Only Happy When It Rains

by | Oct 3, 2008

Bizarrely, this week’s episode of Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s BBC Radio 4 series Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s History of Home, in which celebrity interior designer and big, flouncy ponce Laurence Llewelyn Bowen explores the history of our homes from the 1920s to the present day, opens with a montage of calls to arms from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: ‘this is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue’ and ‘within the decade there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro’, and so on. Cue Laurence Llewelyn Bowen:

By the turn of the 21st Century, we were having to face a few of Al Gore’s inconvenient truths about global warming, not least the news that our homes contribute heavily to the problem. In Britain, CO2 emissions from the housing sector have risen by 5% in the last ten years alone, so that our homes now account for 27% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

The latest installment looks at the eco-home. First stop: the Hockerton Housing Project near Nottingham, a terrace of five houses that use only 10% of the energy of the average British home. They are neither plugged nor plumbed in, but they are right-on. They have grass roofs, reed-beds instead of sewers, windmills and solar panels instead of sub-stations, and various different kinds of compost heap.

LLB: Let’s go to the bathroom. Because that’s always a slight point of sensitivity as far as people are concerned, because they always associate green living with a nose-dive in personal hygiene, which I think is deeply unfair.

Resident: It is.

LLB: This is exactly as you’d expect from a family bathroom.

Resident: It is. But it’s actually a cunningly disguised, ultra-low water-use toilet, and it does the job […] It starts to flush everything down the pipe and out into a tank, which then leads into a reed bed. It’s a wonderful habitat for the plants and the animals; it saves us loads of money because we don’t pay water rates. The other thing that isn’t obvious in the bathroom really is the water is actually collected from the rain, and everything we use in terms of water, we have to collect, look after [and] treat […] And when it’s raining, you’re moderately happy and you’re filling your water tank. And you’re very connected with that. You become in control of what you’re doing.

What the resident meant to say, of course, is that when you are entirely dependent on enough sun, rain and wind falling on your your own little patch of the planet, you relinquish all ‘control of what you’re doing’ to Mother Nature. Which is all well and good if you like to spend your time composting your nail clippings and wondering whether to water your vegetables or wash your hair. But given that the vast majority of us have other things to do, it’s hardly a model for future society.

The eco-village was built and is now lived in by some nice, middle-class folk who have a lot of time on their hands and who don’t really want to be part of modern civilisation. They have even symbolised their aspirations to some sort of pre-industrial utopia with a stone circle they built in their communal back-garden.

Were it just about a bunch of well-meaning eccentrics pottering about in quiet corners of the English countryside, that would be the end of it, but the trouble is that, whether we like it or not, eco-living is going mainstream. The programme tells us that the UK government’s aim is for all new houses to be ‘zero-carbon’ by 2016. To that end, it has produced the Code for Sustainable Homes, a national standard of sustainability for new build housing, and plans for ten new ‘eco-towns‘.

Barratt Homes is one of the construction giants looking for a piece of the action, by drawing on green technologies developed by the likes of ZEDfactory, who can pack fifty Rural Zed self-build eco-houses into a hectare. Barratt chief executive officer Mark Clare explains that all houses of the future will store rainwater for use in the toilet and washing machine, have dedicated spaces for bicycles, and, er…

We also are designing these homes so that there are warm areas in the house at the top, where you can actually dry your clothes, so you shouldn’t need a tumble drier.

Like you shouldn’t need a car, because all the public transport will be ‘integrated’. And like you shouldn’t need to go anywhere anyway, because, well, why would you need to? But it’s a thin line between shouldn’t and mustn’t, and it remains far from clear on which side of that line the eco-proles will be forced to sit. As Andrew Orlowski reported last week on The Register, a report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) suggests that the lifestyle police will be paying very close attention:

If the proposals in the report What Makes An Eco Town? are implemented few aspects of life will go unrecorded.

CABE says the strict monitoring is needed to ensure the carbon footprint of the eco-town dwellers remains at one-third of the British average, which is the requirement for what’s called “one-planet living”, the quango says.

Examples of monitoring include “the ecological footprint of the diet of 100 randomly selected residents”, and the number of shops selling local produce. Waste disposal and transportion habits will also be scrutinized.

The Carbon Cult also wants to choose what you food you eat, and will carefully pre-select only the most righteous retailers. Veggies will be pleased to read that the report recommends “actively seeking retailers on site who will commit to supporting residents in reducing the ecological footprint of their food consumption, in particular providing a wide variety of healthy, low meat and dairy options.

