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Are gardens a waste of space?

June 22, 2010

Would you like your garden grabbed, boosting your property’s value by allowing the developers in to build a block of flats on your urban or suburban green plot?  If, on the other hand, your neighbour’s garden is built on will you object at the eyesore and loss of light?

If sustainability is the consideration, then maybe the financial or aesthetic implications should be put to one side as smaller houses in high density ease the pressure on out-of-town developments. 

Unfortunately, the end result is a loss of a garden.  As Garden Organic (a national charity opposed to the practice of garden grabbing) puts it, gardens are essential for health and future food security.  And The Daily Telegraph aired the views of an American expert on social trends, Joel Kotkin: in the name of the environment, a metropolitan liberal elite is forcing suburbanites to live in ever more cramped neighbourhoods.

The Government has recently jumped to the defence of gardens and is proposing removing them from the brownfield classification they share with industrial sites, while reminding local councils of their obligations when considering planning applications.

Some would point to an irony in the current arrangements whereby authorities often give the go-ahead to big, obtrusive developments while the single house project of the enterprising self-building individual – which is more likely to incorporate energy-saving features and a traditional, regionally-appropriate design – is turned down (and selfbuilders do not have the same financial clout to employ clever planning consultants as the big developers).

In a Guardian commentary, Alan Wenban-Smith, who coined the term ‘brownfield’ in the 70s, claimed that the Government’s initiative will lead to an accelerated loss of green fields: it is the constant replenishing of industrial sites and redundant gardens that keeps a city alive and vibrant – and prevents it creeping into its surrounding countryside.  Of course, an attractive grassy patch is not the same as the site of a demolished factory.   But one of the online comments on Mr Wenban-Smith’s article suggested that ‘large and dreary’ gardens which are ‘inefficient’ should be built on and so help to ease pressure on virgin land.

In the final analysis, a satisfactory solution could be to merely remind councils of the discretion they can exercise under their Local Plans.  They have the local knowledge, and ought to judge each application on its merits.

Is SolarUK prêt à Portas?

June 15, 2010

Retail guru Mary Portas has been entertaining BBC viewers recently with her efforts to help small shops reshape their businesses, offering often uncomfortably frank advice to enable them to remain viable and compete with bigger names. 

Others may know her from the long-standing column in the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine in which she visits a well-known shop and gives it a score out of ten.  She is looking at range, product quality (with price naturally a strong consideration), the layout of the store and more.

The business’ image comes in for scrutiny too.  This is trickier area for any retail business, because much of this is based on history or origins.  Portas will ask around her office to find out what colleagues think of a company, and many will have an opinion even if they haven’t set foot in the shop for years.  Take McDonalds: it might have become a vegetarian oriental noodle outlet overnight, but on hearing the name we conjure up images of Big Macs, thick shakes and screaming children.

Then there’s Portas’ ‘was I being served?’ question.  Did the staff appear friendly, and could they provide helpful answers to her queries?

Her column this Saturday is due to examine HSBC, so as there are no items to actually take home after popping into one of their branches (not even the pens are removable) the customer service issue will presumably loom especially large.

So what would Portas discover if she turned her attention to SolarUK?  Well, to judge from client feedback she would experience very good customer service coupled, crucially, with the technical know-how to answer any points she raises and also to sort out, in the unlikely event of its occurrence, any problem that might crop up.

Other solar energy companies may present a pleasantly cooperative face but rather too often the person who picks up the phone will lack the technical nous the customer really needs.  It’s a tribute to the staff at SolarUK, and an indication of the lack of  an ‘after sales’ policy on the part of some rivals, that they are often called in to sort out the problem resulting from another company’s product or installation.

Post-it Notes: great idea, but…

June 8, 2010

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the US-wide launch of the Post-it note.

The cleverest ideas are often the simplest, and so it is with the Post-it.  But one wonders about the extra paper that has been ‘consumed’ in the last three decades as organisations both private and public order supplies of Post-its along with mountains of printer paper. 

Consider those solar hot water panels in place on office and domestic buildings: they are a simple concept too, albeit more technical, but the difference is there is no wastage.  Quite the opposite: using the sun to heat your water saves money and reserves of fossil fuels.

So back to the office, and when we want to leave a note for a colleague, there are methods other than sticking a coloured square of paper on their desk or computer screen:

–          Send an electronic message (admittedly, this only works if your colleague starts up their computer).

–          Write your message on any old scrap of previously-used paper and place it securely under the colleague’s mouse (these convenient paperweights weren’t around in the pre-Windows era of the Post-it’s youth)

–          Arrange for everyone to have a small blackboard and a piece of chalk on their desks.  The slate can then be wiped clean once the message is read.

