Community solar can save money, save the planet, and build social capital, all at the same time

Like this, only on a roof in Manchester. Image: Getty.

The United Estates of Wythenshawe is an unusual place. It’s a gym inside an old church on one of Europe’s largest council estates, just north of Manchester Airport. It still runs family Methodist services in the chapel on Sunday mornings, but now there are boxing classes too. And a dance studio. And a sound recording suite. Not to mention the children's play area, cinema, security company, white goods repair service, gardening business, therapy rooms and community bakery.

You can drop by to use the weights, to sort getting your windows cleaned, have a go at cheerleading, get a massage, use the photocopier, or just have a brew, a biscuit and bit of a natter.

On top of all that, this year, UEW is hoping to become a power station too.

It’s not the first in the area. Back in summer 2013, Millgate Arts Centre, Moss Brook Growers, Ellenroad Steam Museum and Mellor Country House all installed solar panels or biomass. St John's Sunshine, a project of 39 solar panels based in a church in Old Trafford, was set up in 2012. Not only does it cut carbon and save money on electricity bills: the profits have been used to set up ‘‘sunshine grants’, funding drop-in food bank for asylum seekers, beehives for a local allotment and an “Open Gardens Day” to encourage local people to meet their neighbours.

St John’s is so keen on solar that it’s signed up for a new project too. It’s joining forces with other local organisations – the United Estates, Disability Stockport, Deeplish Community Centre, Hulme Community Garden Centre, 120 year old Manchester Settlement, and several other community centres, churches or cafes in the area – to build a network of rooftop solar power. In all, the network should one day stretch to 700 solar panels.

These places aren’t your usual power stations, granted. Nor will they go near meeting the power needs of the whole community.

But it’s a key step towards improving our current sclerotic energy system, which continues to drag its heels when it comes to challenges of fuel poverty and climate change. It’s a step towards low carbon, more democratic energy. Moreover, it’s a step which engages people with energy, so they are better placed to ramp up their ambition.

The idea’s pretty simple. As Community Energy Greater Manchester, the groups all fundraise for solar panels in the community: you can donate and “sponsor a solar panel” online, or wait a few months and buy shares. They plan to be installed, plugged into the grid and generating electricity for the autumn.

The group’s fundraising model builds on the national Solar Schools programme which, since 2011, has helped over 80 schools turn their rooftops into mini solar power stations. The schools get a significant cut in their electricity bills and can sell excess electricity to the grid, making significant carbon savings in the process, too.

But the beauty of Solar Schools is not just that it’s saving both money and the planet: the process of fundraising helps engage people with energy issues, and provides opportunities to deepen relationships with their local communities as well.

So United Estates, Disability Stockport and the others will come out of the process with more than just some shiny new solar panels. The project will feed into their everyday work of building social capital in the area. It’s an extension of what they’re doing already – a way for people to come together to make their world a bit better.

The Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations is also hoping to build on the project, to create a skilled network of groups across the region, to work together to address energy efficiency and fuel poverty in their communities. Social capital can, done right, build more social capital – and be focused to a whole host of new challenges.

Wythenshawe was one of the spots Shameless was filmed. It also became infamous for a photo, back in February 2007, of a teenager miming a gun gesture at David Cameron (cue a spate of “who’s hugging the hoodie now?” headlines) – hardly the usual face of renewable energy.

But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to take up the benefits of solar power, and by doing so, take a role in the low carbon revolution politicians and business leaders keep going on about.

There’s a lot of ink spilled about the need for a grand new industrial revolution to tackle climate change, especially when areas like Greater Manchester are involved. But revolutions can come in a range of hues. There’s a very possible green future which still sees energy controlled by relatively small elite, with inequality when it comes to accessing heat, light, transport or power to fuel our communications tech.

Community energy projects like these offer a radically positive blueprint for the future: one in which we don’t just shift away from carbon, but find ways to redistribute control of the energy system, too.

Alice Bell is a writer, researcher and campaigner, specialising in the politics of science and technology. She’ll be speaking at FutureEverything Festival in Manchester on Thursday 31 March.

You can find out more about the festival, which runs from Wednesday 30 March to Saturday 2 April, here.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.