Actions to improve insulation on Hackney Council Estates

Background

Generally Hackney is a typical inner London Borough with limited scope for cavity wall insulation because so many of the homes have pre-1919 solid walls. While working as a paid surveyor on the Mayor of London’s RENEW programme I realised that this was not the case for homes originally built by Hackney Council. There is a band of estates scattered across Hackney built in the late 1970s easily identified by their non-standard bricks which were built with cavities. Most have never been filled with insulation even though this could have been funded from the last government’s decent homes programme or the current energy industry funded Carbon Emissions Reduction Scheme (CERT). When I was elected to the Sustainable Hackney steering group to support its energy saving work I made it a priority to sort this out. The Decent Homes programme is almost ended and CERT funding finishes before December 2012. Action was needed immediately if Hackney residents were to benefit.

 

Action by Sustainable Hackney
Sustainable Hackney had a stall at the Council’s Greener Hackney event on Saturday 12th May. A workshop on energy efficiency agreed;
• That these easy to treat estates should be identified and treated as a priority while funding schemes still exist to sort them out.
• That the Council should reduce fuel poverty through a mail-out to benefit recipients to explain the Warm Homes Bonus and encourage them to use Hackney’s free energy advice line to obtain it.

I immediately sought a meeting with Cllr. Sophie Linden, Hackney’s Cabinet Member for the Environment, to help support these objectives. When the meeting was being set up I found out Cllr. Philip Glanville, the Cabinet Advisor on Housing, was due to attend. I wrote to him on 11th June setting out the opportunities to secure major investment and the steps the Council should take to secure that investment. My two main concerns were that;
• Only a small proportion of the estates suitable for cavity wall insulation had been done. Even on those many of the walls had been missed.
• Where cavity wall insulation had been installed most of the homes had not received loft insulation even though this could also be funded from CERT.

The Council’s response
Since the meeting was fixed for 14th June I was not surprised that Cllr Granville did not have time to get any answers to my technical questions. Cllr Linden had been told by the Council Housing Manager that the lofts could not be insulated because the ceilings were made of board containing asbestos. I pointed out that if this were true;
• Plans to remove the asbestos should be included in the asbestos removal plan the Council is legally obliged to maintain.
• The Council has a duty of care to “right to buy” freeholders and leaseholders and should inform them of the dangers associated with the ceilings since many had cut in hatches and installed their own insulation.

I asked to see the technical report that identified the asbestos but this was refused. I offered, on a voluntary basis, to assist Council Officers obtain CERT funding before time ran out but this was also refused. I explained how Islington Council has contacted all its benefit recipients to maximise take-up of Warm Homes Discount. I was assured this would happen.

At the beginning of August I have still not heard any more from the Council about which estates would be suitable for such work or their plans to address them. The mail-out to benefit recipients has still not happened and the officer who was to do it will soon leave the Council. Since the funding that was available for insulation work will soon be gone the Council is wasting an easy opportunity to cut Hackney’s carbon emissions and residents’ fuel bills.

What next?
Hackney Council gives the impression it does not have the technical competence to manage energy efficiency programmes. When we offer to help we are turned away and Hackney residents lose out. The July meeting of the Sustainable Hackney steering group agreed that we should launch a community based project in the autumn to get these homes properly insulated. Because the Council has been so slow to respond it will already be too late for most of the estates to benefit from the current CERT scheme.

Peter Snell
7th August 2012

Technical background
Sustainable Hackney has members across Hackney and some of them live on the Estates where we think Council action has been inadequate. The judgement that follows is based on survey work on just the Rhodes and Jack Watts Estates. In Autumn 2012 Sustainable Hackney will contact Tenants and Residents Associations on all these estates to survey a selection of homes and develop a more detailed specification for the improvements required.

The Estates affected.
There were a series of Hackney Estates built in the late 1970s easily identifiable from the non standard bricks used in their construction. Examples include Rhodes, Shellgrove, Mountford and Jack Watts Estates. All were built with unfilled cavity walls and virtually no loft insulation. Energy companies have to hit Carbon Energy Reduction Targets (CERT) by December 2012 or they face heavy fines. They are struggling to meet those targets and are offering more generous deals on loft and cavity insulation than ever before. Yet Hackney Council has only supported CERT schemes on some of these estates and even on those has often only done half the job so energy savings have been minimal. CERT funding is available for both Council owned and privately owned homes on the estates. It will be replaced by Carbon Savings Community Obligation (CaSCO) funding but this is not available for all homes.

Cavity wall insulation issues

Works covered by Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) funding from Energy Companies
To meet their targets Energy Companies have been offering free cavity wall insulation to all residents without the means test they previously used to require contributions from those on higher incomes. In some instances they have even been prepared to provide loft access hatches for free but generally they charge for such additional works.

