Social Vulnerability, Greenwashing and Airey Imitation

Pemberstone’s updated plans for the estate

Here we are again. Decision Time.

October 3rd is currently, albeit tentatively, scheduled for the next (and possibly final) Leeds City Council meeting where the fate of our homes will be decided. We won’t have confirmation of that date until the 24th or 25th September, just one week before the meeting. This already puts our community at a disadvantage.

While the planning application is part of Pemberstone’s asset portfolio – so they can ship a colleague up from Whittington Hall in Worcester at short notice – we have to try to save our homes around working lives, family lives, and health issues. It is not straightforward to take annual leave at the drop of a hat (nor to waste a day on an unconfirmed date) when you work for the NHS or in a school or have childcare responsibilities. Leeds City Council should know this, as a public institution themselves, and yet here we are.

Now, back to the application at hand. What have been the latest developments? Well at the end of May this year, LCC decided that, in order to come to a decision, more information was necessary and changes to the planning were required:

  • From a social perspective, they declared the need for more information on the impact it would have on current residents and the housing needs of the community.
  • From an environmental perspective, they were concerned about the impacts of the proposed demolition and whether the planned development would worsen Leeds’ carbon footprint.
  • From a structural perspective, they wanted changes in the design and layout of the estate, as they were concerned about the aesthetics of the new houses and the reduced size of the gardens.

On 6 September 2019, Pemberstone added a range of new house designs and a policy statement.

What has changed on paper? Beyond that, what has really changed? Let’s take a deeper look (and be warned: this is a long post).

In a nutshell, Pemberstone have reduced the number of 4-bed houses by 5, adding one more 3-bed and one more 2-bed, but reducing the overall number of houses to 67. They claim that the energy efficiency of the houses will be better, the houses would now be able to accommodate solar panels on the roof, and – although the garden sizes have not changed – they kindly reminded us that such green spaces can be used ‘for horticultural purposes or as a convenient place for fresh air to improve occupier quality of life’. (I do hope they’re not trying to take credit for oxygen). The appearance of the houses, too, has changed – more on that shortly.

 

Where are the social impact surveys?

One glaring absence on LCC’s Planning Portal is the information around social and community impact.

In January 2019, LCC send around an Equality Information Form for residents to fill in. Not for all residents, mind you – there were not enough copies delivered to the estate, and one of our poor neighbours received letters for 3 other households, with all missing the form itself and the return envelope. Despite this haphazard delivery and distribution, we filled in the forms we had in good faith. What has happened since? Nothing.

We have not been provided any synthesis of the results, no hard data on the vulnerabilities of our community. Of course the personal details on the surveys must be kept confidential, but it is troubling that we have not received any notification of the findings, via mail or on the planning portal. It is troubling for three reasons.

  1. This is our data, that we provided in good faithin the hope that it will contribute to our objections against the planning and the eventual refusal of the application. Even if we cannot see the findings, LCC have at least the obligation to explain how they are using it – at the very least it will reassure us that the information has contributed to something (which we can’t be confident of, given the haphazard way in which they collected it).
  2. It is troubling because it underscores the asymmetry of resources we face in this fight to save our homes. As we have explained in a previous post, Pemberstone have the money to muster up studies to support whatever claim they wish to make. We do not. This survey is of vital importance to our claims of vulnerability, and yet we have had no sight of the findings.
  3. LCC’s lack of data sharing materially disadvantages our case. The only means that we have as a community to fight this application is through the planning portal on LCC’s website. This portal is meant to be a repository where allpaperwork related to planning is shared so that all parties have sight of it and can mount a reasonable argument in support, or against, the application. Pemberstone are able to share any number of documents that enable them to make their arguments. We are not able to see one of the key documents that will enable us to make ours.

ON TOP OF THIS: As part of the deferral decision in May 2019, LCC committed to look into the social impact that eviction would have on 70 low-income families with “protected characteristics”, as they termed it. What this suggests is that Plans Panel members took the results of the January survey seriously, and that they were concerned how our vulnerable community might be affected by mass eviction.

Absolutely nothing has happened since then. No follow up survey to see what the impact might be for each family, no consultation with residents, and still no sharing of the original results.

Has resident vulnerability ceased to matter?

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Some of our neighbours facing homelessness

 

Total Greenwashing

Now onto the changes that are meant to address LCC’s concerns around the carbon footprint of the new development.

Pemberstone have proposed that the new buildings would be more energy efficient than the current properties because of improved insulation and more modern boilers; because the new dual-flush toilets would mean less water wasted per resident; because health and well-being will be improved by gardens and windows; and because some of the properties would now face southwards in order to improve “solar gain”. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Improved Efficiency

 What is unsaid in this policy document is that Pemberstone has the authority to make many of these changes already to the current housing stock,which would ultimately be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally-friendly than demolition and rebuilding.

For instance, yes, it is true that the energy ratings of most of our homes are between Energy Efficiency Rating D and E (which is currently the average energy efficiency rating for houses in England and Wales).

