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Are Bishop's Goods Yard developers saving money at expense of residents?

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Louise Tennekoon, the Indie's GreenWatch correspondent, has been looking into just how green the Goods Yard development is – and it doesn't look good for the environment...

Rail Station and Goods Yard Area, Bishops Stortford. GV BS Rail station, Taxi rank and development works on the Solum site. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (13902665)
Rail Station and Goods Yard Area, Bishops Stortford. GV BS Rail station, Taxi rank and development works on the Solum site. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (13902665)

I have been wondering how ‘green’ all the new developments in Bishop's Stortford really are.

With the development of the Goods Yard, Old River Lane and Grange Paddocks (not to mention the new housing on the periphery), the heart of our town is being reshaped for the future and it would be nice to think that it’s being done in a way that will help us live greener, healthier and more connected lives.

However, if the Goods Yard is anything to go by, the signs aren’t good.

As part of its planning application to East Herts Council, the developer Solum was required to produce an energy statement. This is a legal document which includes a prediction of how much carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will be reduced across the site, compared to the legal requirement set out in building regulations. In very broad terms, the greater the percentage reduction, the greener the development.

The CO2 reduction predicted in the initial statement was a respectable 24.6%. The developer was offering to do something we have never seen in Bishop’s Stortford before – community heating – which could have formed the starting point of a town-wide system, along with providing a small amount of solar PV (photovoltaic).

In response to a presentation by the Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group (more about them later), suggesting how the strategy could be improved still further, EHC's planning department stated that the developer should produce a new energy strategy before starting work.

This is where it starts to get interesting.

A revised energy strategy was put forward by Bellway Homes, the company building the residential units on the site. It is dramatically different – and not in a good way.

It predicts only a 3.22% reduction in CO2 emissions, with no use of low-carbon or renewable energy. The community heating system has disappeared. Almost all of the predicted savings are gone and we are left with a development barely better than the legal baseline.

To put this 3% saving in context, in London all developments are required to deliver a minimum 35% reduction in emissions and it is set out in policy that this threshold will increase. So clearly, any developer worth its salt can deliver much higher standards than those being proposed at the Goods Yard.

I got in touch with Solum and East Herts Council to query the relationship between the two energy strategies, the difference in the emissions targets and whether there is an energy strategy covering the work that is already under way on the Goods Yard site.

Neither had responded to my questions by the time the Indie went to press last night.

The new strategy will have a direct impact on residents in the new development. Homes will be heated by electric panel heaters which are described as ‘smart rads with app control’. To most of us that sounds like cutting-edge technology – in fact, the heaters are cheap to install but expensive to run.

Bishop's Stortford's Goods Yard. (13902754)
Bishop's Stortford's Goods Yard. (13902754)

Chris Dunham, an energy consultant who chairs the Bishop's Stortford Climate Group, has looked at the impact of these heaters. His conclusion? Under the original strategy, the cost of heating and hot water in a typical flat would have been slashed by 50%, putting money in residents' pockets and into our local economy.

However, under the revised strategy, bills will be much higher. It looks like Solum/Bellway are saving money on the delivery of flats and passing higher costs onto the people who will live in them.

Chris said: "What they’re now planning to install is really no better than leaving the unsuspecting occupier a few fan heaters and a large kettle and saying 'Here, this’ll do you – happy now?’"

It is also widely acknowledged that retrofitting energy efficiency and carbon reduction measures is much more expensive than designing them in from the start. Who will pick up the bill for making these homes more energy efficient in the future?

The problem appears to stem from the fact that EHC does not have clearly defined standards for energy efficiency and carbon savings.

The missing piece is a document called an SPD, or Supplementary Planning Document, that defines expected standards and must be taken into account as part of the planning process.

Many councils have SPDs on energy and other sustainability issues. East Herts does not.

The implications of this reach right across the district, where more than 18,000 homes are planned by 2033. There appears to be nothing to stop other developers doing what Solum/Bellway have done – offering one standard in the planning application and then revising it down at delivery.

At least, not yet.

I’ve been talking to the Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group – not a bunch of extreme activists, as you might assume, but instead a group of experts who between them have decades of experience of sustainable energy systems. Their day jobs include advising councils across the country on renewable energy and sustainable transport solutions.

These guys know what they are talking about and they have produced an SPD for East Herts Council, free of charge. The new head of planning at East Herts has expressed an intention to meet the climate group to discuss the SPD, but this has not happened yet.

I can imagine that all of this creates a bit of a headache for the planning officers at East Herts, but to me it looks like an opportunity – an opportunity to set clear and ambitious energy standards and to send an all-important signal to developers.

The council could do this by adopting the SPD from the climate group as it is, or by sitting down with them to come up with an alternative.

At the very least, they should send Bellway Homes (and others like them) back to the drawing board to present a much more forward-looking energy strategy and to deliver the efficient, future-proofed homes our residents deserve.

This week’s swap…

Swap frustration for action by adding your name to a petition asking East Herts Council to declare a climate emergency.

This calls on the council to adopt strict energy standards for new developments, get serious about sustainable transport and air quality, and improve our access to renewables such as solar.

This motion is due to be considered at a meeting of the full council next Wednesday (July 24), so your support today can trigger a significant decision next week.

It’s not very often we get the chance to do something constructive about climate change, so don’t miss this one. You can sign the petition online at http://bit.ly/EastHertsClimateEmergency or in person at the Indie office at 12 North Street.

Solum's plan for the Goods Yard (13902783)
Solum's plan for the Goods Yard (13902783)

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