–          Get your colleagues to keep a large crocodile clip on their desks, to which your messages can be safely attached without being blown off by gusts of wind – after all, Post-it notes aren’t infallible in their stickability.

This last idea is a good chance to get your fellow workers’ input on ways of saving money and paper around the office.  While you are at it, you can suggest everyone takes their own mugs with them to meetings so that they don’t use the disposable ones on offer. 

Small sheets of paper, torn from pieces only printed on one side, can already be seen in many workplaces, clamped together by crocodile clips to form improvised notepads.  The blackboard and chalk idea could be a new one.  Entrepreneurs out there, please feel free to develop smart mini blackboards and earn a place in the corporate history books, like Spencer Silver and Art Fry of the American stationery conglomerate 3M, the Post-it note’s developers.  But just remember you heard it here first.

The older and wiser recyclers

June 1, 2010

A survey by a Swedish supplier of recycling bins to the UK suggests that the section of the population most likely to recycle are older, married women.

The Daily Telegraph, which reported the poll, quoted a Women’s Institute representative who explained that this is down to the sense of responsibility to the planet and the next generation that comes with being a mother.

She could have added that some WI members have experienced the rationing of wartime and its immediate aftermath, which engendered a frugality and aversion to waste which has stayed with them.  The WI itself emerged in the UK through the need to produce more food during the First World War, at a time when little remotely edible would have been consigned to the bin.

One would imagine a father, too, would have a sense of responsibility.  But maybe there is something about being a female that causes a greater desire to recycle.  Perhaps it’s down to superior empathy.

As for why statistics show that married couples recycle more than singletons, it could be down to the female influence again.  There’s also the sharing of what is an irksome duty: the single person could be less inclined to clean out his empty tuna tin, having had to shop, cook and do the washing up all on his own.

Other studies have revealed that affluent people recycle more than the less well-off.  Presumably allowances are made for the fact that the better-off would consume more and therefore have more to recycle.  The poorer, ethnic minority communities have particularly low recycling rates. 

While for those whose lives can be difficult recycling is low on the list of priorities, for others recycling is not about choice, awareness or social circumstances but mere practicalities.  If you live in the sticks and don’t recycle every last bit of glass, tin and paper it’s probably due not to lack of motivation but of facilities.

It is hard to see today’s younger generation being as frugal or affluent when they are in their 70s as today’s pensioners.  So recycling would need to be made easier, and there would have to be sticks as well as carrots in the form of passing on the costs of collections, incineration and landfill.

Not even the most optimistic sun worshipper would expect so many hot, hot summers that young, single men a) get shocked into believing that global warming is speeding up and b) get fed up with the stench of food rotting in their street’s frazzled bins awaiting their fortnightly collection.

A scientific approach to art: Ian McEwan’s Solar

May 25, 2010

Your blogger is not the first person at SolarUK you should turn to if you want to know how an expansion vessel works, or how by the marvels of physics a solar collector transfers heat to your hot water tank.  Every piece of technical information coming his way has to be read at least twice before it sinks in.

At school, he was definitely an ‘arts’ rather than a ‘science’ person, reflected in his choice of A-levels.  While he was sitting analysing Jane Austen with mainly female classmates, wearing floral dresses (the girls, that is, not your blogger) and almost keeling over in their passionate engagement with the text, most of his mates were anorak-clad, beer mat collecting inhabitants of ammonia-reeking laboratories.

We are stereotyping here, of course.  But Ian McEwan, whose new novel Solar is about a physicist who has the chance to save the world from environmental catastrophe (and we hear on Radio 4 this morning that it has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize) explained in a recent Daily Telegraph interview that the arts and science aren’t really so distinct.  Artists can refine what has gone before and make discoveries: in a sense, make improvements in their field, and get closer to the ‘truth’, just as science seeks to do.

If we look at the history of science, it is hard to disagree with Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and other philosophers of science that it’s peppered with revolutions in thought, abrupt transformations opening up new lines of reasoning which would not have been given any credence under previous assumptions.  Perhaps there are echoes here in the revolutions in fiction, such as the stream-of-consciousness style of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf which seems to come from a different planet from that of Thomas Hardy.

Through science, we learn about the state of the world as it’s currently known.  Aristotle’s error-packed theories about motion and other physics stuff belong to the history class, not the GCSE science syllabus.  This is what makes the discipline different to the arts.  If the arts really can be constantly getting ‘better’, as McEwan’s musings hint at, then the awkward implication would be that Austen, Dickens or Woolf should be relegated to the second tier in the English curriculum – behind a bang-on contemporary figure such as Ian McEwan.

