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Protecting and Enhancing the Urban and Natural Environment Conference

On the 11th November, I went to the Institute of Physics (of all places) for a conference on Protecting and Enhancing the Urban and Natural Environment courtesy of Inside Government.

First up, a DEFRA rep. with an impressive account of Government achievements – National Ecosystem Assessment, a world leader. Some impressive figures for the value of ecosystem services such as £0.5 billion for pollination, and access to nature saving the NHS £2.1 billion through de-stressing us etc. Also, the Natural Capital Committee (under Dieter Helm) doing its bit to adjust the GDP to take account of nature’s benefits. An uphill struggle as biodiversity and ecosystems in general are in decline.

Lots of chat here and later about “the power of partnership”. The jargon generator came up with the Ecosystem Knowledge Network, Local Nature Partnerships under the National Planning Policy Framework, Engagement in the Natural environment, Green Infrastructure Partnerships (still with me?), the Ecosystems Marketing Task Force, the Outdoors for All programme etc etc etc.

The response to my question about how far natural capital assets were picked up in conventional national accounts was answered by the comment that it was too early to say but the signs were encouraging – the Natural Capital Committee reports directly to the Chancellor’s Economic Affairs Committee. Make of that what you will.

A brief canter over the work of the Environment Agency and it was off to draw breath over the “refreshment break”.  “What did you make of it so far ?” I asked a young participant. “Blah, blah, blah, blah blah ” (a direct quote) was the response from the endangered species that is the Local Authority ecologist. He pointed out that local authorities had the necessary expertise to deliver the government’s aspirations but they were being cut to the core.

A lively talk from a  New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership director, noting that he no longer had to blag on about  business case for developing the green economy – it was accepted. He made a great pitch for East Anglia (“Wild Anglia” seems to be the strap line) as a place to invest in (despite it being drier than Israel and Morocco ( um, what about that desert to the south?). He was hoping for a  “growth deal” (someone else can explain what exactly that is).

The TCPA made a fair pitch for Garden Cities. Ebenezer Howard might have written it himself. The message “the UK is miles behind Germany and Scandinavia in its planning for sustainability” was all too believable. But the NPPF commends Garden Cities so maybe, just maybe, their time is coming – again.

Investing in Research to Secure Biodiversity was a sales pitch for a piece of software which could tell you (Statoil was the chosen example) where to explore with least damage to the environment taking account of biodiversity, vulnerability, fragmentation, connectivity, and resilience. It seemed to do the job in north west Madagascar and there was some cross checking the computer-generated answers with the real world. A for effort.

The GLA representative gave a good account  of the Natural Environment of the City and a pointer to the London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) to get stuck into the Infrastructure Investment Plan to ensure it gets the green component right.

The afternoon was partly about the role of the environment in promoting public health outcomes and though the NPPF came into play as an ally, I felt that there was some way to go before health professionals, the pharmaceutical industry and government were going to put as much effort into prevention (exercise, experience of the natural world etc) as to cure. The urgent (curing diabetes) always out muscles the less urgent (better diets). That said, there was some good work going on in Tower Hamlets. Thereafter, the event rather lost its way though it was good to hear one of the LSDC’s former London Leaders, Nigel Tyrell,  give a great account of his brilliant app “Love Lewisham”.

The closing keynote (the air was thick with keynotes, enough for a couple of symphonies, – 4 during the day) was billed as Healthy Ecosystems and Healthy People by a director of Natural England. That’s an oxymoron for connoisseurs of the genre as there is only one bit of untouched woodland (in the Wye Valley) and one unimproved river (in Cumbria since you ask) in the whole country. Some useful information about the financial benefits of exposure to nature /green spaces and a couple of fresh acronyms for collectors – Micro Economic Evidence for the Benefits of involvement in the Environment (MEEBE) and Monitoring the Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE).

I didn’t really get an answer to my question at the end to the effect that with all this effort, expertise and money, biodiversity and ecosystems in general are actually in decline, so what are we going to do to arrest this? I think the answer may be not to get too hung up in protecting in aspic a countryside and environment that has changed dramatically since the 1950s . We have to find new ways of protecting endemic flora and fauna in a no longer “Natural” England.

