Party politics cast aside as East Devon tackles poverty problem

Every now and then in the pushing-boulder-uphill world of local government, the stars align and a really good thing is enabled which creates a brilliant outcome.

Paul Arnott

At this week’s Poverty Working Group at East Devon District Council, I listened in as our officers set out the wonderful new beginning for a new project addressing both our climate action and poverty relief agendas.

Just last August, our officers put in a bid for £500,000 from the government’s “Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery Scheme”.

This scheme is one of the early manifestations of the universally desired idea that as we recover from the pandemic a large part of that fresh start should be to deliver on the green agenda.

There is agreement on this across the political spectrum

Our East Devon officers’ bid to the scheme was successful, one of 55 such local authorities in the country, and as a result they will have been able between January this year and the end of March to have installed no fewer than 100 council-owned homes with air-source heat pumps, an amazing effort.

These are, in essence, retro-fitted units mounted on outside walls which take atmospheric warmth and, through a process akin to reverse refrigeration, create heating warmth and hot water for homes.

This has two permanent positive effects. Firstly, it will drive down the fuel bills for council tenants hugely.

They won’t go to zero, of course, as you still need some electricity to drive the pumps. But, heating and hot water bills will hugely decrease.

That is why this was reported at the Poverty Working Group meeting, chaired excellently by Cllr Megan Armstrong, because of the most pernicious forms of real poverty, that around fuel has been on the increase for many years.

We will all know someone who has to choose between turning a radiator on and affording the ingredients for a meal. It’s grinding, Dickensian, and there should be no place for this in the twenty-first century.

Alongside the implications for lowering costs to tenants, this also fits into our council’s climate change agenda. Only ten months ago,

I was able as new Leader to create a specific Cabinet role for a Portfolio Holder for Climate Action, Cllr Marianne Rixson. We are committed as a council to carbon neutrality by 2040, and the time for action is now. This is a great start.

However, there is a long way to go. We also need to do a lot of work to seal homes against heat loss, easier said than done in some of our older housing stock, and begin to look at what we can do with photo-voltaic panels.

The reality is, it may be even more productive to strive for net zero by making sure that new housing stock being built – whether for the public or private sector – is as compliant with the aims of carbon neutrality as possible, that it exceeds current standards where at all possible.

For example, there is an increasing argument for timber framed new builds, allowing for different types of wall construction more ambitious than just rendered breeze block.

There is a desire to source materials as locally as possible, reducing the air/lorry/sea miles incurred in transporting them to site. With new builds, it is possible to look at ground source heat pumps too, perhaps serving multiple units of accommodation, and larger solar/pv schemes.

Happily, all of this is right at the centre of the government’s agenda. Signals are being sent that very serious money will be made available for councils and companies who are seeking to join forces in this. It’s no cakewalk – councils may have to find matched funding for huge grants, as may companies, but it’s a start.

And the political weather for all of this seems to have changed permanently. At the Poverty Working Group meeting, there was accord across councillors of all parties and none. Long may this last.