However, there are also houses on our estate that are “C” grade, which is a satisfactory level of energy efficiency according to UK guidelines. And, importantly, there are simple ways to improve the energy efficiency rating of the “D” and “E” grade houses to make them “C” and “B” rated, including: double glazing, fitting doors that seal, boiler replacement, and installing an efficient secondary heating source (all things suggested in their plans for the new houses). These changes should have been done to our Airey homes by Pemberstone already. But it is never too late – they can be done now and do not require demolition and refurbishment to achieve.

The same is true for the dual-flush toilets and restricted-flow showers and taps – these can be retrofitted across all 70 properties without delay and this can save dozens of litres of water daily for residents.

A 2014 study by University College London(pdf) found that, “even older, high rise or poorly insulated structures, known as hard to treat buildings, can be retrofitted to achieve high energy efficiency standards”. The real environmental damage in these developments comes from construction. In the same study, researchers reported that:

The construction and demolition sector contributes 35% of all waste in the UK every year. Much of this is due to demolition waste… Recycling demolition waste reduces the environmental impacts of demolition, but refurbishment avoids waste to landfill and many of the environmental impacts of new construction.

In other words, Pemberstone (or LCC) can achieve a positive environmental impact for the area by refurbishing their current housing stock. Demolition and reconstruction will only contribute to Rothwell and Woodlesford’s landfill waste output.

This is important for Leeds City Council’s environmental agenda. Less than a decade ago, Leeds City Council was the only the second local authority in the country to commit to a government-backed scheme to reduce construction waste to landfill (2012 Construction Commitment, Halving Waste to Landfill). Is this still a priority for the Council? If not, why not?

Blue sky thinking

 Elsewhere in the updated plans, Pemberstone appear to lay claim to the benefits of fresh air and sky, reporting that these new houses will have gardens that contain fresh air and windows that will enable residents to see the sky.

Beyond the obvious arguments that gardens and windows already exist in the current properties, there is a point to be made about what ecological impacts demolition will have as the properties are redeveloped with much the same benefits. As John Davies(pdf) has cogently argued in his recent objection, existing trees, hedges and green space will all need to be dug up in order to develop these new gardens – destroying already existing habitats and natural buffers against carbon dioxide.

 

“Solar gain”

 Now for the argument of “solar gain”. Some of the new houses, according to the updated proposal, will be orientated southwards and have roof space for solar panels. Hurrah, the earth is saved! Does this mean Pemberstone will construct them with solar panels? No. Does this mean new homeowners will be obliged to fit solar panels as a condition of purchase? Of course not. What this means is the houses can, theoretically, be adapted to take advantage of renewable energy.

The theoretical part here is important. While renewable energy adaptations to buildings are essential in order for the world to reverse the trend of carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage, we have to be wary of greenwashing (i.e. misleading claims about environmental benefits of a scheme or service). Without new homeowner enforcements (or even incentives) to get solar panels, it is no more likely that new residents will install them than it is they will take up vegan diets or eschew cars in favour of bicycles.

Anything that is down to individual choice cannot be considered in the deliberations around planning.

The concrete facts of these updated proposals are that: all of the energy efficiency measures in the new houses are already possible in the current housing stock, and no evidence has been put forward that the efficiency gains in the new houses will offset the negative environmental impacts of demolition, construction waste, and nature loss.

If LCC consider that the new rooves *may* encourage the use of solar panels, then they must also consider that the increased number of 4-bed middle-class houses *may also* result in a rise in car ownership per household, as we have previously reported. Does solar energy offset car pollution and the impacts of increased traffic?

 

Mimicking history

Last but not least, we come to the new design of the houses.

In the last Plans Panel meeting, LCC members remarked that the original design of the proposed houses left a lot to be desired, with the suggestion that Pemberstone should go back to the drawing board. And re-draw them they did, introducing ‘additional character which draws inspiration from the Airey Housing’ (see picture below).

Image 22-09-2019 at 13.33
A screenshot of the ‘Airey inspired’ design proposed by Pemberstone

This part of the proposal is disingenuous to say the least. Part of our campaign to keep our homes is because of their historical value as a uniquely large sample of post-World War II ‘homes for heroes’. As we have written elsewhere, Sir Edwin Airey himself was a local designer and our homes are a standing example of social history. They are distinctive in their design, important for their place in post-war industrial history, and they have attracted a lot of attention nationally and locally.

For the last two years in a row, English Heritage and Leeds Civic Society have organised coach tours of interested visitors to come to the estate, tour our homes and learn about the area’s coal mining and working class past and present.

The idea that any of this working-class architecture and heritage can be replicated or paid homage to by demolition and the construction of a middle-class housing estate is simply laughable. The proposed houses look nothing like the Airey originals, and as soon as the current estate is demolished, Leeds City Council will lose that heritage forever.

Middle-class mimickery of local working-class history doesn’t cut the mustard, I’m afraid.

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Heritage Open Day visitors enjoying the real deal in 2018.

 

Join Us

 So, there we have it; Pemberstone’s latest offering: no mitigation of social vulnerability, total greenwashing and Airey imitation.

Will it still be enough to render us homeless?

Join us outside Leeds City Council on 3rdOctober to protest and find out.

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