Conference Report: Climate Change: mitigation and adaptation in historic towns - Oxford 21 October 2010

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HTF Chair, Debbie Dance, welcomed the delegates to ‘her own patch’ and extended her thanks to Oxford City Council for supporting the event and to Land Securities and the Westgate Oxford Alliance for sponsoring the Annual Dinner held the previous evening. 

Cllr Bob Price, Leader Oxford City Council, also offered a warm welcome from South Oxford where he has been a representative for the past 30 years.  South Oxford, he explained, is committed to tacking climate change; reducing carbon emissions by 3% each year without conflicting with developers and is tackling concerns such as how to encourage cycling on narrow roads.  The area has two universities including Oxford Brookes with planning & architecture faculties as well as a mix of citizens groups committed to tackling climate change. 

In Oxford the public bodies invest in new and old buildings with both public and private organisations supporting low carbon initiatives:

  • Oxford Brookes University offers carbon neutral learning and teaching with input from local architects and planners;
  • Local Authorities have a high commitment to climate change;
  • Companies including BMW and Stagecoach have their own initiatives;
  • A Partnership formed between the Partnership for Renewables, Carbon Trust; and Carbon Initiative for Climate Change is investigating wind turbines and water power on the Thames.

Huw Jones, Oxfordshire County Council and Mel Barrett, Oxford City Council talked about how partnership working is integral to tackling climate change in Oxford City and the wider County.  A strong relationship between County, City and the Oxfordshire City Region Partnership offer public and private opportunities for growth and economy.  It is a key area for sustainable construction and aims to create new markets for growth, particularly in low carbon and green technologies evident in Science Vale, the Universities and Bicester Ecotown.

Queen Street beforeTransport continues to be an issue:
  • Recent work has improved the environment for pedestrians in Queen Street;
  • A long term funding strategy is being achieved through partnership with the private sector;
  • A national agreement with bus operators includes smart ticketing and scheduling;
  • Stagecoach Hybrids help provide Oxford with the cleanest transport fleet providing real benefits for the city, while supporting ‘brand’, embracing technology and generating economies;
  • In Oxford the number of buses has been reduced but passenger capacity maintained by using double-deckers;
  • Currently there is little investment in new infrastructure – rather investment in maintaining the existing.
Queen Street before
Queen Street after
Queen Street after

Oxfordshire County Council has policies in place for sustainable drainage such as how to get the energy services to flood situations.  However a vast amount of funding is needed for flood preparation where drainage is under threat.

The County Council manage a great number of properties for their carbon footprint and is particularly proud of the new environmentally friendly Oxfordshire County Council building in Banbury which has achieved the BREEAM ‘Excellent’ score rating.

At Oxford City Council the climate change agenda is taken very seriously and is embedded in corporate policy and management practice.  This political and managerial commitment has resulted in the Council being regarded as an exemplar by the Carbon Trust.

The Council aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as effectively as possible both internally as an organisation and externally in partnerships.

With the onus on ‘walking the talk’ and getting their own house in order, carbon management at the Council is treated in the same way as money and people; service  areas have ‘carbon champions’ and when decisions are made and services planned the cost of the carbon impact is considered.

Targets are being achieved in smarter energy and water management and it is one of the first Local Authorities to commit to the 10:10 initiative – 10% reduction in carbon emissions a year starting in 2010. 

  • Development Control has achieved a 20% onsite renewable energy target
  • Oxford City is the first Local Authority in England committing to use wind turbines
  • New build homes are being built to Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes and include Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) boilers which are 300% more efficient that gas producing more heat for less energy.

CABE, represented by Paul Finch, aims to advance and promote design.  He talked about civic architecture challenges for practitioners.  According to Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn - what happens after they’re built a Georgian house can become anything in stark contrast to a Barrett Home which cannot change use.  Old buildings have forgiving design which means they can be re-used for different purposes – design is therefore sustainable.

Paul showed how it is possible to change civic architecture and how retrofitting can help deal with climate change. For example:

Battersea power station
  • Ground heat can be used to replace carbon guzzling boilers in large buildings such as stately homes allowing massive savings at a low cost outlay;
  • Floods such as at Tewkesbury become public rather than private problems;
  • Public heating schemes such as at Battersea re-use waste heat.

There are schemes where retrofit can be funded privately, i.e. not by the taxpayer and at no cost to the householder.  Utility companies such as EON can themselves make more money by selling less energy by paying for homes to be upgraded in return for a 10 year contract to supply energy at a capped rate. 

 Other suggestions included:

  • Making it illegal to demolish a building unless the replacement is more sustainable;
  • Using a methodology of Extracting - Processing - Manufacturing - Maintenance – Disposal to make buildings greener;
  • By retaining the building frame when it is reusable and also not degradable; 
  • Using existing timber as it will only emit carbon when it rots or burns.
Battersea power station provided district heating
Battersea accumulation tower
The accumulator tower on the Churchill Gardens estate
Mitigation stops the belchers belching carbon.  With a housing stock of 26 million the question of whether to spend on new builds or to mitigate is a collective problem.  Now that the Climate Change Act has put targets in place Climate Change is recognised as a serious issue.
Pat Aird of English Heritage talked about Sustainability and historic buildings (Ref: PPS5-HE.1)The conservation of the historic environment although itself a non renewable finite resource is itself sustainable. For instance Stonehenge cannot be rebuilt but heritage is constantly being added to. Looking to the future wind turbines will become industrial heritage and therefore need to be used to be of value.

PPS5 has particular relevance to the preservation of the historic environment, which by its nature is irreplaceable.  It brings a new, integrated approach to the historic environment by removing the distinction between buildings, archaeological remains and landscapes. It is a major step forward in achieving Heritage Protection Reform.