Management issues and additional works required
It is generally possible to identify the walls that have been treated by the tell tale filled holes spaced a metre apart in walls that have been treated through which the insulation has been injected. The holes are refilled to match the original cement which makes them difficult to see. However a survey of flank walls in Estates where treatment was offered such as Jack Watts and Rhodes indicates large numbers of untreated walls. Untreated walls are huge radiators of expensive energy into the environment. We have asked Hackney Council to tell us what work has been done. We are concerned they just do not know. One member of Sustainable Hackney was told his house had been done but when he checked inside the wall with a borescope found there was no insulation there. Because he was a freeholder he was able to get it done himself for free.

Loft insulation issues
Works covered by CERT
Energy companies change what they offer depending on how difficult they are finding it to achieve their carbon saving targets. In recent month they have generally been offering to top up loft insulation to 270mm as long as the existing insulation is less that 100mm deep and less that 25% of the loft is occupied by storage. They have generally stopped means testing contributions and in some instances even fitted loft access hatches for free.

Management issues and additional works required.
On the 1970s Hackney Estates most of the homes have received no loft insulation. Most of the properties are three storey with badly closing vents at the top of the stairs. Even when cavity walls are insulated in such homes they make little difference to heating costs as convection whisks any warmth up the stairs and out through the roof. It is possible that insulation providers just did not want to provide hatches into the roof so refused to insulate them. Subsequent surveys (see below) suggest there may be further barriers. Council Officers said the contractors reported the ceiling panels contained asbestos but refused to provide the original inspection reports. There is therefore no evidence this is true. If it was true the Council would need to include the estates in their asbestos removal plans and advise freeholders and leaseholders of the potential danger.

Design failings that need special attention
Bin storage alcoves
Concrete floors and lintels over windows will continue to act as cold bridges once cavities have been insulated. They are difficult to treat so residents need to manage condensation and clean off mould growth as best they can. This is more difficult for residents on low incomes who cannot afford to heat their homes so wherever possible cold bridges should be removed. Once such cold bridge is around the bin storage alcoves on some estates built with reinforced concrete slabs and/ or half brick thick walls. If residents clear out such alcoves it is not difficult to line them with foam insulation. It may not be expensive but such work is not normally included in CERT schemes.

Loft insulation
Michael Calderbank of Sustainable Hackney insulated the roof of his home on the Rhodes Estate and found further design faults that needed correction. The vent in the ceiling passed via ducting through the roof above the loft space. The design of his roof did not include ventilation under the eaves so we think this unusual venting system must have been designed to prevent hot air entering the loft and condensing. He was able to put this right relatively cheaply by replacing some of the roof tiles with vents to allow the roof space to breathe. This appears to be a general design problem that needs to be put right as it means;
• The loss of hot air though the ceiling vents is worse than it would be if they vented into the loft space.
• The many residents who have blocked up the vents (to cut heat loss) or installed loft hatches (for storage and to install insulation) risk damp and rot problems if they do not ventilate the roof space.

Putting these problems right is relatively cheap but would not be part of a standard CERT package.

Ducting to skylights
A number of the estates have skylights connected by thin walled ducting through almost 2 metres of the loft space to the bathrooms below. Inevitably these create a cold bridge and drip with condensation when the bathroom is used. Residents do their best to manage the mould that grows on the inside of the lighting shafts. Insulating the roof without insulating the shaft will just make matters worse but CERT funded programmes do not normally cover such work even though the costs are small and would make a huge difference to residents.

Minimising costs to the Council
When we first realised the scope for CERT investment in Hackney our main concern was that residents would lose out on the most generous funding scheme there has ever been for such work since it was due to end before December 2012. Cabinet members have refused our offer to support their officers in getting this done. In June the government changed its green deal proposals to include a “Carbon Savings Community Obligation” which will probably be similar to CERT. It may not be so generous so we need now to plan to make the most of it.

Resident involvement
Over coming months we will contact TRAs on all these Estates in Hackney to survey a small cross section of properties to see if the issues above apply and see what else needs to be addressed. In particular we am keen to contact freeholders and leaseholders who have installed access to their lofts to see if they are affected by the issues found on the Rhodes Estate. There is likely to be some variation between different estates but by understanding the issues on each we can draw up a more detailed specification of works and ensure they are better managed once funding is obtained.

Competitive procurement
Energy Companies spend £millions every year meeting their carbon reduction targets. This generation of estates in Hackney gives them a chance to achieve major carbon reduction with high levels of access provided the work is supported by the Council and local residents. Major Council projects have to be put out to tender and in this case the project would cover all tenures. By ensuring the comprehensive project was accurately specified and ready to go it is very likely that one of the Energy Companies would be happy to fund more of the works than it would normally fund on other schemes. It is unlikely they would fund the comprehensive programme we think is needed. It would be false economy for individual owners or the Council not to fund the relatively minor additional works that are required.

Effective management
Both the decent homes programme and the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target programmes are ending. It is disgraceful that Hackney has failed to use these programmes to sort out issues that affect so much of Hackney’s housing stock. Even on those few estates put forward for CERT schemes take-up has been low, the works have been piecemeal and Council Officers have been fobbed off with unconvincing excuses. Sustainable Hackney is working to end this scandal. By involving local residents we will ensure the job is done properly this time around.

Peter Snell
7th August 2012

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