COP26: Swaffham Prior Heats Up

Reducing fossil fuels is vital to help reduce the impact of climate change. Replacing oil burning boilers with a more sustainable clean energy is an important way of helping this. Instead of doing this individually, Swaffham Prior is doing this as a community.

Swaffham Prior churches
Swaffham Prior churches. Photo by sps1955 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The small, unassuming village of Swaffham Prior is known locally as the village of two churches that strangely share a churchyard. Five miles west of Newmarket, with a population of some 850, Swaffham Prior hopes to be known in future as a pioneer of renewable energy.

Currently not on the National Grid, seventy percent of the village’s 300 homes use oil for heating. This environmentally damaging method is to be replaced with ground and air source heat pumps that will bring thermal energy into homes through a community network. In addition to helping to reduce the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, replacing oil boilers will also improve air quality for residents. Oil burning boilers produce air polluting emissions in the home, as well as outside the home through the large diesel vehicles often used to deliver the oil. This Cambridgeshire village will be among the first places in the UK to connect an existing community to a renewable heating network.

Heating Swaffham Prior: How will this work?

Holes are bored into the ground in spaces, such as fields, to collect the heat naturally stored in the ground by the earth’s mass. Each hole is fitted with a pipe containing a liquid mixture that includes antifreeze. Heat energy moves from the ground to the fluid. Above ground, an electronic heat pump further raises the temperature of the fluid, which is then distributed via a network of pipes around the village, reaching homes and community buildings.

The heated fluid from the network enters homes through Heat Interface Units (HIU) that are installed inside each dwelling. The HIU transfers heat from the heated fluid to water that is supplied to it. Hot water is then circulated through radiators, underfloor heating and appliances. That is, the HIU works with existing household heating systems, easing the conversion from old systems to new. The now cooled fluid leaves the homes through pipes back into the heat network.

Why is it popular?

Peter Bates, speaking as Chair of Cambridge Cleantech’s Sustainable Smart Homes Special Interest Group, said, “It’s an exciting and innovative project that I hope, once it is fully operational,… will be able to demonstrate the sustainability and replicability of this technology that could be used in thousands of rural off-mains gas villages across the country.”

Switching from oil heating to networked heat pumps will not only benefit the environment, it will also save residents money, as oil prices can be high and, as we have seen in recent months, unpredictable. According to Jethro Gauld, Co-Chair of East Cambs CAN (Climate Action Network), “Ground source heat pumps can dramatically reduce bills and if powered by renewable electricity, they offer a truly zero carbon way to keep people warm and provide hot water.”

With the potential for significant savings, and knowing that the Government plans to phase out gas and oil heating, it is no surprise that over half of the villagers have formally expressed an interest in going on to the new heating network.

Heating Swaffham Prior
Heating Swaffham Prior. Photo by

The role of the Community Land Trust

This initiative in Swaffham Prior has come about from a Community Land Trust (CLT) scheme. Under the CLT model, local people lead and manage projects to ensure improvements in their community, such as affordable housing, public gardens, conservation areas, and energy schemes as in Swaffham Prior.

Another CLT-led, eco-friendly housing development in Cambridgeshire is projected to start at the neighbouring Kennet Garden Village, some 12 miles from Swaffham Prior. This CLT scheme is proposing to deliver a near net-zero carbon development, with homes that will be heated by air-source pumps and benefit from solar panels and electric vehicle charging.


The funding for the Swaffham Prior project comes from several public and private sources, including Cambridge County Council, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Combined Authority and the French-based Bouygues Energy Services. Swaffham Prior’s heating network is projected to start heating homes in this village of two churches by March 2022.

Learn more about the Swaffham Prior Heating Project: Swaffham Prior Heat Network – Cambridgeshire County Council.

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