Certainly, eco-towns are about more than making just the architecture eco-friendly. Mark Clare says his houses can lead to a 60% reduction in carbon footprint. Which is plainly not enough for Caroline Flint, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, and her zero-carbon aspirations. Lifestyle changes are also essential.

MC: The house will enable the home-owner to reduce their carbon footprint by well over 60%. If they do all of the other things – including transport – then they can get up to 80% reduction. So, now we really are talking about something close to zero-carbon living.

We are certainly not the first to criticise the government’s eco-towns policies. At one end of the spectrum, the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey isn’t impressed. And at the other, neither are those nice, well-meaning middle-class types – like the parents of plucky British tennis under-achiever Tim Henman – who find themselves in the flight-path of one of the proposed developments. But the fact is that most people aren’t going to be negatively affected by eco-towns. Like most people wouldn’t have been negatively affected by new towns period. And as we keep saying, most people remain unconvinced by Environmentalism, and few vote for it. So why the re-branding? One advantage is that the shrill voices of Environmentalism would find it harder to mount a challenge if it is billed under the government’s commitment to reducing CO2. Who could possibly object to ethical ‘eco-homes’?

That said, some shrill voices can’t be drowned out just like that. One of our pet favorite loony Environmentalist organisations, the Optimal Population Trust (OPT), rightly points out that eco-towns will make but a dent in the UK’s need for new housing. Where they go wrong – completely, entirely and utterly wrong – is in thinking that what we really need is no new houses at all.

the Government should minimise future demand for housing by developing a clear “green” strategy to achieve a sustainable level of population for the UK. England is by some measures the world’s fourth most densely populated country, with overcrowding affecting quality of life and damaging the habitat of other species.

Intriguingly, they add:

Population growth is by far the biggest factor in the predicted increase in demand for housing, accounting for at least 59 per cent

They don’t mention what they think accounts for the other 41% of the demand. Presumably, it has something to do with the trend for solitary living. We should be living together as long as we don’t sleep together, or something.

When it comes down to it, eco-towns are a response to neither ecological nor housing imperatives. And yet, once good, old-fashioned ‘towns’ are re-labelled as ‘eco-towns’, they are bestowed with a loftier purpose, which gives governments – not to mention the likes of Barratt’s Homes – licence to start getting away with anything. And they do. Yet Llewelyn Bowen still doesn’t see any reason to criticise them. He concludes:

I can’t help thinking though that this is a life that lots of people would cherish – it’s simpler, it’s safer, it’s greener, and that all important sense of community […] It’s basically ‘Get happy’.

But, no matter how much his history of the eco-home uncritically extols their virtues, you can bet that prancing dandies like Llewelyn Bowen won’t be making eco-slums their home. Nor will well-intentioned, disillusioned, middle-class folk with time on their hands. Eco-slums will be the last resort of those who don’t have any choice in the matter.


  1. No Plaice pike home

    As a non evangelical vegetarian I’m not that chuffed to have a personal choice turned in to part of a ever-contracting eco-noose. Of course enforcing ones own “moral” ideas seems a fine Idea when your the “moral” one and doing the enforcing – there is always the danger the eye glass turns to you

    Funnily enough I have done hedge-layering at hockerton when I studied horticulture – call me misathropic if you will but this type of communal living looks pretty rubbish to me – it doesn’t look like the future; It’s just simply the faddy eco-gesturing hobby of judgemental well off hippy types

    Another student pointed out it wasn’t quite as eco as they reckoned since they had used tons of cement or concrete or whatever – I presume as part of the ever-contracting eco-noose future eco dwellers should craft walls from there own dung mix with straw…

  2. Rich

    “So, now we really are talking about something close to zero-carbon living” says Caroline Flint clearly ignorant that, if expiration ceases so does living.