Your litter, your responsibility

May 18, 2010

Back in the 80s, the non-environmentally concerned Margaret Thatcher was once filmed scurrying enthusiastically around a park picking up bits of rubbish and putting them in a black sack.

A couple of decades on, a reduction in the amount of litter on the UK’s verges and fields might be one way of measuring the success of the new, mainly Conservative, government in delivering its ‘Big Society’.  And some kind of performance indicator would be certainly be useful, for all that the new administration is not going to be as target-obsessed as its predecessor.

A country that looks a little less like a rubbish tip won’t come about through the actions of massed ranks of community-minded people joining together for picking-up days, though all this can help.  Rather, the change will be that more potential litterers will have a ‘social’, or ‘Big Social’, conscience.

The previous government was in talks with McDonalds and Coca Cola about reducing the amount of snack packaging litter.  But more bins near restaurants or bin-your-litter logos on drinks cans are not going to do anything about the litter on verges of rural roads or on footpaths (for the remotest areas aren’t escaping this scourge).

A Keep Britain Tidy survey examined people who have admitted to dropping litter.  Among the reasons were: not enough bins (but surely there never will be in most areas) and nowhere in the car to stash litter (this is what motivates chucking things out of the window).  Also, if an area already appears run-down and dirty it doesn’t seem to matter fouling it further.

The respondents saw littering as acceptable when everyone else was doing it, in the cinema perhaps or at a football match.  In these situations – and this is the crucial point – their notion of personal responsibility is largely absentNote that another excuse given was ‘being drunk’, which is basically just a more extreme example of failing to think rationally due to outside (in this case, alcoholic) influences.

In 100 years time, that Fanta can dropped today will still be there if no one has removed it.  It will have been joined by other cans too by then, making archaeologists wonder whether someone once held a rock festival on that stretch of ‘A’ road.

Some say that a clean-up tax on fast food items would help put an end to this offence.  However, though it could provide the funds for clearing up the thoughtless person’s mess, it would not prevent someone littering in the first place.  Another, fairly bizarre idea is that any packaging identified as originating from a particular food retailer should be picked up and taken to the ‘guilty’ store to deal with.  But this is of no help if the rubbish is an anonymous plain blue bag or a Walker’s rather than own-label crisp packet; and who would have the time or nerve to go to a largely-blameless supermarket with the offending items?                          

The answer to the problem can only lie in a change of outlook on the part of the individual: a heightened regard for others, a renewed sense of responsibility.

Flying long haul and short: birds and climate change

May 11, 2010

We are listening out for the cuckoos, and one was heard not too far from SolarUK’s HQ-to-be near Battle, East Sussex – so they are still here, for this summer at any rate.

If there has been a decline in cuckoo numbers, at least there’s a good news story in the form of The Guardian’s report last month that the black redstart has been tempted back to Sheffield thanks to the university and city council-backed cluster of green roofs.

We saw in an earlier blog how a green roof and a solar panel are very compatible, the cooling effect of the roof helping the photovoltaics to work more effectively.  These roofs have an exciting role to play in soaking up rainwater and also encouraging wildlife.  The sparse vegetation favoured by black redstarts can be recreated on the tops of public buildings.

Looking at the bigger picture, The Independent, reporting from Linares, Spain, quoted an ornithologist who said that long-distance migrators are travelling shorter distances, with short-distance migrators showing a tendency to stay put.

Rising temperatures are the reason.  It means birds are having to adapt – much faster than they have had to do during the temperature fluctuations of previous eras.  Shortening wingspans are one result of this fast-track evolution.

Rather confusingly, sciencedaily.com reported last year that bird migrations are actually going to get longer.  A Durham University-led study found that from 2071 to 2100, nine of the seventeen species looked at (including the warblers who arrive in Northern Europe in spring to take advantage of the abundance of insects) are likely to have to migrate further, particularly if they are coming from south of the Sahara.

It is facile to blame every challenge faced by the natural world on human-induced climate change, but whatever is causing winters to be warmer we have to acknowledge that changes in bird behaviour have knock-on effects: the increase in numbers of one species in a given area could cause a decline in another species.

Considering the hazards involved in long-distance travel, staying in one place or not flying so far might be thought of as sensible self-preservation. Swallows heading south must sometimes temporarily turn back if the winds over the English Channel are too strong: then they must get across France, negotiate the tricky Pyrenees, risk guns and nets if they choose the Malta-route, and brave thunderstorms over the Congo before reaching southern Africa.  

As this is a solar energy website, we can finish by sharing with you a sun-related bird fact: sunbirds are flashy little hummingbird-like inhabitants of Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.  Unlike their unrelated New World fellow nectar feeders, they perch to feed rather than hover.