As an architect and a local councillor I’ve been following the Grenfell Inquiry with enormous interest, and have been appalled by the evidence that has emerged. The implications for the safety of our buildings are severe, and the impact on residents has been enormous – both emotional and financial.
Last July I convened a forum to discuss building quality issues (you can find out about it here on my website), and this month I’ve written an article for Cambridge Architecture, the magazine published by the Cambridge Association of Architects. I’m republishing it here
We should all care about the quality of the buildings around us, whether they are council homes, private developments, schools, offices or civic buildings. Since the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 attention has rightly focused on concerns about unsafe cladding, with serious concerns about the safety of people living in affected properties, the costs of replacing potentially dangerous materials, and who should pay.
Logan’s Meadow is an open space on the flood plan in East Chesterton that used to be sports fields and is now being turned into a nature reserve. And today I joined Friends of Logan’s Meadow and the City Council’s tree and ecology officers to plant two out of the planned 244 trees.
It was such fun and great to catch up with some wonderful people in this exciting space.
Plans for the meadows started about two years ago, when I was executive councillor for open spaces. I’d come along to a meeting to update local residents about a funding bid I had made for improving vehicular access onto the meadow. Our ecology officer Guy Belcher felt that access was important to really begin to consider ways of improving and expanding the nature reserve. The residents had similar inspirational ideas and it was a truly serendipitous time that we came together and the council could find funding for some key elements.
Since that meeting the project has come along driven by the energy of the residents and great council officers, and with an occasional nudge from me when I was the relevant executive councillor. And it has all happened so rapidly, when all the restrictions of the pandemic are considered.
While we were together I also learnt from Tony Ava from the Friends Group about some of the many reasons that people came along to plant a tree or two, for example n remembrance of loved ones who had connections with Cambridge, to be part of this community project happening now, and for future generations
By 3pm on Sunday the 244 trees will be planted, each labelled and attached to a stake with a hessian cord. And the best possible growth that we could wish for – for trees, woods, ecology, nature and community has started.
Today is a lovely, sunny autumn day, and I had a long walk with a good friend, the wonderful artist and County Councillor Hilary Cox Condron, discussing all things sustainable. Everything from hedgehogs to the emerging local plan, and what we can do as local politicians (or not) and in our own lives too.
Hilary is going to start to make her home more sustainable and I’m going to give some advice, starting with measuring what the footprint is first – actually measuring up the home and using the utility bills – then look at reducing energy 20% every year.
A few years ago I wrote a guide to making homes and buildings more sustainable, and I thought it would be worth sharing with Hilary and anyone else, so I’m publishing it here
Since I became a ward councillor for Petersfield I’ve been getting to know the area again, as it has changed a lot since I last lived here over two decades ago. One of the most obvious changes has been the growth in office buildings, especially around the rail station, and so I’ve made a special effort to talk to developers and builders, and to visit sites where I can.
This morning I was at a new office development on Station Road, and got to see the building from basement to the roof – wearing all the appropriate safety equipment, and carefully following the site manager’s guidance of course.
I wanted to know more about traffic management plans and how the developers/builders used them, to see if there are ways we can improve things.. I also asked about how residents contacted the contractors with issues regarding noise, dust, and deliveries and how they could work to minimise disruption.
This is important because works to demolish buildings and to excavate for basements can be very disruptive for residents. How things are planned and how residents are kept informed can make a big difference.
Some contractors are very good at this – joining residents groups with regular updates, leafleting homes nearby before disruption is expected, responding quickly if residents and businesses asks for quiet periods or extra protection, and we can encourage this best practice
While there I also learned about the recent concrete availability problems, and saw even more evidence of workers moving to EU countries where there is significant demand for their skills. We can’t do much about this at council level but it’s important we understand the wider framework within which development takes place in Petersfield and across Cambridge.
I hope the people I talked to on site appreciate the interest that we take in what they are doing, and that it helps them understand more about the city and about the needs of residents who have to live with the building activity and the buildings themselves.
I was at the Labour Party conference last week, and one of my highlights was hearing our Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves commit to spending the billions of pounds each year we need to manage a just and rapid transition to a zero-carbon society.
I was also impressed that Rachel said that a Labour government would “scrap the current system of business rates and replace it with a fairer way of business taxation – fit for the 21st century.”
Local shops, for example, from the historic centre to shopping centres like the Beehive or Grafton, or the many local shops on Mill Road, are facing the double challenge of coping with Covid-19 and dealing with the growth of online shopping. More shops are empty; many are struggling. We need to find a fairer way for them to contribute.
Other local businesses, found in offices all across the city, are also feeling the pressure. I know how hard it is, as I have my own architecture business. Some, like the IT, biotech and communications companies, have managed to cope or even improve their performance, but the vast majority have faced hard times and need help now.
The city council has helped, with business rates relief on smaller premises, and even offered additional business support grants between November 2020 and May 2021 for those not covered by national schemes. However, because the rateable value of a shop or office is based on an estimate of the open market rental value a property could achieve on a specified date, the high rents in the city mean that business rates are also very high.
That’s why the new policy announced by the Shadow Chancellor matters. As a city council we can do some things to help, and we can encourage people to shop locally, but it takes action by central government – by a Labour government – to make real change happen so that businesses get the support they need and local government gets the funding it needs.
