A groupof people petitioning Islington council to change planning rules
Street level: Leyla Boulton (second from the right) and fellow campaigners petitioned Islington council to change planning rules © Chris Dorley-Brown

Leyla Boulton is a senior editor at the FT and a former environment correspondent

A year ago, I launched a campaign to equip old UK houses like mine with carbon-cutting tech to help tackle climate change. A year on, do I think individuals can really make a difference in the fight against global warming?

The answer is yes, but using the democratic levers available to citizens to make change happen can be slow and painstaking.

My north London neighbourhood has had to battle to overcome restrictions on retrofitting listed and conservation-area homes in a borough that is full of them. It may sound obscure, but this cause has wider relevance as reducing carbon emissions from old housing stock has a big part to play in the UK’s green energy transition.

If you can make it easier to change homes that are among the most protected in the country, then you can change everything else and drive demand for green goods and services.

In Islington, we thought we would be pushing on an open door: the council itself has declared its ambition to become a net zero borough by 2030, and it owns many of the draughty Georgian and Victorian buildings requiring an upgrade.

Here are the five lessons we learnt:

1 To unleash people power, appeal to citizens’ economic self-interest and focus on a clear objective

Having been thwarted by planning permission rules in attempts to install solar panels and double glazing, many residents were receptive to our call urging Islington council to change these rules, to protect the environment as well as historic architecture.

Launched after oil and gas prices shot up in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our petition attracted not just the climate-conscious but neighbours who saw economic benefits from cutting their fossil fuel consumption. Our securing of 2,000 signatures after weeks of shoe-leather campaigning, combined with media appearances, prompted the council, dominated by the Labour party, to begin work on a supplementary planning document (SPD).

2 Offer politicians support to keep difficult promises

Having resisted pressure from a vocal minority of car-owning residents to scrap traffic restrictions, Islington council was vulnerable to the question of how it would meet its 2030 net zero target when it comes to housing. According to Sakina Sheikh, chair of the London Assembly’s planning and regeneration committee, buildings and construction account for 68 per cent of the capital’s carbon emissions. This makes the Conservative government’s gutting of the retrofit component of the UK’s once world-leading climate strategy particularly wrong-headed in London. But, as former Conservative minister Amber Rudd said recently, “you can’t make politicians do things that will cost them votes . . . what you need is to mobilise public support for climate action”.

3 Promote examples of good governance but beware of petty politics

My starting point was reform by the Conservative-controlled council in Kensington and Chelsea, which had encouraged residents to install solar panels. Conceived by Sarah Buckingham, the borough’s head of conservation and design, who had written the national rules for heritage quango Historic England, the council’s system promised approval of retrofit measures as long as they met conditions to protect a building’s historical character. It has since extended the approach to double-glazing windows.

“A lot of people don’t even try to retrofit because they think the planning officer will say no,” says Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrats’ spokeswoman on net zero and MP for historic Bath. Yet low uptake of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC)’s new system prompted Islington’s deputy leader to mock our suggestion that it build on the Tory council’s example. Cem Kemahli, RBCK’s lead councillor for planning, maintains that he had expected a slow start. Still, it’s hard not to conclude the council would have got more traction with the support of a local campaign like ours.

4 Enlist experts

My campaign co-leader Anne-Marie Huby and I were short of expert knowledge on exactly what to ask for. We teamed up with Chris Procter, a local architect who last year produced a Climate Emergency Conservation Toolkit setting out how to make 19th century houses more sustainable. A hunger for this information has made councils up and down the country seize on the guide. A shortage of guidance and skills is also why Ben Ridley, founder of Architecture for London, an architectural practice, set up his own contracting firm to do retrofit work for clients. “At the start I was trying to convince people that’s what they should do,” he says. “Now, 50 per cent of client briefs say ‘how can we make this thing as sustainable as possible?’”

5 Encourage bureaucracies to communicate and cut waste

As we wait for Islington officials to produce the first draft of the long-promised SPD, an inability to write plain English and resistance to new ways of working are sources of frustration.

Exhibit A: the council’s introduction to a new service to tell residents what is already possible under poorly-understood rules: “The service is directed towards informally dealing with general planning process issues relating to a number of defined areas and is unlikely to be suitable for anyone seeking comments on the acceptability of a proposed scheme”.

Submitting a planning application under the current system is a gamble — residents have no idea whether or not it will succeed. But if the council were to set out conditions for a successful application, residents could submit their plans with more confidence.

Will our efforts be in vain? No, but there’s only so much we can achieve given what Wilfrid Petrie, who ran French utility Engie’s British arm until 2019, calls the UK’s “lack of government commitment and master planning”. Angela Rayner, the shadow minister for levelling up, says if Labour comes to power in elections next year, a Warm Homes Plan would “upgrade every home that needs it, cutting bills and creating thousands of good jobs for electricians, engineers, and construction workers”.

Labour’s intention to rely on local authorities to shape the plan makes a local success, in a borough like ours, all the more pressing.

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