Ever since the late 1980s when the negative stereotype of the Essex Girl began to filter into the national psyche, people who don’t live there have had difficulty separating the reality of day-to-day life in the vibrant county from their negative preconceptions. The city of Southend-on-Sea is one place that particularly suffers from that problem.
In the public mind, Southend is defined by its Pier or by the night clubs featured in the film Essex Boys. More recently, its financial woes, and even some pollution incidents have brought it to public attention. However, perhaps only locals are aware of the challenges presented by the structure and layout of the city itself. Yet behind the scenes the council is leading a quiet green revolution in social housing.
City by the sea
The city has a population of over 180,000 and cannot expand as it is hemmed in by the Thames to the south and the North Sea to the east. Arriving from the west or the north, you travel through the open areas of Basildon, Castle Point or Rochford, before reaching the urban sprawl of Southend. It is the 7th most densely populated area in the United Kingdom, discounting the London boroughs.
Southend has a mixture of housing styles, from properties dating back to the early 1900s through to modern flats in converted offices. There is no one overarching style, and Southend’s homes are under various forms of ownership and management. Around 7,000 Southend Council properties are managed by its Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO), South Essex Homes. Other social landlords provide about 3,500 properties, and all other properties in the city are either owner-occupied or privately rented – and unable to access any funding available to the council or social landlords.
Moving towards sustainability
Plans had originally been agreed for widescale redevelopment of some of the tower blocks in the city and for new prefabricated properties. These are now on hold, as the council has chosen to take a different, more sustainable path towards its 2030 net zero targets. By refitting existing stock and working with the residents, it aims to inspire further similar refurbishment.
In 2009 an Environment Agency report had described options for ensuring safe and adequate water provision in developing the Thames Gateway area. Its most optimistic scenario included mention of reducing energy consumption thanks to thermal measures and water efficiency measures. The report says:
Closer scrutiny of the demographic profile of the Thames Gateway population in the light of Defra research on pro-environmental behaviour indicated that concerted engagement would be required to ensure the required levels of uptake. This may well involve innovative initiatives that engage residents and propose the measures as a default or social norm, as well as providing a level of incentive for action.
Two years later, in 2011, Southend Council, developed an energy efficient and sustainable design for the Priory Museum, which opened in 2013, and in 2015 the council entered into partnership with OVO to form Southend Energy.
A quiet revolution in Westcliff
In recent weeks the council has announced that one of its properties in Juniper Road, Westcliff, has undergone a refit. Energy efficiency and water saving technology have been installed, making it environmentally sustainable and cost effective. The house was officially opened in late November by Councillor Meg Davidson, the cabinet member for Environment.
Councillor Davidson says: “This unassuming three-bedroom family home has been transformed and equipped with a number of water efficiency, energy-saving and energy-efficient devices, that utilise the latest technology and harness all the knowledge we currently have about how to retrofit houses and gardens and making them more efficient.”
The technology involved
The energy efficiency measures installed include external wall insulation as the property was constructed before cavity walls became more common, topped up loft insulation, new windows and doors with extra panes of glass, an air source heat pump, two heat recovery units, and solar panels. The council also installed smart home monitoring to measure and monitor the moisture, heat and air quality in the property.
The FCRIP (Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme) operated by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has funded additional measures to save water: a greywater reuse system captures waste water from showers, sinks and washing.
The climate resilient and low-maintenance garden is watered not from mains tap water, but from a smart water butt that captures rainwater and is linked to the greywater system. Natural aquifer blocks incorporated in the garden and verge not only reduce the need for watering but also, in the verge, prevent rainwater from overloading surface drains.
Cllr David Garston, the cabinet member for housing and planning, was also present and added, “Visiting the house for the launch, it’s very impressive to see all these features. And I’m pleased that the next phase of the project is to retrofit 110 of the most in-need council owned homes in Southend, working with South Essex Homes and tenants to make sure their homes are energy and water efficient.”
Sustainable Southend: not yet
Southend council has lofty and worthy aspirations, and the renovations to 110 homes will address fuel poverty. But it remains a drop in the ocean. Solid wall insulation for a semi detached home costs on average £9,000, and solar panels cost £7,000. Where will the funding come from during a cost-of-living crisis?