John Plowman, Chair of the London Sustainable Development Commission


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Inside the UK homes most improved for energy use

As part of the LSDC’s guest blog series we would like to welcome London Superhomes to talk about their forthcoming open house weekend in September.  If you are around in September then why not take time out to visit the growing number of Superhomes in London and be inspired by what can be done to eco-renovate your home and reduce your carbon footprint? 

RIBA recently revealed that family homes are now built to a floor plan over 40% smaller than in the 1920s. Meanwhile, retrofitting older homes offers the prospect of modern comfort without having to cramp either your style or your living space.

SuperHomes are amongst the UK homes most improved for energy use. These are older homes refurbished by their owners to produce a carbon footprint at least 60% smaller. This can, in fact, usually be achieved with minimal loss of floor space.

Dave Raval is one of 17 pioneering London households hosting SuperHome Open Days this September. The phased refurbishment of his 4 floor 1870s town house in Hackney has transformed the level of comfort he enjoys.

To achieve the increased comfort more insulation was key. The front wall was insulated internally so the brick façade remains unchanged. The back and side walls were insulated externally then rendered. Loft and floor insulation were added.

There’s something particularly credible about Dave’s story and that of the 171 households now in the SuperHomes network. This is because they are free to talk frankly about the pros and cons of the measures they have installed.

Dave is quick to point out that his new combi boiler might not deliver instant steaming hot showers. However, it did mean he could fit an additional heat exchanging device on top of the boiler which recirculates the waste flu steam saving 15% in gas.

And not everything has always gone perfectly to plan in these projects. For example, Dave lives on a noisy road. When he found that more noise was getting past his brand new double glazed timber sash windows than his old uPVC ones, he wasn’t happy. Secondary glazing to the front (with acoustic glass) finally delivered the silent nights he had intended.

Many SuperHomers have tried new things and can tell you just how different it is to live with them. Dave installed an underfloor heating system of hot water pipes across the entire lower ground floor. If this sounds costly, think again. Dave’s annual gas bill has fallen by 50% thanks to all the changes he has made.

SuperHome Open Days present a rare opportunity to see green technologies like this in situ. These include biomass boilers, heat pumps, mechanical ventilation and heat recovery and water saving devices; also triple glazing, modern wood stoves and all types of insulation. Virtually every technology expected to attract Green Deal finance can be inspected at closer quarters this September.

Visiting these retrofits gives you great hope. It confirms that low carbon living is possible without depriving yourself of life’s small pleasures.

SuperHomes are open to the public in September, March and at other times by appointment. For more information or to book a visit, see 




Photos: 1. Dave Raval’s Hackney SuperHome  2. Roof Solar PV 

Photos courtesy of 

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Ashok Sinha: Is London the ‘best big city in the world’?

 London Cycling Campaign chief executive Ashok Sinha asks if the capital’s standing is improving against other big cities.Image

Is London the ‘best big city in the world’? Much depends on how you define ‘best’ and ‘big’. Nevertheless, that pinnacle is the goal Mayor Boris Johnson has set for the capital, which tends to suggest he doesn’t think London is the best just yet. (Trivia alert: London is around the 25th largest city in the world, depending on how you measure it; Birmingham, the UK’s second largest, ranks about 150th).

But if London isn’t the best big city in the world, then why not? Boris will have his own criteria (which quite normally for politicians of all stripes he has kept vague), so maybe we should posit our own. Even if you don’t buy into all this political machismo (my skyscrapers are taller than your skyscrapers) there are good reasons to ask what it is that we can do to make London the best it can be for everyone who lives and works here, and for everyone who passes through it. (Or indeed for anybody, anywhere, who is affected by London’s international reach — from the financial markets to our carbon emissions.)

Latest indicators for London
One set of candidate benchmarks was published last month by the London Sustainable Development Commission (not to be confused with its UK namesake, set up in the early Blair years and sacrificed in the coalition government’s bonfire of the quangos). Most readers will probably never have heard of it or will be hazy as to what it does, but for over a decade the LSDC has been beavering away in City Hall, establishing indicators for London’s ‘sustainability’ and assessing progress in relation to them.

And for the wonks: the LSDC uses a reworking of the UN’s classical definition of Sustainable Development, namely “ensuring we have a better quality of life now and for the future, whilst protecting and enhancing the Earth’s resources”. Just in case you were wondering.

