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Desperately seeking external Solid Wall Insulation in Lambeth

Dr Paula Owen finds that the planning system may be a major obstacle to the Green Deal

In December 2011 I finally got around to looking into getting external Solid Wall Insulation (SWI) on the gable end of my Edwardian semi. Most homes built before 1920 have solid walls rather than cavity walls and let out twice as much heat. They are also much harder to insulate. Solid walls can be insulated either internally or externally and there are pros and cons to both. External insulation is a cladding fixed to the outside wall of your house.

The memory of freezing in blankets, hats and gloves in last year’s big chill with the heating full on, but only getting to about 15-16˚C max, was fresh and raw in my mind.   I had consulted with a company which specialises in external wall insulation who seemed confident that doing just the one side wall would be workable and make a huge difference to our thermal comfort and heating bills.

Mass roll out of external SWI is an essential element of the Green Deal – actually getting to these 6-8 million ‘Hard-to-Treat’ homes and making a marked difference to their efficiency and fuel bills is at its core and vital to its success.  So far installation numbers for SWI are in the thousands per year, mainly because it is an expensive and, in the eyes of householders, a complicated product to install. This installation rate needs to increase by a factor of about 10 quickly, and in this decade, if the Green Deal is going to deliver the carbon savings it is hoping for in the timescale required.

The company who would be doing the install, visited for a technical survey and measure up in November and from the practical side of things, it was going to be challenging (mainly due to a narrow side alleyway which made the scaffolding tricky) but doable.

But then the complications started. Just before Christmas 2011 I received a response to my initial enquiry to Lambeth Planning Dept asking whether there would be any issues to me putting SWI on my gable wall.  I’m not in a conservation area and neither is my 1905 Edwardian semi of any listed status; so, hopefully no issues there.  However, the Planning Dept at Lambeth have come up with an alternative ‘issue’, one that is rather difficult to take seriously.

Basically the council has decreed (unofficially of course, I’d need to apply officially to get this ‘in writing’) that because the external SWI would be over around 100mm in depth (that’s just 10cms folks, on just one wall of the house) it does not come under ‘permitted development rights’ and hence is not permitted without first going through the planning permission process.  Planning permission that cost hundreds, if not over a thousand pounds, and takes up to 12 weeks, with no guarantee of success.   Apparently any addition that was over 100mm was seen as an ‘Expansion of a dwelling’ – now that is faintly ridiculous.

In November 2012 I re-contacted Lambeth Planning division to see if they had changed their position at all in the intervening ten months since I asked their advice on the matter.  And of course, we had had the official ‘soft’ (so soft it hardly registered) launch of the Green Deal in October so it’s more relevant and important than ever that this is sorted.

Sadly however, Lambeth’s position had not changed one jot. They were convinced that this was all central Government’s fault – for central Government read Dept of Communities & Local Government (DCLG) – and their hands are tied until it is sorted at a central level.  I would argue that it is a case of interpretation, as I have anecdotal evidence of another London Borough taking a more pragmatic view on a scheme that included a number of homes getting external solid wall insulation.  It also isn’t clear to me where in the official wording that they assume that a cladding of 100 mm or more is deemed an ‘extension for the property’, but then again I’m not a planning expert.  But it does seem strange that you are allowed to build conservatories on the back of your home without planning permission as long as they are not larger than a certain specified size, but in my view definitely consist of an ‘extension to the property’, yet a relatively minor addition of some insulating cladding on a side wall, measuring in thickness about 10 cms, is not allowed without permission?

However, slightly out of the blue, on the 11th January 2013 we received some good news. DCLG – the Department responsible for buildings and planning laws published revised guidance for external solid wall insulation. Making it, to all intents and purposes ‘permitted development’ and hence not requiring planning permission in most normal circumstances (listed buildings and conservation areas aside). Hoorah!

Here’s the link to the new technical guidance: Permitted development for householders

Now I can get this insulation up on my side wall hopefully before the winter is over, and reap the benefits of a warmer, cosier home.

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