Oxford Dreaming Spires

Climate change devastation and soaring fuel bills: and the Buck stops where?

Sue Roaf

Two factors are changing the way we all live:  climate change and the soaring cost of energy. There is no escaping either of them.  But who should we turn to protect us?  The Government, the law, planners or architects? We may be disappointed, because for some reason many of them simply don’t seem to fully grasp the extent of the mess we are in.

The government has failed to show any real leadership in planning ahead to ensure that the UK has the energy it needs to get by.  Ten years ago I wrote to Downing Street and asked them why they were allowing UK gas to be virtually given away to the Ruhr valley in Germany when UK would begin to run out of this most vital of all resources in eight years time? Eight years later we could no longer meet our own domestic needs and gas prices globally began to soar.  Over the last four years energy prices for householders have doubled and will go up another 40% this year and who knows when the lights will actually begin to go out, when the European powers decide they would rather keep what is left of the gas than send it to Britain?

Now they want to put the ordinary home owner in hock to ‘Big Energy’ to pay for the costs of huge centralized nuclear and coal power stations that actually increase our fuel insecurity by making us dependant on monolithic systems that are prone to failure. If they spent the larger part of that money on helping us to make every home in Britain use less energy and, as the far-sighted German and Spanish governments have done,  run increasingly on renewable energy, the entire UK energy supply system would be much more resilient to system failure and extreme climatic events. 

Who is protecting us from the increasingly extreme weather events? We got an inkling of how bad they may get during the flooding in June and July 2007. 55,000 properties were flooded. Around 7,000 people were rescued from the flood waters by the emergency services and 13 people died. The floods caused the largest loss of essential services since World War II, with almost half a million people without mains water or electricity. Transport networks failed, a dam breach was narrowly averted and emergency facilities were put out of action. The insurance industry expects to pay out more than £3 billion with other substantial costs for repairs to infra-structure largely being met by central government and the public utility companies responsible for water and power.

Civil servant Sir Michael Pitt was appointed to produce a review that was published on the 25th June 2008.  It is detailed but he did not really answer a key question: Where does the buck stop?  Even a year after the floods over 4000 people are still not back in their homes.  The trauma and anguish suffered by hundreds of thousands has been enormous but Sir Michael still thinks we should build on the flood plains. To quote from his Review:

‘Many submissions to the Review call for a complete end to building on the flood plain. This is not realistic. The country cannot end all development along the Thames, or bear the costs of siting critical infrastructure, such as water treatment works or power stations, away from the water supplies they need to function.’

Following this event, and concern over the condition of flood defences, the insurance industry threatened to deny cover completely to houses built on floodplains, which would have a drastic effect on property values and impede government plans for major house building programmes in such areas. In full knowledge of the risks of major new developments on flood plains John Prescot promoted the building of around 200,000 homes in the Thames Gateway area on land that will one day flood and he knew it.

According to statistics around 10% of houses in England are at a risk of flooding at least once every one hundred years.  According to a House of Commons report between 2000 and 2006, the proportion of new houses being built in flood hazard areas in England averaged 11%.  England still allows development in the floodplain, even under the government’s 2006 Planning Policy Statement on flooding. Scotland stopped in 1995, Wales in 2004, and N. Ireland in 2006.  Building in the floodplain not only puts lives at risk, it makes the flooding hazard worse downstream.

Sir Michaels report says: ‘Where there is development on the floodplain, buildings should be made flood resilient. The Government has recently produced guidance to developers on flood-resilient construction.’

Yes we have been building waterproof homes of millennia – they are called boats!  You certainly can’t build ordinary affordable housing that people can move back into immediately after a flood. So the planning system looks set to blight the lives of some of the poorest in society (because the likes of John Prescot and Sir Michael do not live on the flood plain)?  In Sweden and France you could sue a planner or mayor who gives permission for developments on flood plains but in Britain the buck certainly does not stop there.

So it is probably up to you to make your home low energy and climate proof – or move? There are some architects you might ask to build you a carbon neutral, resilient home but judging from the end of year shows at some of British Schools of Architecture in Universities they are probably few and far between.  In many Schools of Architecture you won’t even see a building on the wall of final year design studios, in between the computer generated sculptural forms that bear no resemblance to real buildings.  Some schools you will actually see what look like real buildings but ones that show no sign that their designers have the slightest understanding of the impacts climate change or how to make them low energy and powered by renewables.  Too often they are simply sculptured forms with their thin, un-shaded, glass walls, without opening windows nor any consideration of the health, comfort, well-being and safety of their occupants.

So here is the question again? Who can you turn to, to save you from soaring energy prices?  I suggest that you realise that salvation lies in your own hands.  This may include getting rid of debt, saving more, putting in place a rolling programme of energy efficiency measures in your own home and some solar panels in place. It means either moving to where floods wont happen and/or making your home resilient to extreme weather events such as flooding or overheating. It means only choosing architects who understand about energy and climatic design and putting pressure on local and central governments to help you build resilience in your home and your community.  It means getting an answer to the most important question ‘Where does the buck does stop?’. At the moment it seems it is up to each pf us to take ownership of the solutions – unless I can start to make the situation change beginning with highlighting the problems we face at the Oxford Conf later this month. 

See: Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol (2005). Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Architectural Press.

Sue Roaf is Chair of the forthcoming Oxford Conference on Architectural Education on the 22nd – 23rd July 2008.




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