Stop-go saving the plant

The government needs to follow London's example and make going green affordable

If you have ever fancied the idea of getting a government grant to help you put a wind turbine, solar panel or wood-burning stove in your house, then by the time you read this it will probably be too late – for this month at least.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme was set up by the DTI last year to boost the take-up of renewable energy technologies on houses and community buildings, by giving away grants of up to 50 percent towards the cost of installation. £80 million was committed to the programme in total, but initially just £6.5 million to the household part of the scheme, and this was tapered over three years to stop in 2009.

Even without being properly promoted, the LCBP grants have already proved much more popular than funds allowed. When the £3.5m originally set aside for 2006/7 ran out after just six months at the end of October, the then Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, responded by shifting another £6.2 million into the household pot from elsewhere in the programme.

Despite howls from the renewable energy industry, who had already suffered a hiatus of several months at the start of the year while thrifty householders bided their time between the end of the previous ‘Clear Skies’ scheme and the start of the LCBP, the DTI decided to divide the new money into monthly rations. They said the move was to make sure the grants lasted to the end of the scheme, but it has proved a disastrous strategy.

With just half a million pounds to go around each month, the money ran out on 20 December, 12 January and then, last month, applicants logging onto the LCBP website were told to ‘try again next time’ before noon on the first day of February.

So, we’re predicting even worse this month, and the Greens have issued a plea to the government to boost the fund for March and then do something to sort out some real incentives for renewable power in the budget in three weeks’ time. My previous blog about the benefits of feed-in tariffs shows how the pay-back period for renewables can be dramatically cut, but making it possible for ordinary households to afford the up-front costs is just as important - if it isn’t going to be only the rich few taking advantage of the benefits.

The German government has got the right mix of policies – as well as setting feed-in tariffs, low cost loans are being handed out at the rate of more than a billion pounds a year. If we can create a scheme to force unwilling students to take out index-linked loans to pay for their education, we can certainly organise something similar to help the millions of willing people out there save the planet.

All this thrashing around by central government is in sharp contrast to our regional government here in London. Greens are so impressed with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s new Climate Change Action Plan that I took part in the press launch this Tuesday and even wrote a foreword for the 232-page document.

The plan aims to cut London’s emissions by 20 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2025. Many smaller measures, such as switching off lights or powering the tube with renewable energy, will contribute to these reductions.

But my two favourite ideas will also bring some of the biggest reductions. The first is decentralising our energy supply, so that a quarter of our electricity is moved off the national grid in 20 years’ time. The second is a crash programme of home insulation, lining lofts and filling the millions of cavity walls still losing heat throughout the capital.

This will be provided cut-price to everyone and completely free to pensioners and people on benefits. The average household will not only be much greener, but will also save £300 per year on its bills.

Of course, the Green Party would be keen on the plan, seeing as most of the measures in it have been prompted by our London Assembly members’ work with the Mayor.

Since 2004, they have used their voting clout over the Mayor’s annual budget to add more and more green measures to his plans, so that this year more than £150 million will be spent on things to help Londoners live more lightly on the planet, and most of these things are key parts of the action plan.

It’s very appropriate that London should be the city taking the lead on this. We are one of the most vulnerable cities to climate change worldwide, with nearly a million of us already living below high tide level, and the Thames Barrier is being raised more often than ever before.

A year before hurricane Katrina, Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist warned that, ‘cities like London, New York and New Orleans would be the first to go’ as the world warms up.

However, there is a big hole running right through the London action plan – and it’s labeled ‘central government action’. There’s only so much Londoners can do on our own and, to achieve the 60 percent cuts science tells us we need by 2025, a further 13 million tonnes a year needs to be saved with measures we don’t control.

Aviation already causes 34 percent of London’s total emissions (and that’s just counting the planes that take off from City and Heathrow airports, not the flights home or any that go from Gatwick or Stansted) so without a national change of heart on airport expansion, we will never make the targets.

Similarly, measures to encourage behaviour change, get us into cleaner cars and bring us cleaner electricity can only go so far without the same kind of vision from national government. Over to you, Gordon – we’re waiting!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.