“Investigate ways to ensure that future local plans place a mandatory requirement for all new development to be net zero carbon by the earliest possible date.”
“Call on the government to: Provide powers and resources to make the zero-carbon target possible including funding for big capital projects.”
These are two of the many commitments made by Manchester City Council in its Declaration of a Climate Emergency, made a little over four years ago on 10th July 2019. The year before, Manchester put in place a carbon budget of 15 million tonnes of CO2, to last from 2018 to 2100, with an aim of being “zero carbon” by 2038 (last reported to the Council here).
Manchester has about 234,000 households, and their combined emissions eat up about 665 thousand tonnes of that budget every year – about 30% of the city’s annual emissions. The vast majority of those houses will be heated by gas boilers, and will use power from the National Grid. To get emissions down, existing buildings need to be retrofitted to minimise their emissions, while new dwellings need to be built in such a way that they have the lowest possible embedded emissions, so they won’t need (expensive and difficult) retrofit in the future.
First, stop making the problem worse…
We’ll come back to the “retrofitting existing” point later, because surely at least the new dwellings part is easy, right? Councils control planning policy within their boundaries, so all they have to do is make sure they only pass proposals that hit the relevant standards.
Well, if only it were that simple. Take for example, the newly begun Varsity Quarter development in Northenden. You have to dig to find it, but in the specification document, what do we see? “Gas fired central heating”. Someone, somewhere in the planning machinery of Manchester City Council apparently hadn’t done their carbon literacy training and thought “sure, let’s lock in another few decades of gas boiler emissions, what harm can it do?”. Apparently the houses in the development for ‘social housing’ will have heat pumps1. This matters because a house designed for use with gas fired central heating will tend to have smaller radiators and narrower pipework than one designed to be heated by a heat pump. It probably won’t have a hot water tank, or anywhere to put one. Looking at the gallery images, we do indeed see fairly small radiators in many of the rooms. So in addition to the emissions from using the gas boiler until such time as it is replaced, this is compounded by the likely need to make pipework alterations (and make good the walls and floors afterwards), change radiators, as well as manufacture a gas boiler in the first place. These additional costs actually make it considerably less likely that a future owner would take that step, given the increased cost, mess, and inconvenience.
This case is particularly instructive because presumably the houses that do have heat pumps were clearly able to be heated by them – we can only presume the developer took a commercial decision to fit gas heating to the ones they are offering for sale. By doing so, they probably saved the cost difference between a heat pump and a gas boiler, smaller vs larger radiators, possibly smaller pipework, and not having to provide a hot water tank. None of these are very large in themselves, but multiply the increased profits over the numbers of houses sold and it adds up. We also see gas hobs being specified instead of electrical induction ones. Again, a small saving, but a necessary one to enable houses to be built without a fossil gas connection.
Now MCC might say “ah well, we aren’t in the next version of the Local Plan yet so we’re not obliged to mandate heat pumps in every property”. But the simple fact that this development was allowed to proceed in this way would really suggest that MCC Planning department just doesn’t get the meaning of the word “emergency” – and given this one development, we may reasonably assume there are many other instances where fossil fuels are being needlessly burnt. And all of this is before we get into rainwater capture, cycle parking, PassivHaus insulation and airtightness standards, or MVHR.
Lesson learned? Councils need to provide leadership, direction and clarity about what they expect from planning requests “on their patch”. There is already a huge amount of work to be done in retrofitting existing housing, there is no sense in adding to that, whilst increasing emissions of new dwellings into the bargain!
A mountain to climb – surely easier to do it together?
So let’s turn our attention to the vast majority of housing in Manchester that is already built, much of it decades ago. As already noted, most of these houses will be heated by gas boilers. Given their age, many will not be well insulated, making them expensive to heat. So the challenge is threefold –
- swap out the existing gas boiler for a low carbon option (most likely a heat pump), including any changes to radiators or pipework that are needed. Likely to include finding space to install a hot water tank as most houses have combi-boilers
- Improve insulation and draught proofing, to ensure as little energy as possible is used heating the house no matter the source
- ‘Make good’ all of the disruption to the house (lifted floorboards, holes in walls, etc)
If you’re thinking “that sounds difficult, and expensive” you’d be right. But this brings us to the second commitment we highlighted from the declaration – “Call on the government to: Provide powers and resources…including funding for big capital projects” – and Manchester isn’t the only city in the UK facing this situation. Surely it faces the other “Core Cities” as well? Has the city used the increased clout it must surely have as part of this group to lobby for proper funding for this vital initiative?!
Well – sort of. But this sort of “bright green growth” soundbite glosses over the huge urgency and practical challenges involved, and we think the Council, along with the other major UK cities, should be making a much bigger noise about it. After all, it isn’t only an emissions issue – people living in old and leaky housing have to pay higher bills, are more likely to suffer health issues as a result of mould and mildew forming in their homes, and are more likely to suffer from asthma as well as other health issues. In short, it’s a social justice issue as well.
It’s not just the technology…
There is a Manchester Local Area Energy Plan, prepared for GMCA by Catapult (along with similar plans for all the GMCA authority regions). If you read through it, it’s very technology led, looking at the necessary calculations of how much more electricity the City would consume if the majority of buildings were heated by heat pumps, where this electricity would come from, and so on. What it doesn’t consider is how people feel about their heating, how much distrust there is of newer technology (or the people who might install it), how people expect to use heating (eg gas systems on in the morning and evening vs heat pumps running all day – if you try to run one like the other you’ll have a cold house and / or a very high energy bill!)
The elephant in the room is the particularly extreme weather seen across the world in recent years. It’s no longer enough to retrofit our houses to deal with a “normal” climate in a low / zero carbon way, they will increasingly have to deal with the increasingly abnormal (read – unpredictable and dangerous) climate that we will all be living in for the rest of our lives. We’ve seen 40C in the UK, we know it can (and will) happen again, and in the future we can expect spells of hot weather to last for longer periods of time. This predicament only emphasises how important citizen knowledge will be, both to dealing with new forms of heating technology but also coping with weather conditions the UK (and especially Manchester) has never seen. Adaptation to this sort of weather needs to happen at a neighbourhood level, since we know that proximity to parks and trees in streets makes a big difference to the temperatures experienced in different parts of a city, in the same weather.
Still a very long way to go
The LAEPs from Catapult are the closest we’ve seen to an actual pathway of how Greater Manchester might achieve something like “net zero”, even though they make a very uncomfortable assumption that EVs will do all the heavy lifting for transport. They took over three years to produce after the declaration of 2019, and they have no obvious route to implementation. We recognise that making really meaningful progress on much of this requires major funding from both central government and the private sector. It also needs consistent and evidence-led policy (sadly missing from public debate these days) on what technologies work best in what building types, and how to get the necessary base of knowledge and skills into workforce and residents alike.
MCC cannot achieve all of this alone, but it does need to be much more vocal (and direct) about the scale and pace of change that is needed, both in its lobbying to national government and its communications to citizens. Instead of the “nudge” style In Our Nature campaign, we need genuinely radical proposals to remould the city, to give it at least some chance of standing what is facing us in the 21st century.