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.