17/08/2009

Council Succumbs to the Plastic Tide

Wednesday’s decision of Ceredigion Council’s Development Control Committee to allow around 50 new plastic UPVC windows in a University hall of residence has disappointed Aberystwyth Town Council who strongly objected to the plans.

The Town Council are waging a campaign against the increasing replacement of attractive wooden windows in the town with UPVC and Cllr Mark Strong has a front page article on the issue in this month’s edition of Yr Angor, the town’s papur bro. Although the university is far from the centre of town and has hundreds of UPVC windows anyway, the Town Council felt that the scale of the scheme and the opportunity of the planning application provided a good opportunity to test the commitment of the County Council and the Assembly towards sustainability issues.

As well as the clear aesthetic superiority of wood, there are strong environmental arguments against UPVC. It uses eight times the amount of energy to manufacture as wood. In both its manufacture and disposal, UPVC creates toxic chemicals which are released into the environment. Every ten UPVC windows use half a tonne of CO2 more than the same number made of of wood. And there are certainly a lot of windows in the university building in question.

In recent years UPVC manufacturers have been mounting a vigorous campaign to convince people that their product is in some way environmentally friendly. This is based mainly around a big increase in the use of recycled plastic in the industry coupled with the argument that the cheapness of their windows helps to increase the take-up of energy-saving double glazing. But, although the increased recycling is undoubtedly a good thing, it’s a deeply flawed argument because this only delays the real problem. Unlike other recyclable materials which biodegrade, when plastic finally comes to the end of its life it’s consigned to landfill where it lies for hundreds of years leaching chemicals into the earth.

Of course the main reason for the use of UPVC is its relative cheapness and low maintenance. This is a real consideration for ordinary residents on low wages with limited time. But, although it may be cheaper in the short-term, a study by Camden Housing has found that well maintained timber is actually 25% cheaper over the whole life cycle because it lasts much longer. Presumably the University is here for the long term.

The ironic thing is that the University is stuffed with clever environmentalists who, if they’d been asked, would have told their estates department all this. You might expect that the University as an institution would use its own intellectual resources to pursue environmental best practice.

Guidance in both the Ceredigion Unitary Development Plan and the Assembly’s Planning Policy Wales encourages the use of sustainable materials. The Council’s planning department therefore contacted the university asking for this but were apparently met with a refusal on the basis that something more sustainable would double the cost of the project.

The officers didn’t feel that the policy guidance was strong enough to win a fairly inevitable appeal to the Assembly in the case of a refusal, leaving the Council with costs to pay. On hearing this the majority of the committee voted to approve the application.

I’m not blaming the Council’s planning officers – they may well be right about the likelihood of losing an appeal and at least they tried. But if the Assembly is serious about sustainability it really needs to make its planning policies far more robust because, if ordinary people can’t afford not to use UPVC and big institutions say they can’t either, organisations like the Town Council need much stronger support if they’re to stand against the plastic tide.

Whilst all the debate was happening, the University had pushed ahead and put the new windows in anyway - without planning permission. In the face of such apathy from much bigger fish, what’s an environmentally concerned tiny Town Council to do?

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