As we revitalise our city and shopping areas, business tax reform is a key way to keep our businesses viable and help new ones open, with decent well-paid jobs for all.
Thursday May 6th was a significant day, as we held four separate local elections – for Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the Police and Crime Commissioner.
It was also exceptional because in Cambridge, where council elections had been cancelled in 2020, it was an ‘all-up’ election for three councillors in every ward after the boundary review had changed the way the city was divided into council wards.
For me, it was both exciting and sad. Trumpington Ward, where I’d been elected by only four votes in May 2018, had been broken up in the review, and one-third of its electorate had been allocated to other wards, and I was standing in Petersfield, where many of them had gone. It was sad to say goodbye to Trumpington, but I was also pleased to be standing with my good friends and fellow councillors Richard Robertson and Mike Davey.
Because of the number of votes to be counted, and with Covid-19 affecting so many aspects of our lives, the votes on May 6th weren’t counted until the Friday and Saturday, and there was no opportunity for all the candidates to gather in The Guildhall and watch the piles accumulate as we tried to decide whether we had won or not.
As someone who had gone through two recounts in 2018, I knew just how nail-biting it could be, but it wasn’t an option. However I also felt that it would be no fun at all to sit at home waiting for a text message or watching the online stream from the count, and so for all of Friday and Saturday I hosted a Zoom call for candidates, where we could hang out, wait for results, chat, and celebrate or commiserate with our comrades.
I had a wonderful time last night on Marmalade Lane celebrating the fantastic produce from Co Farm and the work of Cambridge Sustainable Food, with a vegan feast made by Sam Dyer and Alex Collis with help from a number of volunteers
[Image shows the shadow of Katie and her phone, as she takes a picture of dry grass on the hottest day recorded so far in the UK, in Cambridge in July 25 2019. ]
On Monday that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Sixth Assessment Report, looking at the the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, and it made chilling reading, as this report from the BBC makes clear
I was invited onto BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to talk about the report with Chris Mann
I’m angry because we knew this was coming and we know what is needed – we have to live resilient lives and act in emergencies, we have to adapt our built environment, and we have to make hard choices in order to make sure that our planet remains one we can live on.
The last Labour government put in place a Code for Sustainable Homes, which called for zero carbon homes and the recognition that water neutrality was necessary in water stressed areas – but these forward thinking policies were abandoned by the Tory-LibDem coalition between 2011 and 2016 and we are still waiting for replacement regulations to reflect the dire situation we are facing.
In the face of this global crisis, what we can do as a local authority can seem insignificant, but it does make a difference, and it offers an example for others.
We are working hard to do what we can to deal with the climate emergency, and our priorities for the next Local Plan include Climate Change and Biodiversity as well as Wellbeing and Tackling Equality. Our aspirations for the Plan go well beyond all current regulations, and we will do whatever we can to assure new communities are sustainable, ensuring that we are “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (this is taken from the National Planning Policy Framework NPPF 2021, paragraph 7).
The City Council has put in double glazing and sealed external doors in all council homes, and have started on a programme of external insulation, loft insulation and solar PV as part of a retrofitting programme. We are working with local organisations like Cambridge Sustainable Food, Cambridge Carbon Footprint, Transition Cambridge and other to transform the way we think about food, waste, recycling and reusing materials, and much more. And we are working to make sure that Cambridge is a net zero council by 2030, and we will work to help our residents, local organisations and businesses to do the same. Some of the other things we are doing are:
A 6 month trial of giving free advice to residents on options to reduce energy use in homes latter this year.
Actively encouraging new opportunities for sharing of tools and re-using materials, including starting a library of things in the central library.
Listening to residents wanting to start community gardens and more food growing.
Working towards having the best possible local plan for sustainable development and communities.
Looking at more opportunities for food growing including more meanwhile growing areas and talking to local farmers.
Preparing a transport and movement strategy for the whole city and for all living in and around our city. Including tackling pollution, congestion, and provide more opportunities for walking, cycling, and public transport.
Starting a trial of electric community cars
None of these will solve global heating, none of them is enough – but they show that we are serious about what we can do here in Cambridge, offer ideas for other people to adopt, and demonstrate that we are willing to change the way we live.
We believe that we can make a difference – but at the same time we will be campaigning for governments and the large corporations that are responsible for most of the world’s carbon emissions to change the way they work too.
The Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 alerted us to unsafe cladding, but there are many other concerns about the quality of the buildings we live and work in. As a councillor, I want to know more about the situation, and about what we might be able to do about it.
So on Friday July 22 I’m bringing together a group of experts with a panel of councillors to find out more, and discuss what might be done
There has been some criticism of Labour councillors for the way we voted on a motion at the Council meeting on Thursday 27 May. A motion of support for the Climate and Ecology Bill, which had been laid before Parliament by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and a group of other MPs in September 2020 came to the Council. Labour proposed an amendment which welcomed the Bill, but laid the emphasis on attempting to deliver change through the Environment Bill which is currently being debated. This amendment was passed, and the amended motion was then passed by the council
What that means is that the City Council supports the ambitions of the CEE Bill, but believes those ambitions need to be achieved in a different way, because not even the CEE Bill’s most ardent supporters believe it will become law when we have an anti-environment Tory government with an eighty-seat majority led by a man who has betrayed every promise on the green agenda he has ever made.