  3. No Plaice pike home

    Of course it would have been a bit more eco to do there own bloody hedging rather then drive students in but perhaps all the chopping and recycling and eco-ing and whatnot gets tedious after a bit

  4. geoff chambers

    I’m not sure what is the point of this article. So, there are people who think that by crapping onto reed mats, they can save polar bears from drowning, and there’s a building company ready to provide them with the requisite facilities to satisfy their wants. That’s fine by me. I’m happy with people holding beliefs which I don’t share, whether its dangerous global warming or guardian angels; (incidentally, lots of people believe in guardian angels or UFOs, so why is nobody building houses with landing strips on the roof?).
    It’s when their beliefs start to impinge on my life that I start to worry; when a light bulb I need for my work becomes illegal; when the disposable razor for my delicate skin or my cheap flight home to Blighty is threatened with punitive taxes in order to protect undefined species from extermination; and when media like the Guardian and the BBC find all this more important than the current economic crisis. Then I turn to Climate Resistance for aid and intellectual sustenance, and, I’m left wondering why you seem to be devoting your energies to criticising epiphenomena like ecohousing, when there are barn doors to be broken down which could make a real difference, which could save us from catastrophic policies based on nothing but mass hysteria.
    Public opinion in Britain is formed largely by the BBC plus four “quality” newspapers, two at least of which are engaged in an Orwellian propaganda campaign in defence of a theory which is propagated by the UN, the G8, the EU, and all three major political parties in Britain, and yet which is demonstrably false.The Guardian of 3rd October has no less than five articles on Climate Change, all supporting insane, suicidal political action based on pseudo-scientific arguments which anyone with O-level maths could demolish.
    AGM advocates rarely engage in debate. Monbiot has done so, to his credit, silencing Monckton by accusing him of telling fibs on his website, and Alexander Cockburn by accusing him of quoting a far right source. He’s just demolished Christopher Booker’s credibility using the hockeystick gambit – (“my honourable friend talks a lot of rubbish about asbestos (tree rings), and what’s more he’s against AGW” (recent warming, arbitrarily tacked on). These are McCarthyite tactics, and they need confronting.
    I recommend your readers to follow the comments on the recent Guardian article “The Battle caused by Climate Wars”, a defence of the BBC programme by its producer. After hundreds of hysterical blogs defending global warming, three or four bloggers calmly point out that the emperor is naked, temperatures are not going up. It’s not quite Socratic dialogue, but it’s great theatre. It’s time someone took on the opinion leaders like Monbiot. Do a Marquess of Queensbury on him. Go ad hominem. Do it Climate Resistance, take them on. We’re behind you.

  5. Editors


    While you might be confused about the post above, we are equally confused about your comment.

    Eco-towns aren’t the expression of individuals making choices about where and how they live. Eco-towns are the UK government’s response to the housing shortage (largely a product of its own short-sightedness) and the demands of the environmental values it has attached itself to. LLB think that Eco-homes will make people happier. For those who have designed their own eco-homes, perhaps this is the case. For the people who will be placed into low-cost, mass produced eco-homes, there will be little choice about the way they live their lives. As we have said before, what are being created are eco-slums. Eco towns are not merely epiphenomena. Looking at them gives us an opportunity to try to understand why the Government has absorbed environmental rhetoric. Our argument is that environmentalism is not prolific because of its own momentum, so to speak. Instead, what’s driving the rise of green ideas is the establishment’s need for them. As we say in our introduction ‘Exaggerated environmental concern is merely serving to provide direction for directionless politics.’

    You say that we should be engaging with the producer of ‘Earth: The climate Wars’ on Commentisfree. But we already have – our post on the film was cited by Renouf, and linked to in his post. My article on Spiked about the film was also linked to by one of the commenters there.

    And where has this stuff about not challenging the likes on Monbiot come from? We’re always on about Monbiot! We’re bored of Monbiot! And Lynas, who is no less a figure in the Green movement, and is the subject of our last-but-one posts.

  6. talisker

    Geoff – do you have O-level maths by any chance? If so, why leave it to others to demolish this vast conspiracy of lies? You could be just the man for the job!

  7. geoff chambers

    Sorry, you’re right, I am confused. If I address my confusion to you it’s because yours is the only site I know which attempts intelligent analysis of the political and media side of the AGW movement, (others do an excellent job of the scientific side). So why do I continually feel that you (and I and everyone else) are somehow missing the point?
    I stick to my point that the eco towns are apparently seen as vote winners; look at the enthusiasm of the resident quoted and the readiness of the journalist to quote him with a straight face. Of course your analysis of the emptiness of modern political discourse as the reason for the popularity of the AGW message is spot on. But don’t you feel you’re continually attacking the symptoms of something whose nature escapes us? I call it “mass hysteria” or mass displacement activity”, aware that giving it a psychological label doesn’t advance things much. It would be nice if some historical comparisons could help us, but I can’t see anything in recent history on this scale. Nuclear deterrence, reaganomics, communism; name any flawed idea you like; none of them denied reality to this extent; none were adopted by the entire western world; and all provoked reasoned opposition.
    I know you do a good job of knocking Monbiot and all the others. If I mention him, it’s because he seems to me occupy a key position in winning over the chattering classes. He’s obviously intelligent, well-read, courageous on certain issues, the kind of journalist a Guardian reader trusts. So when he refuses to discuss the science, it’s not from ignorance or intellectual laziness. He’s lying in order to keep the ignorant masses in line. This would be natural behaviour in a politician, but is disgraceful in a journalist. My hope is that the Guardian (which is a broader church than simply its environment pages) or some other news source will arrange a real debate one day. Maybe you’ll be there.