The latest issuing from the Commissioners — who are a mix of folk from public agencies, business, the NGO world and politics — is entitled London’s Quality of Life Indicators 2012. It spans (take a deep breath, which you should because, apparently, our air quality is getting better — but more of that later) no fewer than 33 environmental, social and economic indicators, including politically charged issues such as crime and housing affordability. Each indicator has one or more numerical measures attached (eg traffic volume is quantified in billions of vehicle-kms per annum) with a traffic light system to indicate trends to the good or ill.

If so inclined, I’d recommend you have a look at it for yourselves. Cycling itself isn’t an indicator (I’ll come back to that), but there are indicators that are relevant to the experiences and concerns of cyclists: it may not feel like it when sat in a cloud of diesel fumes but our air quality has improved (if still woefully short of what Londoners deserve and what EU regulations require); travel to school by bike is up (but the proportion walking to school has declined) and motor traffic volumes are falling (although a quick delve into TfL data shows substantial regional variation, with central London experiencing the greatest falls compared to virtually unchanged volumes in outer London).

The good news headline is that 17 of the 33 indicators are on a positive trend (ignoring any weighting conundrums: are income inequality and volunteering rate equally important, for example?), although areas of deterioration such as increasing voter apathy, decreasing business survival rates and increasing fuel poverty are of serious concern.

Cycling’s wider impact
So, even if only from a cycling perspective, we should be pleased, right? Well yes we should, insofar as cyclists are breathing (slightly) cleaner air and jostling with (a modicum) less motor traffic. But should we be satisfied? Of course not. We know road danger — real or perceived — is the main barrier to people cycling more or at all, and this is suppressing the huge latent demand there is for cycling and hence all benefits cycling brings. Which leads to a broader point. It may sound parochial but I’d argue that the proportion of journeys made by bike should be identified as a key sustainable development indicator by itself. Here at LCC we genuinely believe, as we said in last year’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign, that our city will be made “more liveable for everyone” by making our streets as “safe and inviting for cycling” as they are in the Netherlands.

On that basis, action to promote cycling then becomes a means for achieving other sustainable development outcomes (eg lower ecological footprint and higher employment rates) not just a goal in itself. As Boris himself said not so long ago, cycling is “arguably the single most important tool for making London the best big city in the world”.

We wholeheartedly agree.

For more information about London Cycling Campaign, please visit the website:

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Connecting Londoners with their Energy

Mary story of energy2We all know that if we want to lower London’s emissions, we need a huge change in individual energy behaviour.  But can we expect people to do that if they don’t know the full story?

London Community Energy (LCE) run by 2011 London Leader Mary Walsh has been working with LifeSquared to tell “The Story of Energy”.  This is a project which helps people understand where their energy comes from, the impact it has on the world and how they can make a change.

“When you switch on a light at home in London you probably aren’t thinking about an environmental impact thousands of miles away” says Mary, “but if you understand the issues, you’re more likely to take action – that’s where the Story of Energy comes in.”   You can see the results here

LCE is also working with communities across London who are developing local energy projects.  “It’s an exciting time for the capital’s community energy developers and we’re seeing more and more people get involved in decentralized energy” says Mary, “but they continue to face huge challenges – especially when it comes to raising finance”.

LCE will be running a “Getting Finance Ready” workshop on November 28that City Hall, looking at business planning, risk management and building investor confidence. For more info please visit:


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Anyone up for a little fun and games?

PaulaPaula Owen, London Leader 2012, whose ‘fun and games for sustainability’  project is exploring the potential of social interaction through games to educate and influence behaviour change, is seeking community groups, interest groups, faith groups, open events and other opportunities to put on free Games workshops for the public.

Paula’s project idea is to test out the power of a range of games; from the very familiar, such as versions of Bingo, top trumps, and ‘play your cards right’ which have been given an eco twist, all the way through to more complex dedicated environmentally focused games, to help inform and educate people on environmental issues and the impact they can have by changing simple everyday behaviours and habits.  She and her team will come along to your event and put on a one, two or three hour workshop where a range of games will be played.  All we ask in return is for all participants fill in a short questionnaire before the games start, and a feedback form at the end of the session.  This is to allow us to evaluate the session and people’s experiences of the games.  We will also ask permission to follow up with participants after the games to ascertain whether any of the messages from the session have helped people change behaviours.

If you are interested in hosting a games workshop, or want to know more, please either call or email Paula:

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