When the opportunity came for me to return to my home town of Wakefield I couldn’t resist. My colleagues in UCATT had raved about the work that Wakefield District Housing (WDH) had done to deliver low carbon housing developments, train their workforce and deliver for their communities in the process.
‘Seeing is believing’ as the saying goes. Wakefield people wouldn’t go that far, but seeing certainly lends greater understanding. This is a point Denis Doody (UCATT rep at WDH) was keen to impress upon the visiting party which included new UCATT General Secretary Steve Murphy and unionlearn Yorkshire regional manager, Alan Roe.
Park Dale is a brand new zero carbon (code 6, for those in the know) housing estate of 91 homes in Castleford which also includes a union learning centre with a difference.
It contains demonstration models of the environmental technology being used and an impressive exhibition of WDH’s energy generation and community waste management schemes. There is a cross section of an extra thick wall: containing insulation materials, strapped for air tightness and the bricks are designed to absorb and channel rainwater for reuse. You can also see the solar panels which generate electricity for use in the community and computer controlled heating engineering systems that manage heating efficiently throughout the house.
All of which represent new training and skills challenges for WDH’s workforce. Some are apprentices recruited from local schools and are learning about new technology and techniques on the job. WDH has also invested in training the existing workforce too. The knowledge and commitment of the workforce is absolutely crucial in making this social housing initiative work. For example, learning rep Jeff acts as a tutor and mentor to the apprentices and also works with local school children.
Park Dale is a living, breathing housing estate with families, young and old and from many different backgrounds. And the challenges of living ‘zero carbon’ when most of us don’t, are clearly present for the residents who are adjusting to living with the sensitivity of the heating controls, the computerised toilet system and community recycling facilities. Living in developments such as this should help address fuel poverty particularly for pensioners, but it doesn’t help if the technology is not understood or used properly. That’s where community education comes in and WDH are busy engaging residents with information packs and community drop in sessions.
But what’s to learn from all of this for the rest of us? None of the developments that we had seen had been dreamed up over night, but were the result of very determined leadership in Wakefield District Housing over a number of years. Everything from changed government policy on feed in tariffs to belligerent energy suppliers to complicated planning issues can stand in the way. But in WDH they really do believe that investing in both new build and retrofit low carbon housing can generate employment and new skills and benefit communities, but it has to be done seriously and you have to be in it for the long term.
As we left the Austin Road Depot, you could see Ferry Bridge Power Station’s enormous chimneys in the background. The irony didn’t go unnoticed but Denis (a former miner) was keen to impress that the NUM had been calling for carbon capture technology since the 1980s. If only everyone was as visionary as WDH and the unions.