.15am

This coming Monday is World Car Free Day, and London's big event to mark this and promote cycling is this Sunday, with the second annual London Freewheel event. 12km of roads in central London will be closed to motorised traffic, but open to cyclists, roller-bladers, skate-boarders, pedestrians and any other forms of self-powered transport I may have forgotten.

There is a marshalled feeder ride from Lewisham to central London, ideal for those less confident cyclists, families, or those, like me, with a tendancy to get lost when trying to cycle into central London. The ride starts in Lower Sydenham at the unearthly time of 8.35am, then goes along the Waterlink Way (ie through parks and off-road) to Ladywell then onto central London via Greenwich. There is a pick up point in Ladywell Fields at 9.15am, which I will endeavour to be at, so maybe see some of you there? It doesn't say where in Ladywell Fields the pick-up point is, but I'm assuming if I wait by the Ladywell Road railway bridge I won't miss people.

Below, to give you just a taster of the fun that is Freewheel, for those who didn't go last year, is the video Croydon Greens made of the day.

Funny (strange, rather than ha-ha), when we saw all the Tories with their red, yellow, green and blue Boris leaflets then, we never really thought that a year later Londoners would have elected him as Mayor, or that he would already have threatened to take so many retrograde steps against cyclists (talking of allowing motorbikes in bus lanes, his transport advisor talking of abolishing the transport hierarchy of modes, backtracking from the previous Mayor's commitment to a London-wide 20mph zone, scrapping the £25 congestion charge that was going to pay for the London-wide bike hire scheme etc etc). Let's hope he doesn't dare to scrap Freewheel next year (hopefully he won't as I think sponsorshop pays for most of it).

Monday, September 15, 2008

The New Knife on the Street?

I've been meaning to post about an interesting fringe I attended at Green Party Conference last week, with speakers from the RSPCA and a sergeant from the Met Police's dog support unit.

A lot of what they said rang true and reflected concerns raised by local residents in Ladywell and Brockley. They talked about the increasing number of 'status dogs', in particular the issue of people having dogs to bolster their 'tough' image, designed to impress or scare other people. In some cases, of course, people have these dogs to make themselves feel safer, a bit like those who carry knives mistakenly do.

The RSPCA officer also talked about the shortfalls she saw in the current Dangerous Dogs legislation and what changes she felt were needed to make it more effective. The RSPCA is arguing that the emphasis should be on 'the deed rather than the breed' and on irresponsible dog owners. They are also arguing that Police Forces need more resources to deal with the increase in incidents involving dangerous dogs, as well as more easily enforceable legislation.

Apparently there are more pitbulls in the UK now than there were when the Dangerous Dogs Act came into force and the most commonly abandoned breed of dog at Battersea Dogs Home and elsewhere now is the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, as owners who think they are getting a 'hard' dog get disgruntled when they find out that it is actually a bit of a softie who likes to roll over and get its stomach tickled.

Worryingly, there has been a huge increase in the number of incidents of anti-social behaviour involving dogs in London over the past few years. Between 2002-2005 there were an average of 42 seizures of dogs a year. In 2006 this jumped to 173 and then more than doubled in 2007 at 481 seizures a year. Since 1st April this year there have already been more than 280 dogs seized by the 20 qualified dog handlers working for the police across London.

There has been a big increase in backstreet breeding, with horrific cases of 30 or more pitbull puppies being found in cages in tiny flats. There has also been an increase in chain fighting, where owners encourage their dogs to fight with other dogs while on a lead, as well as organised dog fighting, and ring barking, where dogs are trained by tearing the bark off trees, which can kill the tree. There has also been an increase in the number of dogs being used to protect criminal assets. The police officer also talked about the number of people trying to take dogs to festivals, such as the Notting Hill Carnival.

The police are struggling to cope with the increased workload they have and the extra kennelling fees they accrue from all the extra dog seizures. Many Councils have insufficient animal welfare officers to deal with the situation. Lewisham, with two animal welfare officers, is apparently better staffed than other boroughs, but still over-stretched, with the vast majority of their time spent dealing with stray dogs, which leaves little time for awareness-raising or enforcement action against irresponsible dog owners.

However, Lewisham may soon benefit from joining the BARK scheme (Borough Action for responsible K9s - yes, someone had fun coming up with that acronym), which was piloted with succcess in Brent. The RSPCA officer also said that they could come and do an Community Animal Action Week (CAAW) in the area, which they run in conjunction with local Safer Neighbourhood Teams and housing associations. As well as offering advice to residents on looking after their dogs, they also offer free microchipping and neutering of pets.

It is certainly an issue that needs to be monitored closely in Lewisham and action take where appropriate. I know that in Ladywell people have raised a number of concerns about dogs, ranging from irresponsible owners who don't clean up after their dog has fouled and dogs that are not kept under control in public spaces. There have been a number of appalling incidents in and around Algernon Road, where 4 pet cats have been mauled to death by dogs in the past 18 months, in some cases with the dog owners watching.

Lights on or off at Laurence House?

Lewisham Council is doing a consultation on whether or not to turn off the floodlighting of Laurence House in Catford. This was prompted by a formal question from Brockley councillor Darren Johnson last year, who says it is a waste of energy and money. Darren argues that he doesn't oppose the floodlighting of beautiful landmark buildings, but that Laurence House Library is hardly the Arc de Triumphe. I tend to agree and think that if street lighting is doing its job, extra floodlighting isn't necessary. What do you think? You can complete the survey online here.

From the Council's press office:
Lewisham Council is asking residents for their views on the external lighting which is currently used to illuminate the 6-storey Council office block and library in Catford town centre.

Informal feedback has suggested that some people value the night-time lighting as it can create a sense of security, generate a positive local atmosphere and is a feature of the local area. However, there are costs involved. The lighting costs approximately £2,700 a year and produces an estimated 29 tonnes of CO2 a year, which contributes to global warming.

Cllr Heidi Alexander, Lewisham Council's Cabinet Member for Regeneration, said: "There's a choice to be made about lighting Laurence House at night and we want to hear people's views. I know that some people value the effect the lighting has on the local area after dark. But there is a cost involved, financially and environmentally, and as a Council we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to use energy efficiently and reduce unnecessary costs."

That said, while every little helps, it's kind of small fry in the bigger scheme of things, and we really need to get insulating every house in the borough which would save thousands of tonnes of CO2 a year as well as reducing the impact on residents of rising fuel bills.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Interested in setting up a South London Garden Organic Group?

Another plug from Ian (who wears many hats).

Are you a member of Garden Organic (previously known as the Henry Doubleday Association ) Or are you interested in gardening/growing vegetables organically?

I am a member of Garden Organic and I contacted them recently asking if there was a local group in South London I could join. They answered me to say there were such groups in North, East and West London but nothing in South London so would I like to set such a group up?

So I said I would if enough people are interested. So here goes:-

Garden Organic said that for the first year there would be no fees but after that the group would need to pay a fee of £30. Advantages are being able to put in group seed orders so we can obtain organic seeds at a reduced rate, extra copies of Garden Organic which would benefit those who are not members already , a mention on the website and being able to join in in various Garden Organic activities e.g. the Master Composters scheme.

However it is basically up to the group to decide what activities to pursue. For instance, we could use the group to swop useful information or excess organic produce/seeds.

If you are interested would you like to let me know and if enough South Londoners are interested I can set about setting up the group.You do not have to be a member of Garden Organic to join the group. Nor do you have to have a garden or an allotment- window box growers will be very welcome!

E-mail Anne S if you are interested.