PPS5 Policy HE.1 recognises that ‘keeping heritage assets in use avoids the consumption of building materials and energy and the generation of waste from the construction of replacement buildings.'

It encourages finding solutions that do least harm to 'the significance of the heritage asset and its setting', and it stresses the need for a balanced approach, weighing impact on the significance of the heritage asset affected against 'the public benefit of mitigating the effects of climate change.'

In practical terms HE.1 advocates buildings should: be of optimal viable use; minimise waste; be adapted so resilient to climate change; energy efficient; and sustain drainage.  Examples include green roofs and the use of renewable energy such as ground source heat pumps.

Pat talked through an experiment that showed how u values, which measure heat loss, could be vastly reduced by using methods to provide practical energy saving in the context of old buildings.

Area Flood Manager, Barry Russell from the Environment Agency reminded the delegates of the 2007 floods which affected 5.2 million properties.  Flooding originates from rivers, from groundwater and from surface water, but to the householder where it comes from is a secondary concern to the potential risk of damage to their properties.  

flooding in historic street

Solutions need to come from working in partnerships.  The Environment Agency has a strategic overview from all sources of flooding but it can only firstly reduce flood risk and secondly reduce the impact of floods when they happen.  The Agency takes preventative measures by maintaining watercourses and by providing flood warning systems and alerts.  However defence is only part of the strategy.

Historically rivers were used as trading routes, as strategic military strongholds while their fertile floodplains attracted agricultural and industrial use.  Buildings near rivers were placed on elevated areas outside the floodplain.  New building on flood plains can have a knock on effect to flooding in other areas. 

Oxford is at the forefront of managing flood risk – it has a long term flood issue group which uses partnerships skills and funds to tackle problems.  To be able to maintain a level of protection there needs to be an increase in funds, but the recent 34% reduction in funds mean that this will not be supported.

Current benefits to historic towns on the floodplains include drinking water, swimming, traffic routes and tourism. Regeneration – a sense of place versus water is key and interrelated – as we see in Oxford and Bath.  The flow of water can be constrained by structures such as railways or old bridges.

Flooding can be reduced by use of demountable defences on river banks or prevented as by the Thames barrier.  Whatever measure is used individual schemes affect other areas so catchment flood management plans give a more strategic approach.  Flood plain management is more sustainable and cost effective.  For instance, the cost of resilience and resistance measures in one scheme would be £3K - £10K against the potential cost of repair, amounting to £5K - £20K. Flood minimising measures include:

  • Opportunities upstream to store water and release slowly;
  • Giving flood warnings and issuing them on time;
  • Avoiding false alarms;
  • Linking weather forecasts to topography;
  • Flood mapping;
  • Monitoring changes in rainfall intensity; and
  • Awareness of storm versus land use changes.
The Japanese system stores floodwater underground and minimises flood risk by 80% - however this is a very expensive solution.

Richard Rugg from the independent Carbon Trust explained that its aims are to save carbon now and promote future carbon reduction. 3.5k public sector customers are now using the Trust which provides practical and strategic support for organisations to deliver savings.

Drivers to carbon reduction in historic towns come from many quarters:

  • National drivers include the Climate Change Act, Display Energy Certificates and Building Regulations, the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme and other incentives such as Feed in Tariffs and the Renewable Heat Incentive;
  • Sector specific drivers include Universities & HEFCE’s Carbon Reduction Strategy, NHS and the NHS SDU Carbon Strategy and Central Government Estate and SOGE/SDIG;
  • Area wide drivers include Local Strategic Partnerships, replacement for CAAs & National Indicator 186 and Local Carbon Frameworks;
  • Lastly organisational drivers include saving money, improving reputation, leadership by example and responding to demands of staff, students patients and electorate.

    Register on Carbon Trust website
    Useful Carbon Trust publications
    The Public Sector Carbon Network

Jo Trussler,  representing the National Trust, explained how they manage renewable energy, even in sensitive locations. As the National Trust spends £6M on energy each year, great savings can be made through reducing consumption.  The National Trust is concerned by the effects on the landscape and fuel poverty for remote tenants. 


Their aims are to reduce use of fossil fuel by 50% by 2020; to cut pollution; and to reduce emissions, using trusted renewable technologies such as solar energy, wind power, waterpower and wood fuel.  It has recently centralised data and their action plan includes conserving energy, growing their own electricity and heat and encouraging awareness - ‘energy inspiration’.

A great saving can be made by decommissioning the large oil heating systems in their properties and replacing themw with pellet boilers made from National Trust estates or locally sourced wood.

Dunster Castle

The National Trust is aware that local control can lead to more local jobs and provide social cohesion and is educational as well as providing a revenue stream.  Jo explained how the Coleshill Low Carbon Village Project aims to reduce its carbon footprint over a period of 3 years.  It is piloting new and innovative approaches as well as services and products for saving energy in older buildings. Jo works closely with residents to conserve energy, reduce heat loss and raise awareness with supporters.  For more information on the project see:

In the afternoon the delegates were able to attend parallel sessions that covered a number of climate change issues:

  • Low carbon building and the urban environment
  • Low carbon West Oxford Case Study
  • Sustainable transport
  • The value of urban trees
  • The ‘Green guide for historic buildings’
  • Being responsible about carbon reduction
  • Renewable energy, including wind turbines
  • Sustainable homes and the growth agenda
  • Demonstrating the sustainability value of old buildings
  • Adaption & mitigation in a historic context.

Notes were taken on how we can move forward on these important topics. 
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Helen Johnson, Marketing and Communications, HTF