  8. Stefan

    “but I can’t see anything in recent history on this scale. Nuclear deterrence, reaganomics, communism; name any flawed idea you like; none of them denied reality to this extent”

    There has been a trend in recent decades–Eastern spirituality came to the West and hippies created their own interpretation–towards believing that it is wrong to intellectualize. It is a highly stupid idea, but nonetheless, many people have come to believe that the intellect does not give good results, rather, it is more important to feel, to intuit, to visualize, than it is to examine things under the light of reason. Reason is seen as cold and impersonal, whilst ecology is seen as something that you have to feel, to become joined with, to “go with the flow”, to let your intuition guide you, and so on.

    It was highly amusing to see it mentioned in a BBC article about Doctors’ private jargon used in medical notes: they sometimes jot down “GROLIES”, meaning “Guardian Reader Of Low Intelligence in Ethnic Skirt”.

  9. John Bailo

    A lot of the “population growth” has actually been through immigration. Here in Seattle, for example, the Demolib leadership sold the entire region a package of big budget spending with the presumption that 1990s growth would continue for the 21st century.

    But, guess what? Immigration has gone to zero. Mexicans have reduced their birth rate from 6 to 2 and are staying home where opportunities have been increasing.

    Does this let the Lib Planners made changes?

    No…they turn a deaf eye to the data (as always) and continue to berate the voters with even more big budget, high density projects that will bankrupt the region if not voted down!

  10. geoff chambers

    Stefan, I couldn’t agree more that the popularity of anti-rational philosophies is behind the appeal of environmentalism. Feeding the starving or limiting the spread of AIDS requires knowledge of economics, agronomy, epidemiology – hard stuff, while saving the planet can be done with the right attitude and a dainty carbon footprint. The genius of the Global Warming establishment has been to provide this sizeable section of the public with a scientific (and therefore authoritative) rationale for beliefs which boil down to little more than a vague desire to keep the world nice, amplified by obsessional anxiety, and somehow (but how?) transformed into a political programme which threatens to reverse the direction of history.
    Talisker, yes I have enough maths to be able to read a graph. Trouble is, the graphs I read aren’t being published in the mainstream press, so only we sceptics/deniers have seen them. I’d like to see an explanation of that which isn’t a conspiracy theory

  11. George Carty

    Aren’t “eco-towns” missing the point in a big way? Relying on unreliable wind and solar power for electricity, and lacking access to mains water would be highly undesirable for normal people (as opposed to hairshirt eco-maniacs). However, supplying mains water isn’t a really big user of energy anyway!

    For most people, the biggest users of energy are heating (or air conditioning in warmer climates) and transportation — this suggests most environmentally-friendly way to live is in a flat in an inner-city location. A flat takes much less energy to heat that a house, both because the flat itself is smaller, and because the entire building is much larger, so it has less surface area (from which heat can escape) relative to its volume. The limited available space means less temptation to accumulate large quantities of consumer junk, and inner-city people are less likely to need cars than suburban people, as the high density of development means amenities are more likely to be in walking distance and that public transport is likely to be much more useful.

    The original New Towns were intended to be relatively self-sufficient, with companies choosing to locate there as there was more room to develop than in older towns and cities. In this respect they were a failure, as most New Towns ended up as little more than dormitory communities whose residents commute to jobs in older towns and cities. If the new eco-towns have the same problem, the consequences are likely to be even worse, as they (unlike the original New Towns) were engineered to make car usage more difficult.

    Perhaps planned settlements are in general a bad idea, because they often lack an economic raison d’etre (“jobs” in layman’s terms). One possible exception would be planned capital cities (such as Washington DC, Brasilia or Islamabad), because a capital city naturally has one huge employer already (the central government).


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