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Just how green are Londoners?

How do you measure a city’s “green” credentials? Recycling rates? Car ownership? The number of energy-efficient homes? Green elected politicians?

On the first measure, recycling, London compares badly with the rest of England and other major cities. While across the country 43 per cent of waste is recycled, in London that figure is only 29 per cent – although that’s up from the sorry 8 per cent achieved at the turn of the millennium. In Berlin, eco-friendly Germans recycle 42 per cent of their waste as a result of Government initiatives alongside educational campaigns. In addition, Germany’s ‘Green Dot’ system is one of the most successful and sees manufacturers and retailers paying for green dots on packaging – the more green dots, the more they pay!

With that said though, London is amongst the greenest cities in the world: our beautiful parks and gardens, precious lungs of greenery, and our tree-lined streets all contribute to the capital’s ‘urban forest’ – with London boasting six million trees. One recent study put the value of each tree, in terms of aesthetic value, pollution and rainfall management at £8,000 meaning the total value of London’s trees is more than £4 billion – surely a figure savvy Londoners can appreciate.

In addition, the dozens of green community groups in London – from food-growing groups (such as Incredible Edible Lambeth) and “make do and mend” groups (such as Transition Town Primrose Hill) – suggest thousands of Londoners are engaged in “green” activities on a daily basis. And there are two Green Party AMs in the London Assembly, exactly the same number as Liberal Democrats.

The transport picture, also shows improvements to be admired. Although car ownership is lower in the capital than elsewhere, with three cars for every four households, compared to a national average of five cars for every four households, fourteen per cent of commuters into Central London now use bikes, compared to 1 per cent in the early 1970s. Prohibitive parking, congestion charges and the fabulously successful “Boris Bikes” scheme (ironically set up by Boris Johnson’s predecessor as mayor, Ken Livingstone) have all contributed to falls in the number of car journeys through London. And in general, Londoners just seem more keen to get fit and recent safety measures and cycle routes have helped greatly.

So what about property and the latest Government green initiative, the Green Deal? Put simply, the Green Deal, launched in January, enables homeowners to take out loans for specific improvements to reduce energy bills, such as replacing an inefficient boiler or installing double glazing. It is a two-stage process: first, a registered provider conducts an assessment, outlining cost-effective measures for each home; second, homeowners take out a finance package to pay for the improvements, paid back through reductions in energy bills. However, figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) reveal that in the first months of operation, while more than 38,000 assessments have been conducted, only four households have taken out a finance package, leading critics to describe this flagship project a disaster. High loan interest rates – 7 per cent – have been cited as the main cause of the low uptake.

Londoners are less interested in the Green Deal than the rest of the country, with most London boroughs having carried out between just 1 and 25 assessments in the first three months of the scheme. Only one – Southwark – has reported more than 100 assessments. This is way behind other metropolitan areas like Leeds (396) and Kirklees (244).

One reason for this lack of enthusiasm could be that while Government figures show eco-improvements can raise the value of property by as much as £25,000 in some areas, the high values of property in London mean eco-improvements make insignificant differences to house prices.

This is borne out by frontline evidence from agents. Jennifer Young-Thompson of KFH’s Southfields office, where most of the property is period, says Energy Performance Certificate ratings are not important. “If the house has a new condensing boiler or new timber-framed double glazing buyers will appreciate that, but not because they are green features. Rather it means buyers won’t have the hassle of replacing the windows or spending £4,000 on a new boiler within the first few years.”

As for the new homes market, government regulations are pushing developers to build to increasingly efficient environmental standards. “Buyers of new homes are getting energy-efficient ones because that’s what developers are building,” says John East, KFH Director of Land and New Homes. “But it’s happening through government edict rather than buyer demand." He says that many buyers find obviously “green” homes – such as ones with “living” roofs made of turf or sedum – off-putting when they come on to the market. “Green roofs may provide habitat for rooftop wildlife and absorb rainfall and so prevent flash-flooding,” says East, “but a potential buyer may look at it and think, ‘how is this kind of roof going to help me? Won’t it be difficult to maintain?’ Really ‘green’ homes are still only attractive to a small niche of eco-enthusiastic buyers.”

It therefore very much appears to be that Londoners tend to be green when it suits their pockets or fitness levels to be, but when it comes to house-buying, location and affordability are still king.

Sarah Lonsdale is a journalist who writes on green issues for the Daily Telegraph.

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